Liam Chinn, a social justice advocate in Oakland, California, remembers hearing a story about a young man who had been arrested for stealing a cell phone and assaulting the victim in the process. He was on track to go into the criminal justice system, but Community Works West, a local nonprofit that advocates for alternatives to incarceration, worked with the county and diverted the young man into a restorative justice program. The process of restorative justice brings the perpetrator and the victim into a circle with family and community members; they discuss the crime, and reach mutual understanding and forgiveness. All of it takes place outside the typical criminal justice structures.
“The young man felt it was a transformative process; there was a sense of accountability and healing,” Chinn says. Working through the restorative justice process in the circle with the person he had robbed helped the young man gain a better understanding of why he did what he did, and to learn to think to the bottom of a decision before acting on it. “But one thing really stood out to me,” Chinn says. “The young man said that at the end of it, he was still poor.”
That the United States needs a new model for justice cannot be overstated. Our justice system holds over 2.2 million incarcerated people–the world’s highest per-country percentage. One in five people inside are there for minor offenses, like drug possession. Our money bail system keeps people behind bars before they’re even charged with a crime because they cannot afford the exorbitant fees set for their release. Incarceration disproportionately affects lower-income people of color, and, by pulling people away from their communities and families for as much as decades at a time, adds another stumbling block on the difficult road to equity and economic mobility they already face.
The restorative justice model, Chinn says, has received attention recently because it keeps people in their communities, and lowers the rate of recidivism by as much as 38%–significant when people coming out of incarceration show a five-year recidivism rate of around 77%. But still, Chinn says, the effects of the model often fall short. “You rarely see restorative justice tied to other initiatives, like economic opportunities,” he says.
A new center in Oakland, for which Chinn will serve as the executive director, wants to build a way for restorative justice to connect–quite literally–to crucial opportunities like job training and housing advocacy. Called Restore Oakland, and housed in a reclaimed building that once contained a music store at the corner of 34th Avenue and International Boulevard in the Fruitvale neighborhood, the facility, when it opens in early 2019, will feature rooms dedicated to restorative justice on the top floor, above a restaurant where members of the community, along with people who have been through the restorative justice program upstairs, will be able to receive job training. Other rooms in the cavernous space will be set aside for local advocacy groups like Causa Justa, which supports immigrant and tenant rights; the basement will serve as something of a coworking space for local nonprofits feeling threatened by rising rents in the steeply gentrifying Oakland. Designing Justice + Designing Spaces, a local nonprofit that uses design to imagine alternative spaces to the current system of mass incarceration, created the concept for the building.
Restore Oakland, which officially began construction in its building in December, has been several years in the works. A collaboration between the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, the center emerged out of a desire to physically link the parallel movements for restorative justice and economic opportunity through fair and livable wages.
The Ella Baker Center is focused on shifting resources away from the incarceration system and toward communities of color; ROC United both analyzes the inequities within the restaurant industry–white applicants, for instance, are twice as likely than applicants of color to get a response on resumes submitted for well-paying front-of-house jobs–and works to end them. To that end, ROC United has opened a handful of nonprofit restaurants, called Colors, in cities like New York and Detroit, that train people of color, many of them formerly incarcerated, for high-earning jobs. What makes the restaurant industry both so problematic and so ripe with opportunity, says ROC United co-founder Saru Jayaraman, is that it is the largest and fastest-growing sector of the U.S. economy, with over 13 million workers nationally. “But the only living-wage jobs in our industry–fine dining service and bartending–are held almost exclusively by white people,” Jayaraman says.
“Immigrants and workers of color are all in this industry; in fact, we hire all of those people more than any other sector,” she adds, “but they’re all relegated to fast-food or back-of-house–they’re not able to move up ladders.” At the Colors restaurant that will be housed on the ground floor of Restore Oakland, ROC United will host 80-hour training courses for people looking to advance a career in the restaurant industry (anyone going through the training has to become a ROC United member; there’s a small fee attached to the membership that can be waived for people who cannot afford to pay). A small full-time staff, many of whom will be formerly incarcerated people, will earn a living wage and work front-of-house jobs. Colors, Jayaraman says, will also host a training course (including implicit bias testing) for local restauranteurs on how to desegregate their businesses and their hiring processes.
Job-training programs for formerly incarcerated people and people of color are not new; organizations like Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles have established themselves as pipelines for people looking to enter the mainstream economy. But it is unusual for a job-training program to connect to a larger resource and facility that aims to address every aspect of inequality in our society. Even the way people will potentially move through Restore Oakland–perhaps coming in first to go through the restorative justice process, then participating in the job-training opportunities downstairs while learning about other local advocacy projects–represents how inextricably linked all of these issues are, and how they must be addressed together.
That, says Zachary Norris, the executive director of the Ella Baker Center, is the goal of Restore Oakland. It’s significant that the project is taking off in the Bay Area, which is one of the most rapidly gentrifying and wealth-stratified regions in the country. The Fruitvale neighborhood where Restore Oakland will open is a historically lower-income immigrant community that has lately felt the pressures of rising rents and cost of living, while watching economic opportunities bypass it for wealthier parts of the city; unemployment rates in East Oakland are three times the county average. It’s also a neighborhood that fits the profile for those that are most often targeted by police, and from where the majority of people in the criminal justice system come from. Restore Oakland aims to draw a link between the lack of opportunity and the shadow of the justice system, and call for a new way of addressing both.
“It’s interesting being here in this city which is one of the most diverse in the country, and now this hub of innovation, and trying to innovate in systems–like the restaurant industry and the justice system–that haven’t been touched since the Civil War,” Norris says. “Our modus operandi is really trying to create a service economy that actually serves people, and a justice system that is actually just.” While that seems radical, Norris says, “from our perspective it’s pretty basic–we hear all the time from low-income communities, and communities of color, that they would feel safer, and be more prosperous, if they had the kinds of opportunities we’re hoping to create.”
From the response to Restore Oakland so far, it’s clear that this effort is something that the Ella Baker Center and ROC United are not alone in supporting. Google, Inc signed on as one of the early supporters of the project, and the Novo Foundation and an anonymous donor from the San Francisco Foundation also gave funding. Capital One and Telacu invested through the New Market Tax Credit program to help the Restore Oakland coalition purchase the space.
The center is a way off from opening its doors, but the intervening year will be a time of coalition building and generating support for the project. Local restorative justice organizations like Community Works West and Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, will continue to work with the justice system in Oakland to divert people away from jails and into more ethical justice opportunities, and to build out training programs for people looking to become restorative justice leaders through the center. The Restore Oakland leadership is hopeful that the center will serve as a model for how other cities can build out a network that supports a holistic approach to justice while addressing the root causes of distress through advancing economic opportunities. “We want this to be a demonstration that these ideas can work,” Norris says.