On the Road to Social Impact

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By Genevieve Hunt

As damp, gray clouds blanketed mile upon mile of Massachusetts’s farmland, I drove CIRCLE UP film subjects Janet Connors and Clarissa Turner to meet our filmmaker Julie Mallozzi for two screenings in Brooklyn and Manhattan. We had scheduled two events in one day: the first a restorative justice professional development for the NYC Department of Education and the second a screening at New York Law School for what would be an audience of over 200.  The long hours in the car –  stuck in traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and praying our GPS would not lead us astray – were a wonderful opportunity for me to spend with Janet and Clarissa. Janet kept my boredom at bay with stories of growing up Irish-American in Dorchester. From the back seat, Clarissa plied us with enough snacks to feed her six children back home in Boston.

I had been looking forward to this trip because it is always a wonderful experience to watch our film with an audience and get their feedback in a face-to-face setting. As an impact coordinator for CIRCLE UP, my job is to find the audiences who want to change our society’s way of thinking about harm and punishment and will use our film as a tool to drive that impact.  I write hundreds of emails inviting teachers, school administrators, faith leaders, college professors, probation officers, lawyers and judges because they have the ability to impact how justice is served in their communities.  I set up trip logistics and drive our film subjects to screenings where they lead circles and panel discussions.  I make sure the connections work for Skype conversations and the visual and audio equipment is ready. All the work is worth it because I’ve seen the power of CIRCLE UP move audiences from distraught teens to judges with decades of experience in a stressed and unforgiving criminal justice system.. I learn so much about how the film could be used by various audiences, educational institutions and social justice organizations to spread the work of restorative justice in the US.  People come up to me with tears in their eyes pushing scraps of paper at me with names of contacts they insist need to see the film. They tell me about a time when they forgave someone for something unthinkable or when they themselves were forgiven for a transgression they’ve committed and how it changed their life. 

No matter how many times I see CIRCLE UP, I learn something new. I watch the faces of Janet and Clarissa and think about how courageous and loving they are to share something so painful over and over again so that others can learn that forgiveness is possible. During this trip, it was wonderful to hear one educator in a restorative circle share how much staff and teachers needed to hold support circles for each other so that they could adopt a restorative mindset in the classroom. Later that day, I felt tears prick the back of my eyes as I watched a group of law students gather excitedly around Janet as if she were a rock star. “Mama J” gathered the group in her arms for warm hugs and photos. I listened to Clarissa gently explain to the astonishment of several law school professors how her faith in God lifted her up and prompted her suddenly to blurt out to her son’s killer in court that she forgave him. As always, seeing these two extraordinary women share their experiences with others has an uplifting effect on me.  

In the weeks following our trip to NYC, more high schools, churches and law schools are contacting us, wanting to share CIRCLE UP as an example of what restorative justice truly looks and feels like with their educators and students as they begin building or refining their own restorative justice programs. I look forward to getting out on the road again across America to meet people who gather in schools, courtrooms, prisons, churches, and colleges, hoping to hear about an alternative path to justice based on restoring wholeness to individuals and communities.

Advancing Restorative Justice in NYC Schools

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The CIRCLE UP team just returned from an exhilarating trip to New York City to lead a professional development event for principals, restorative justice coordinators, and social workers from 19 of the city’s public schools.  Our goal was to help this dedicated cohort of educators reflect on the successes and challenges of implementing restorative justice – and to showcase our film as a tool for demonstrating what RJ looks and feels like.

After a casual welcome breakfast, filmmaker Julie Mallozzi, film subjects Janet Connors and Clarissa Turner, and impact coordinator Genevieve Hunt presented the film to the 50 participants and held a panel discussion about what brought them to do RJ work in schools – and what they have learned in the process.  We then broke into several smaller circles, each co-facilitated by a local educator and a member of the CIRCLE UP team, to explore participants’ responses to the film and to reflect on what might be needed to further RJ at their schools.  Returning to the full group, we shared what we learned and brainstormed how CIRCLE UP might be used with staff, students, and families to model restorative practices.

Each school received a copy of the CIRCLE UP DVD, which includes both the 69-minute feature and the 14-minute short, and a print copy of our fresh-off-the-pressFacilitator Guide

The gathering concluded with a vociferous request for Janet and Clarissa to go on a “speaking tour” to individual schools in New York City.  Their powerful testimony, as mothers who lost sons to homicide and now help other children break cycles of revenge and violence, always sets a room afire.

A Second Festival Circuit

CIRCLE UP Globe Docs Film Festival

After making the rounds of film festivalswith the CIRCLE UP feature – screening in dozens of cities across the country – we are now starting a second round with our new short version of the film.

At 14 minutes, the short conveys the heart of the story of Janet Connors’ and Clarissa Turner’s transformation of trauma into healing.  We created it to make it possible for the film to be included in shorter class periods for students or trainings for professionals.  And a side benefit is that it opens up interesting programming opportunities for festivals, too!

Impacting Legislation

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by Genevieve Hunt

Last Thursday, Janet Connors, respected restorative justice advocate and the main subject of our film, joined Julie Mallozzi and me to screen CIRCLE UP for Massachusetts state legislators and their staff at the statehouse in Boston. It’s easy to be cynical about politics, but as we waited under ornately decorated archways and gilded columns and watched a group of people animatedly discussing their issues as they left our meeting room, I thought to myself, “This is how change happens, this is how we make things better.  We bring our ideas, our passion and our desire to solve problems to places like this and hopefully, we prevail.”

The screening was hosted by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan together with Senator James B. Eldridge and Representative Sean Garballey, who are co-sponsoring legislation incorporating restorative justice as part of a criminal justice reform package. The legislation is currently being debated in the Legislature. Sen. Eldridge and Rep. Garballey said they wanted to share our story of Massachusetts’ first Victim-Offender dialogue and the profound impact it had on both parties. Both spoke about how often the justice meted out by courts often fails the victim and falls short of repairing the harm that has been done to them and the community.

   
  
    
  
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  From left to right: Rep. Garballey, Janet Connors, DA Marian Ryan, and Julie Mallozzi

From left to right: Rep. Garballey, Janet Connors, DA Marian Ryan, and Julie Mallozzi

DA Ryan pointed to the intimate nature of restorative justice in which successive, face-to-face dialogues between victim and offender tend to produce a more personal sense of accountability on the part of the offender for their actions and a desire to return to their community with a feeling of forgiveness and belonging. “My goal as a prosecutor is to put ourselves out of business,” said Ryan. “When you have to do that soul searching and accounting, we don’t see them again, they don’t come back.”

After you see this film, you will get the sense of how restorative justice changes people and there is no better way to spend our time.
— DA Marian Ryan to the MA statehouse audience

That change tends to be deep and robust in offender behavior. Studies comparing criminal punishment with restorative justice find that that punishment imposed from outside the offender is less powerful than personal accountability from within the wrongdoer.

Every time I watch CIRCLE UP, I am amazed at how Janet is able to put the pain of losing her son aside and offer AJ, one of her son’s murderers, not just forgiveness but a chance to begin again in their community. Offering forgiveness for a vicious harm done isn’t for everybody; that makes what Janet and AJ have achieved through the restorative justice process even more extraordinary. During the discussion after the screening, Janet spoke movingly about how helping offenders find productive ways to return to the community helps them let go of the destructive behaviors that trapped both them and the community in a cycle of despair and violence.

There is so much injustice around race and class and this is our chance to do something about it.
— Janet Connors, CIRCLE UP subject

On the train ride home from the screening, I thought about how gratifying it was to see something we had all worked on – Julie, her production team, Janet, Legacy Lives On members and the high school students – help change our laws and the way we think about crime and punishment. I am glad to know that victims, who often feel silenced in the criminal justice process, might someday feel validated and supported.  I am hopeful for young people who feel caught up in street violence, to know there could be an alternate path away from revenge that would still feel like true justice to them. I’m also glad to see our film be used to illustrate the potential of restorative justice in criminal justice reform and spark change in how we treat victims, their families, and offenders.  

This legislative screening has energized us to expand on the restorative justice resources we offer on our website – not only for legislative advocacy but for schools, criminal justice settings, faith-based organizations, and community groups. 

Rep. Garballey talks with Janet Connors

Rep. Garballey talks with Janet Connors