By the time Fania Davis had learned about restorative justice, she had already been a civil rights activist for decades. Close proximity to racial violence as a child sparked her involvement in several important social movements. But it wasn’t until she had been a lawyer for many years and had earned her Ph.D in indigenous knowledge that she attended a conference and first heard the term “restorative justice.” Those two words helped Davis chart a course for the next phase of her career.
Today, Davis is co-founder and director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, a grant-funded program that aims to transform the ways in which young people in Oakland receive discipline. Rather than being given suspensions or expulsions—which have been shown to directly influence odds of future imprisonment—students impacted by Davis’ program are challenged to restore what was “broken” with the aid of their communities. The program has seen astoundingly positive results.
Fania Davis spoke about her history fighting racial inequality and her use of restorative justice in the courtroom and classroom at the 2015 Bioneers Conference. You can watch her presentation below and read the transcript that follows.
Let me tell you just a little bit about my journey and how I come to stand here before you today. I was born during the segregation era in Bombingham, Alabama. The correct name, the official name, is Birmingham, but it has been known as “Bombingham” since the 50s, when I was growing up. I lived atop Dynamite Hill. That was the name of my neighborhood. It was called that because of all of the bombings that took place in our neighborhood for black families who happened to move in, pushing the color line. And, of course, Bombingham was called that because of the many, many bombings of churches and of people like Reverend Shuttlesworth and others who were leaders in the Civil Rights movement.
Two of my closest friends were killed in the Birmingham Sunday School bombing, and I want to honor them. I want to invoke their names right now. Carol, Carol Robertson, we honor you. Cynthia, Cynthia Wesley, we honor you. And all that I do today is in remembrance of you, to honor you.
It’s very sad when I see what’s happening with our youth today. It was dangerous for me as a child growing up in Bombingham on Dynamite Hill because of racial violence and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan. But the violence that our youth face today, the danger, the abuse, the trauma from structural violence, from police violence, from community violence is just overwhelming.
I left the South as an angry warrior. I was involved in the Civil Rights movement, as Cameron said. I became involved in almost every major movement of the end of the 20th century—the Black Power movement, the Black Nationalist movement. And at one point I was so anti-white that when my brother, who was in the National Guard at the time, brought a colleague home with him who was white, I stood in my doorway: “You cannot bring him in here.” Of course, who does that remind you of? That reminds me of George Wallace, who stood in the doorway of University of Alabama to keep Autherine Lucy from coming in. I was filled with rage. I was a warrior for justice in a way the privileged anger and rage.
And then my husband was almost killed by police when they invaded our apartment when we were working closely with the Black Panthers. My sister was put on trial for attempted murder and murder and conspiracy because of something that happened right here, not far away in Marin County Civic Center.
This was an early prison rebellion. George Jackson, who was then sort of the Malcolm X of the prisons, was looked to across the world as a great leader. He was a member of the Panther party as well. He had a younger brother, 16 years old, who almost all his life saw his older brother in prison. For $75, he was given a 15-to-life sentence. He had already served 15 years. Jonathan became so frustrated about the possibility of ever having his brother free again that he attempted an escape. He went into a courtroom right here in Marin County Civic Center with guns under his trenchcoat, and he freed two prisoners who were there: William Christmas, Ruchell Magee. He also took a judge, some jurors, and others as hostages. They went out to a waiting van that. The Marin County Sheriff’s Department shot into the vehicle. That’s their policy. No one gets to escape, even if there are hostages. As a result of that shoot-in, not shoot-out, that shoot-in, Judge Haley was killed, Jonathan Jackson at the age of 16 was killed, William Christmas was killed and others were wounded.
I want us to be aware of this history that has to do with racism, that has to do with mass incarceration, that has to do with the prison industrial complex. We, the Bioneers, are right here where it happened.
Going on to my life story, I reached a point where I felt out of balance. I forgot to tell you that I became a trial lawyer after my sister’s case. I traveled around the world speaking for her and fighting for her freedom, and then I became a trial lawyer to fight racism in the courts. After about 30 years of this, I began to feel out of balance. I literally became physically ill, affecting the feminine organs. I intuitively knew that I was being asked to balance and rebalance myself, to bring more feminine energies, more creative energies, more spiritual energies, and more healing energies into my life. And I synchronistically and serendipitously ended up in a PhD program in indigenous studies which allowed me to study with healers all over the world, especially in Africa, with a Zulu healer by the name of Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, my spiritual father.
I studied with him and came back to this country, finished my dissertation in indigenous studies, couldn’t find a job doing this wonderful healing work, and so kicking and screaming, went back into the practice of law. But it’s a good thing I did, because through lawyers and through my presence at a conference of lawyers, I was able to find out about restorative justice.
Restorative justice is a justice that heals. You could say that our justice system harms people who harm people to show that harming people is wrong. And what happens? What happens is that harm replicates, it reproduces, it metastasizes, it begins to saturate our existence. That’s so much of what we see around us. That is what in part has bred the abomination of mass incarceration and of the prison industrial complex.
But we know that harmed people go on to harm other people. Studies show that if you have experienced trauma, even observed trauma, if you don’t heal that trauma, you’re going to go on and hurt someone else or hurt yourself. It goes on and on and on.
Restorative Justice recognizes this, rooted as it is in indigenous principles of healing and of reconciliation. It sees crime as damage, as harm to relationships, and justice therefore must heal that damage and repair that harm. Restorative justice seeks to heal the harm rather than replicate it.
When I found out about this wonderful healing justice, it was an epiphany for me because I realized I could be the lawyer, the warrior and the healer all at the same time. It was an incredible moment in my own personal journey into wholeness. And that is the foundation upon which I do the work that I do today.
I went all over the world to restorative justice conferences. I found the leaders in the restorative justice movement. I devoured all the literature I could. I met Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was a chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, which is a restorative justice-based process to heal the wounds of mass and structural harm.
I really wanted to go to war-torn regions in Africa to do this work. Mbeki, who was a president at that time, said, “Oh yes, come, we need you. People are knocking knocking down our doors for this reconciliation work. Come. Come.” But did he ever offer a job? No. So, I found myself frustrated. But then a friend said, “Fania, Oakland is Darfur. Oakland is those war-torn regions of Africa.”
Of course, Oakland is much, much more than that as well. But something rang a bell. I had another epiphany. From there, we formed Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. Our mission is to promote restorative justice principles, practices, policy, systems change and direct services in schools, the juvenile justice system and in communities. We’ve been doing this work for about 10 years. We had one school pilot starting in 2007 that succeeded in completely eliminating violence, increasing test scores and reducing suspension rates by 87 percent. That got the attention of the entire school district. Within a couple of years, with some organizing by youth and these amazing outcomes, the Oakland Unified School District passed a resolution adopting restorative justice as official school policy.
This is an example of how we can not only do healing on interpersonal levels in our lives, but how we can create systems that are more healing and policies that are more healing. I think it’s important to do both, and of course for me, it can only be that way, given my history of being a warrior for social justice.
Today, Restorative Justice is in 30 schools. That resolution didn’t collect dust. The district has put its money where its mouth is—$2.3 million budget just for Restorative Justice with 40 employees. Now the Oakland Unified School District is looked at across the nation as a model of school-based restorative justice.
This business of reducing suspensions and creating environments in schools where students can thrive is just so important. Research shows that it is the pipeline into prison. Your chances of being incarcerated triple if you’re suspended one time. So finding alternatives to suspension is a great way to interrupt not only racialized school-to-prison pipeline, but also racialized mass incarceration.