Just spaces.

My blog has been dormant for a while because a dinosaur ate my computer I spilled milk on my keyboard. At the present, it has returned to nearly normal functioning (knock on wood).

As usual, I would be here for years if I tried to describe everything I have been learning and thinking about for the last couple weeks. So I’ll write now about a topic that has been in my mind all summer.

Last semester I took a class at Haverford called Restorative Justice: Designing Spaces, Designing Justice. The course was focused on the impact of architecture and environmental design on the justice process. I was initially drawn to the class because it was modeled on Temple University’s “Inside-Out” program. Half of the students were from Haverford and Bryn Mawr and the other half were inmates at the Chester State Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison outside of Philadelphia. We met in the prison’s visiting room. Our class of 18 had a far wider range of experiences, ideas, and opinions than any other class I have taken. Our discussions and readings felt relevant, immediate, and important. It was an enlightening experience and I left the semester with my mind brimming with ideas about how design can (and absolutely does) facilitate or obstruct justice. Still, I was surprised at how naturally my learning in the Chester class has informed my experience at CRJI.

“Space” and “justice” are broad and loaded terms. When I talk here about spaces of justice, I mean physical spaces occupied by elements of the criminal justice system (prisons, probation offices, courthouses, police stations, etc.) and physical spaces in use under the umbrella of restorative justice (mediation rooms, restorative training/education spaces, and offices like CRJI offering restorative justice services). When I talk about design and physical space I include the physical structure and architecture of buildings, external appearance, interior design and decoration, lighting, temperature, furniture, etc., but I also mean the locations of buildings, geography, the layout and distribution of services and resources.

All of these terms and ideas have been percolating in my brain throughout the course of my internship, and I have greatly expanded my learning from class. We talked a great deal about what a space can communicate to its occupants, and the feelings it can inspire. I will try to follow up with some of my favorite examples of this, it is fascinating to think about.

The first thing I noticed on this topic this summer was CRJI’s decentralization of services. The organization has a strong centralized structure and a central office, but most of the on the ground work takes place in small offices located in neighborhoods around the city, in the communities they serve. These offices are largely staffed by individuals who grew up in those communities, offices are conveniently located and accessible, and they are able to tailor their focus and operations to meet the specific needs of their respective communities. Thus, CRJI maintains a strong community focus and foundation, while making strides at a higher level within the criminal justice system. The location and accessibility of the offices was immediately recognizable as one way that design is facilitating justice here. When I started thinking about others, however, it was not always so obvious.

The local offices I have been to have been well-kept and comfortable, but humble. They are not shiny and super modern or luxuriously outfitted for every need and occasion, not overly homey or highly decorated. This was of course no surprise, and from my experience describes most small offices engaged in community or other social justice work. It wasn’t that I ever believed that an organization needed a perfect space to be effective, just that in thinking all semester about justice and design, I had hardly considered all of the wonderful work based out of spaces like these. I realized that most of our class focus had been on transforming spaces within the traditional criminal justice system or on designing brand new spaces for specific restorative justice processes.

I had wrapped up the semester convinced that environmental design was an important, but often overlooked element of the justice process. I saw how design could express and facilitate restorative values of trust, respect, honesty and accountability. Yet here I was, working with an organization founded on and exuding these values, and the design of the office spaces seemed barely relevant. So I wondered, why does it seem so crucial to physically redesign or refurbish some nonfunctioning spaces of the justice process when a careful and focused environmental design process is rarely a priority for many of the most effective restorative justice groups?

Reflection on this question has certainly not led me to any groundbreaking discoveries. In fact, to the vast majority of the human population this is likely a rather bland topic. I have learned a lot though, about institutions, communities, humans, and the spaces they occupy.

Positive interactions and positive relationships lead to positive emotions. When people engage with each other in a respectful and honest manner, when they feel heard and valued, they will feel personally empowered. It makes perfect sense that such a personal interaction would be far more important to most individuals than a broken window blind, a lumpy chair cushion, or a slight chill in the room that housed this interaction. However, if one is wrapped up in an impersonal, mechanized system, stripped of their individuality, and interacting with a painfully square and unsympathetic bureaucrat, then all of a sudden that broken blind, lumpy chair cushion, and chilliness provide further evidence of how little respect the system has for one’s needs and comfort.

If a space can make those who use it physically comfortable, can welcome them, and offer even a small degree of ownership over the space (e.g., different seating options, window open or closed, wider selection of waiting room reading), then the physical space itself can communicate that some part of the system has at least a basic respect for their personhood. This may seem minor and a tad wishy-washy, especially if the institution and the bureaucrats are no different. But if a space offers respect and comfort, those using it will be more at ease and any preexisting negative feelings won’t be multiplied by the unpleasantness of a space. Interactions are now taking place in a positive environment so individuals can focus more on the interaction and less on how much they want to get out of the room. The same processes and procedures and interactions may occur, but with improved communication and humanity, not a fix to the system, but a start.

The criminal justice system is a mess of rigid walls and roles and rules, and the more compartmentalized and inhuman it gets, the harder it will be to dismantle. Some justice organizations, like CRJI, are completely built around human interactions and relationship-building, but some bodies, like many government agencies, are so systematized and established that redesign of their physical environments can have major ripple effects, bringing personal interactions and relationships back into the system.

I suppose this all may still sound rather vague and abstract, it’s just something to think about.

Colin Housing Providers Forum

I’ve been meaning to write about an event I attended a couple of weeks ago, or half attended, because my phone (aka my alarm clock) died so I overslept and missed a sizable chunk of it. The event was the Colin Housing Providers Forum Information Sharing Protocol Conference (try saying that ten times fast), organized by the Colin Neighbourhood Partnership (http://www.newcolin.com/)

In case you missed a previous description of Colin, it is a region on the very edge of West Belfast. The area used to be farmland, but it was developed in the later decades of the twentieth century to house Catholics.  Adequate infrastructure did not accompany the development of this residential area. Colin has typically been a disadvantaged community with high unemployment and an unsafe reputation, many people still avoid going into the Colin area. The Colin Neighbourhood Partnership brings community members, local representatives, organizations and government agencies together to improve the quality of life in Colin by addressing the specific needs of the community.

 “Colin will be an area with a vibrant centre, where people are happy to live, work, play and study and proud to say they are from. It will be a community empowered to participate and make a difference, where local achievements are celebrated and visitors are welcomed.”

–Colin Neighbourhood Partnership Mission Statement

Housing providers, police, community organizations including CRJI, and other agencies operating in and on behalf of the community in the Colin area realized that they were unable to effectively work together address issues like anti-social behavior because of legal restrictions on what they could share with each other about individuals involved. This fragmented communication was identified as detrimental to the community. With a major effort from these parties, an Information Sharing Protocol was formalized in 2010 which allows these agencies to come together in the Colin Housing Providers Forum and legally disclose certain personal data relevant to cases.

Often, the police get one side, and the housing providers another, and community groups yet another perspective and even for a group like CRJI to try and piece together a full account they must run back and forth between various parties. The protocol enables more efficient, representative, effective and  streamlined responses to community needs. With increased transparency between agencies, and the chance to get everyone around the same table, each group gets the same, fuller picture of a situation of individual. When all can be in the same conversation, they can hold each other accountable and must share responsibility for addressing issues.

When it comes down to it, all of these groups are in place to allow people to lead safe and fulfilling lives in a stable and healthy community. A model like the one in Colin is really good for its community, and that has to be the most important thing. The Neighbourhood Partnership and the Information Sharing Protocol are not one size fits all solutions. It is clear, however, that such models of open communication and shared responsibility allow different entities to perform their respective roles more effectively.  Beyond just the sharing of information, it seems like the Housing Providers Forum is really valuable for building trust and understanding between agencies. Agencies can recognize ways they can work together, and identify common goals. If two groups operate independently toward the same goal and each disapproves of the other’s approach, the effort as a whole will always be discordant. But if these groups acknowledge and communicate with each other, there is at least the opportunity for harmony.

As I see it, working within existing structures and with established institutions is crucial to widespread change. Even facing the messy, stubborn political gridlock impeding criminal justice system reform in the US, I am mildly optimistic. Personally, I believe that just about the whole system should be thrown out and reconstructed with a restorative vision, but I don’t see such an overhaul happening in my lifetime. Change will be slow, but even the littlest steps forward as policy can have impacting reverberations down the line. I think it will be very important to look beyond many of the wrongs and mistakes of organizations and agencies to identify the worth and potential good of each such body. Cooperation and coordination is vital. Important recurring notions in my study of CRJI’s development and success include exercising respect to all parties, practicing professionalism, and building personal relationships.

Halfway through? AHH!

At the halfway point of my internship, I have already accumulated more inspiring, constructive, and practical information than I could have imagined. I have been processing my experience by exploring my learning and making time to reflect and finding space to write and to read and to ramble.

This whole experience is still so fresh new me, and I have many unarticulated questions. I could spend a year just gathering stories and tidbits on CRJI, and still feel engaged as an observer. I could… but with the base of knowledge, questions and observations I have already built, I am ready to pitch into a new phase of exploration.

I was very intimidated thinking about conducting interviews with folks at CRJI, even very informal interviews. Even two weeks ago I felt like I would not be able to ask meaningful questions, I also felt like even if I did, I didn’t know enough to be able to tell quality questions from duds. And even if I could, I was not sure I would be able to recognize the most meaningful responses. I suppose I was floating in a pool of uncertainty and self-doubt. To be completely honest, I pretty much chickened out and dropped the interview idea. To veer away from complete honesty, I will say that some inner wisdom told me to hold off on the interviews until I had learned the ropes a bit.

I quite surprised myself last week when I declared that I was planning on conducting several informal interviews with members of CRJI. In fact I had not been “planning on” this until, well, the moment I said it. Nevertheless, I will begin these conversations with individuals next week. I hadn’t realized just how much I now know, not just about the organization and the context of their work, but about the individuals involved. I have naturally developed queries and I know who might best address them.

I have been practicing a rather sponge-like method of information acquisition. I hope to wring out this information and actively further my understanding by channeling my learning into productive informative conversations. My first focus will be on the great importance of consistency, structure, and communication of a growing organization from an administrative perspective. Perhaps this topic sounds a little dry, but I think it is absolutely crucial and often overlooked in considerations of effective social justice work.

I will then hopefully look at some of the key moments in CRJI’s development from a volunteer-run community service, to becoming an accredited organization by the Criminal Justice Inspectorate, to the still growing organization I am experiencing today, all in the past fifteen or so years.

Too many interesting things!

Ahhh! I wish I could share every little thing I am learning here and everything that inspires me daily. You probably do not wish that though. It would be a bit overwhelming, also probably confusing.

I have a couple unfinished posts that I am hoping to post this week, but I will power through my last two weeks. Two weeks ago I shadowed Karen, the Family and Youth Coordinator. She deals with a range of cases involving youth and families…obviously. Last week my placement was in CRJI’s Colin office. Colin is a neighborhood on the edge of Belfast, or perhaps more accurately right outside of the city. The community is largely underprivileged and the area has a poor reputation, but even in the short time I have been here so far I have learned about several really fascinating and encouraging efforts to vitalize and strengthen the community. This local office definitely had a different feel, but I continued to feel welcomed and well-supported each day!

I also had chips and gravy! So much gravy! I also learned that “pasties” in Ireland are not the same as the common meaning of “pasties” in the US. This was immediately obvious when I saw them on a menu.

Also my mom is visiting for a smidge! Many fun adventures packed into six short days!