SIT Grad students to present practicum work at Belgium conference

April 10th, 2019   |   Alumni, Careers, SIT Graduate Institute

Jordan Ferrick, left, and Fabio Ayala

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a story that was originally published on this blog on April 10, 2019.

Becca Jacobson

Three SIT Graduate Institute students are bringing their practicum experiences to an international stage this spring.  Fabio Ayala, Jordan Ferrick, and Becca Jacobson will head to Belgium in May to present their work in the field of restorative justice at the International Institute for Restorative Practice annual conference, “Community Well-Being and Resilience.”

Ayala is completing his MA at SIT in peace and conflict transformation and Ferrick in sustainable development. Jacobson has completed one MA at SIT, in international education, and is currently working on her second, in Intercultural Service, Leadership, and Management.

For their practicums, they’re working at two southern Vermont organizations that promote restorative practices – community-based activities that seek to create accountability and strengthen and repair ties between individuals and communities.

Ayala and Ferrick are doing their work through the Greater Falls Community Justice Center in Bellows Falls under the guidance of SIT alumna and adjunct faculty member Suzanne Belleci, who directs the center. Ayala, who is from Connecticut, serves as the center’s victim and youth advocate, and Ferrick, of Wisconsin, is outreach and advocacy coordinator. Jacobson, who grew up in Philadelphia, works at the Brattleboro Community Justice Center as education and outreach coordinator.

Following are excerpts from our conversations ts 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.

Becca Jacobson: At SIT, the Freirean approach to education resonates deeply: The teacher is a student of the student first. During my year on campus I was in a class with (Peace and Justice program chair) Bruce Dayton, who passed around a flier for a CoSA training through Brattleboro Community Justice Center [CoSAs are “Circles of Support and Accountability,” a restorative justice practice that helps formerly incarcerated people reintegrate into their communities.] Being on a CoSA was an amazing experience in conjunction with my SIT campus experience. People say at SIT you’re in a bubble on the top of a hill and I did not want to have that bubble experience. This was an opportunity to learn what it means to be an accountable member of the community. I was and still am supporting someone coming back to a community after incarceration. Being a compassionate person who shows up for somebody is what led me to the decision that restorative practices is what I want to be doing.

SIT: Can you describe the work you’re doing for your practicums?

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.

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.

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.

BJ: I do a lot of work in schools and I’ve spent most of this year at Putney Central School, where we do mediation between students, listening sessions, a Girl Power circle for those who identify as female, Professional Learning (PLCs) for teachers on how teachers can utilize restorative practices. We’re also gearing up to do a big middle school leadership training in August for all of the middle schools in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, where I’ll be facilitating workshops.

SIT: Can you give an example of when you have been able to see the results of your work in Vermont?

BJ: In rural communities this work is felt at a deep level and you notice changes more quickly. On the first day of Girl Power circles it was about just trying to get people in the room to talk about things we like doing, like hobbies and pets. Last week, we had a powerful conversation about a time when they saw a friend being treated unfairly and how that impacted them. So we have moved from surface-level experiences to sharing some deep and raw feelings and experiences. We have been able to push through the idea of “agreeing to disagree” and have really listened to lived experiences to better understand.

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?

BJ: Teachers and guidance counselors are so passionate about harm and impact and how we can create intentional communities in school so that it’s a brave place for young people that isn’t focused on punitive practices. Teachers are so committed to learning about this, and they do say that restorative practices take so much time and their time is so limited. But a lot of it is what people already know: to be compassionate; to listen; unpacking our own biases and processing them so that in class teachers can be really present.

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.

SIT: What will you present in Belgium?

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.

BJ: We will be presenting on the work we are doing with middle school girls through their Girl Power circles. We start by providing context and context-based definitions. Because this is an international conference we wanted to provide a contextual understanding of definitions, the work we are doing, and the cultural norms we work within. We then move into how we have set up these circles, balancing formal process with informal relationship building.

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.

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.

BJ: I’m hoping to be a complete sponge, to learn what works and what’s not working for different communities. It is going to be such an amazing opportunity to better understand how other folx are using restorative practices. It will be an incredible opportunity for me to take notes, and questions and engage with other professionals so that I can come back to Brattleboro and share all of my learnings with the community. It will also be an opportunity for me to reflect on my own smart practices and to think about how I can change my practices to deepen the learning for my community.

SIT: So, what comes next for you? 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.

BJ: I have no plans to go anywhere. This is a community that I have been welcomed into. Now I feel an incredible amount of accountability to work, live, and grow in this community. … This is my foundation and I want to continue to build here. I hope in 10 years I know even less than I know right now. I hope that I have had so many other opportunities for learning and growth, that I am living with even more questions and less answers than I already do.

Click here to support the students’ participation at the IIRP International Conference on Restorative Practices in Belgium.