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.