A pair of SIT Graduate Institute students are bringing their practicum experiences to an international stage this spring. In May, right on the heels of their SIT commencement, Jorden Ferrick and Fabio Ayala will head to Belgium to present their work at the International Institute for Restorative Practice annual conference, “Community Well-Being and Resilience.”
Ferrick is completing her MA at SIT in sustainable development and Ayala in peace and conflict transformation. For their practicums, the two are working in the small Vermont community of Bellows Falls to promote restorative practices and help local residents resolve conflict through restorative justice.
They’re doing this work through the Greater Falls Community Justice Center under the guidance of SIT alumna and adjunct faculty member Suzanne Belleci, who directs the Bellows Falls center. Ayala, who is from Connecticut, serves as the center’s victim and youth advocate, and Ferrick, of Wisconsin, is outreach and advocacy coordinator.
We sat down with them to talk about their SIT experience, their restorative practice work, and what the future holds.
SIT: How did your SIT experience help to prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
Jordan Ferrick: When you say ‘sustainable development’ a lot of people think environment, but I wanted to study sustainable development as a big umbrella subject. I wanted to focus on building sustainable communities, and restorative justice falls right into that. It’s about relationship building; you can’t have sustainable communities without good relationships.
Fabio Ayala: Even peace and conflict transformation is a huge umbrella term and within it, restorative justice has thrived. I was a teacher for about six years before coming to SIT, and I saw directly what restorative justice can do – and what the lack of it can do – in schools. It wasn’t originally the focus of what I wanted to do when I came to SIT, but I was able to connect the dots and it’s where I want to continue to work.
In my previous roles working with at-risk youth, I found there were not tools being offered to young people on how to engage with conflict and how to advocate for their needs in schools, so that was a huge part of me wanting to spend more effort in this area.
SIT: Can you describe your work at the center?
JF: One of the things I really like about the justice center is the wide range of things we get to do. I work with Phoenix Rise, a transition house, with previously incarcerated and recovering addicted men. I get to work in schools doing trainings, running circles, doing mediations. And I’m also doing community events, trying to get the community more involved and aware of what restorative justice is. So, I like the variety of things we get to work on and how restorative justice is seen within each group.
Schools hire us to do different types of training. It could be an introduction and overview of restorative justice and practices. It could be working with students, teachers, and administrators on how to talk to people, how to engage with parents, alternative strategies to suspension or in-school suspension and other punitive discipline.
We’ve found that societies present these normative images and ideals of what masculinity needs to look like, but in circles participants realize their masculinity is individual, unique, but still connected to society. So, it’s about how they view themselves, and their peers, as men.”
FA: I should also mention that our work is separated into two categories: Restorative justice is work like family conferences and listening sessions. Restorative practice is preventative. It’s what keeps something from becoming a restorative justice practice. That’s work like circles and community-building events.
Part of my graduate studies work – my capstone – has been around how circles can be used as a tool to help young boys connect with parts of their masculinity. (Masculinity is defined here as a part of who they are – an expression of their male identity.) We’ve found that societies present these normative images and ideals of what masculinity needs to look like, but in circles participants realize their masculinity is individual, unique, but still connected to society. So, it’s about how they view themselves, and their peers, as men. But most importantly, sitting with the question: What makes up who I am as a man? It’s tough, but the answers can lead to folks having more empathy and compassion with themselves, which can be the catalyst for practicing the same skills with others.
SIT: Can you give an example of when you have been able to see the results of your work in Vermont?
JF: I’m doing some multi-tiered work with middle school girls through empowerment circles, specifically around bullying, identity, self-confidence, and relationship building. I’m working with one girl who was seen as a particularly mean queen bee. This work has helped her to identify the roots of why she acts the way she does. A lot of teachers looked at it as her being mean and punished her with in-school suspension, while her parents just thought it was normal middle-school behavior. So, we’re using this approach to show her that she has allies and to provide a space for her to talk about more than just the acting out. It has helped build relations with her and school administrators and teachers, and helped her figure out ways she can deal with her anger.
SIT: Given all the pressures that teachers and administrators have on them, how open are they to trying these new approaches?
JF: One of the benefits is that we’re working in small communities where kids are more than just numbers. That helps teachers want to put more effort into the relationships and make sure the kids are supported. And there is a lot of evidence that restorative practices actually work and can change the classroom atmosphere and student behavior. So, I think the schools that are engaging with this see that change, and that helps with the buy-in.
FA: Restorative justice in schools is such a systems change, and for a lot of teachers or administrators the previous system makes it difficult for restorative justice to flourish. Or, teachers might believe in it, but they also have so many competing demands. Restorative justice is a shift of culture, so it needs time; it’s not a wand that you wave and problem solved.
We conducted an hour and a half-long mediation yesterday at a school. Some teachers might say that a student missing an hour and half of school content is huge, but when you think about how it will help students receive future content it’s an investment. Like most cultural shifts and paradigms, buy-in means being willing to invest the time and struggle and acknowledging not knowing the answers.
And that reflects back to the work we did here at SIT. Restorative justice work has to be sensitive to the community. Coming into these big systems changes, being sensitive to the needs of the community – I learned that at SIT.
JF: At SIT, there are people from all different backgrounds and countries, so in the classroom you hear different perspectives. You realize there are always people who have different perspectives than I do. SIT highlights the importance of hearing different voices as well as our own.
FA: That’s so far outside the norm of most grad programs where your voice is not that important. It’s experiential education – and it works. It’s so valuable to reframe the lens that we use to look at our communities.
That’s so far outside the norm of most grad programs where your voice is not that important. It’s experiential education – and it works. It’s so valuable to reframe the lens that we use to look at our communities.”
SIT: What will you present in Belgium?
FA: We’re presenting collectively and Jordan is presenting individually – a combination of what we learned and the work we’re doing now.
JF: Restorative practice is nothing new. People have been practicing this for centuries. And Vermont is leading the country in restorative justice. So that’s nothing new. But I think our take on small, rural restorative justice practices influenced by our SIT background and our own Millennial perspectives, that combines the old and the new. We take more modern ideas and blend them with traditions and try to appreciate how to implement them within the community in Bellows Falls and how that can be translated to different contexts. We’re bringing those views and perspectives and how we break it down into a people-to-people practice so others can use that in their own contexts.
FA: Rural problems are universal, domestically and internationally. Whether you’re in Connecticut or Vermont or Rwanda, there are key things we can learn from each other, which is why maybe a rural Vermont lens might be useful on an international platform.
We’ll be presenting part of this work around personal identity wheels, which facilitate a way for people to connect with parts of themselves that can lead to practicing that same empathy and compassion with others. … This activity allows participants to reflect on how they interact through their black/brown/female/queer identity. In our own separate work, we have adopted different forms of this wheel, and the learnings are applicable in different types of work. I fashioned a male identity wheel so participants can focus on their male identity outside of their social identity.
JF: Another benefit of going to this conference is meeting with other restorative practice professionals to learn from them and bring that back here. How can we improve what we’re doing and how can we use practices around the world and adapt them in Bellows Falls.
SIT: So, there’s commencement, then an international conference. What comes next for you two? Where do you see yourselves in five or 10 years?
FA: We’re planning to stay in this area a bit longer for many reasons, one of the most salient being the recognition that Vermont is leading in this field and is the most accessible state in which to cultivate restorative justice. There’s a large network here connecting communities. We believe in the model and the power of community justice centers. One day, we would like to become our own NGO and become consultants, because it’s so needed. We’ve seen that in schools, and we’ve also seen the impact of partnering with a community resource center. We would like to potentially develop a model that encompasses both – community resources and conflict resolution – through the lens of restorative justice. Vermont, Bellows Falls, Brattleboro, SIT. These communities have been good to us. We want to give back.
Click here to support the participation of Jordan Ferrick and Fabio Ayala at the IIRP International Conference on Restorative Practices in Belgium.