Youth United: We have a solution – restorative justice

 

My name is Haydi Torres, and I am a member of Alexandria United Teens.  I am also a student at T.C. Williams High School in the International Academy. I am here today to lift up the voices of students who, every day, face the suspension problem in Alexandria schools.

Too many of my friends and classmates—and too many of our little brothers and sisters in middle and elementary school—are getting suspended. As students, we watch what happens when our friends and classmates get suspended, and we know it doesn’t work.

When students are suspended, we don’t get a chance to work on whatever it was that made us act out in the first place. And being sent home from school makes us feel like we don’t matter, that our school does not care about or believe in us.

For example, there was someone at my school who was suspended recently for getting in a fight with another student. Suspending the student for fighting did not solve anything. One student got to stay home, sleep, play video games, and get a vacation from school. The other student got more and more angry waiting for the first student to come back to school. Whatever the students were fighting about became an even bigger issue because they never talked about it. The school never actually made them deal with it.

Even though I’ve never been suspended, when things like this happen, I am affected too. It makes me feel like school is a place just interested in pushing us out when we make mistakes, instead of helping us to learn from them.

What makes the situation worse is that we know some students are suspended more than others. In 2010-11, the District shared data with us that showed that black students were 5 times more likely to receive a suspension than white students. Latino students were almost 3 times more likely to receive a suspension than white students. Suspensions, which we know don’t work, are especially used to punish students of color.  Students who look like me.

I am sad to know that this is happening in our schools. I know that teachers, our school leaders, and the city I love are also saddened by this.  I know we all believe we can and must all work together to fix it.

The good news is we already know that there is a better, proven way to handle student behavior than suspensions: restorative justice.

Restorative justice practices help teachers, students, and others talk about the root causes of conflicts, mistakes and bad behaviors. In the example of my classmates who got in a fight, a teacher or a counselor could have talked to each student separately. If they agreed, they could have then brought them together in a circle to talk about what caused the fight and how the fight affected each person.

It sounds so simple, but with the right training, we know it can reduce suspensions and improve school relationships.

My name is Glancy Rosales and I am a member of Alexandria United Teens.  I am also a student at T.C. Williams. As Haydi said, the bad news is that too many students are getting suspended. The good news is that we have a solution: restorative justice.

Today is not the first time students and community members have raised the issue of bringing restorative justice in our schools.  Since the fall of 2011, I have been part of a group of youth and community members that served as part of the “Student Empowerment Work Group. That group was part of the Student Achievement Advisory Committee. For many months, we attended meetings with the school district.

One of our key recommendations during that process was restorative justice.             In the end, after all that work, restorative justice disappeared from the Work Group’s final recommendations. Although we were frustrated by the way that the community was treated in this process, we think there is now a new chance to work together: the Alexandria City School Board, the school district, and the community.

Great things are possible when the community and the school system works together to make changes. We actually have a successful history of doing that with the district. For example, TWU worked with School Superintendent Dr. Sherman, the District, and our ally Advancement Project on the creation of the ICAP, the Individual Career and Academic Plan.

Getting restorative justice in our schools is another opportunity to work together.

Our ally Advancement Project is a national organization that supports community groups like TWU, the Tenants and Workers United. In Denver, Colorado, Advancement Project worked with Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a community group, and their school district to implement restorative justice. Their work has created a great relationship between the community and the district, and has reduced suspensions.

We are proud of our city and our school and we hope we can be a part of that kind of process and success in Alexandria. So today, we have three requests for the Alexandria City School Board.

First, express your support for restorative justice in words and in actions. Many School Board members have listened carefully to the voices of the students and the community.  We are thankful for that. We would like to hear support from the whole board.

Second, make funding available to bring restorative justice into our schools. Recently, the district expressed interest in having a pilot at TC Williams High School. We support this proposal.

Third, Please make sure youth and community, the people who are most harmed by suspensions, are very involved in implementing restorative justice. We ask you to make sure we get to work with the District to implement restorative justice. As we know, school systems are strongest when we work in partnership and when the voices of youth and community are heard and respected.

(Haydi Torres and Glancy Rosales are high school students in the Alexandria City Public Schools. They are also members of Alexandria United Teens, a project of the Tenants and Workers United. They recently gave a version of the above as testimony to the Alexandria City School Board. Thanks to Haydi and Glancy, to the Alexandria United Teens, and to the Tenants and Workers United for this collaboration.)

 

(Photo Credit: The Connection / Vernon Miles)

The Iron Women who resist eviction

At the beginning of the 20th century, the slum dwellers of Glasgow, Scotland, were faced with predatory landlords, rising rents and a government that was hand-in-glove with the slum owners, the `urban developers’ of the day. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the working poor of Alexandria, Virginia, face predatory landlords and, again, a local government that is hand-in-glove with the latter-day developers. In both instances, the weapon du jour is mass eviction. From Glasgow to Alexandria, from then to now, women have organized to stop the evictions and to secure justice.

On Saturday, April 13, 2013, the Alexandria City Council voted, 6 – 1, in favor of redevelopment with a vengeance, in this instance of the Beauregard neighborhood, the last redoubt of affordable housing in the city. After 30 years of actively and energetically reducing the number of available affordable housing units, and after 30 years of engaging in mass displacement of working communities and families, primarily people of color, the City Council decided to continue on the same path.

But there was opposition, in the streets and on the Council, and, while the immediate results are discouraging and the tone and content of discussion at the Council level was depressing, there is reason for hope.

The City Council heard technical, passionate, eloquent testimony after testimony from residents and from their supporters. Beauregard tenant organizer and leader Veronica Calzada spoke through tears of the stress of three years of facing evictions, and a future that promised only bleaker and grimmer vistas. Longtime Beauregard resident Neota Hall described the fear her neighbors lived with, the palpable sense of persecution and harassment, and of her own difficulties, at 70 years of age, of planning for the future. Longtime activists, such as Sammie Moshenberg, described the meaning of demolition, and the alternatives that still remain. Victoria Menjivar, President of the Tenants and Workers United, described in detail the dire mathematics of mass displacement and, again, the alternatives still available. Woman after woman described the conditions, protested the injustices and lack of vision, offered alternatives, and told the human story of possible, attainable justice.

Seven people sit on the Alexandria City Council. Only one, Allison Silberberg, Vice-Mayor of Alexandria, listened. She insisted on the centrality and value of people’s lives. She insisted on listening, critically and compassionately, to what the actual residents of the actual units were saying. Silberberg insisted on placing these people at the center of the discussion and, more importantly, at the center of public policy, municipal and regional development, and justice.

Silberberg withstood the visible and verbal scorn and derision of some of her `fellow’ Council members for her refusal to accept a plan that included mass eviction. Hers was the single and singular opposing vote.

Later that night, when the residents of Beauregard gathered to eat and share their sense of the day’s events, they talked of Silberberg’s courage and vision, and they talked, with dismay and pain, at the inhumanity of the rest of the Council. They said this a government that does not want us. This is a government whose vision is measured in the dollars and wealth of some at the expense, and exclusion, of the labor and worth of others.

So, the vote went down, 6 – 1. The Council and the developers worked hard to make it unanimous, and in this they failed. Silberberg stood with the Iron Women of Alexandria, not alone.

This is an old, even redundant story, one of `municipal development’, mass removals, and resistant women.

For example, in 1914, in Glasgow, Scotland, slum owners saw that many men were off to the wars and many others were coming in, suddenly, to work in the munitions industry. In other words, they saw women heads of households, on one hand, and new migrants, on the other. They saw both as vulnerable, and so raised the rents astronomically.

Mary Barbour, housewife and mother, began organizing to stop the rent increases and to repel the sheriff’s officers who came to evict tenants. She helped organize the South Govan Women’s Housing Association, which grew into the Glasgow Women’s Housing Association. She organized and led “Mrs. Barbour’s Army”, which physically stopped the sheriffs. Barbour’s organizing led to the passage of the Rent Restriction Act. It was an army of women who changed the laws, who secured housing, who insisted on the dignity of all people, equally.

From Glasgow then to Alexandria now, women have insisted that the working poor are people. The working poor have a right to their homes, to their neighborhoods, to their communities. That’s the history of Mary Barbour, the Iron Lady of Glasgow, and it could be the future in Alexandria. In Alexandria, women are organizing in households and on the streets, as well as in the City Hall.  When it comes to housing and the concrete, lived right to the city, women are leading the struggle for human decency and for justice. From Glasgow then to Alexandria today … and beyond.

 

(Photo Credit: alextimes.com)

Fierce: Una visión de voces diferentes

Por casi dos semanas, un grupo de mujeres latinas de Arlandria, Virginia han estado organizando una organización nueva.  Recientemente esas mujeres decidieron formar una cooperativa de limpieza.  Sus antecedentes son diversos, de países diferentes de Latinoamérica.

¿Qué es una cooperativa, y porque esas mujeres quieren formarla?  Una cooperativa es un negocio, pero no solo.  Un negocio tradicional tiene una dueña con más poder de una trabajadora individua.  La dueña recibe la mayoría de la ganancia y las trabajadoras reciben mucho menos.

Sin embargo, en una cooperativa la situación es completamente diferente.  En una cooperativa, todas las trabajadoras son las dueñas del negocio.  Cada persona individua tiene la misma poder y recibe la misma ganancia.  Es un sistema democrático e igual.

Es importante que esas mujeres, esas trabajadoras, estén organizando una cooperativa de limpieza.  El sector de limpieza, como todo el sector del trabajo doméstico y trabajo de cuidar (incluyendo limpiar, cocinar, y cuidar de niños y ancianos) es trabajo duro y difícil.  El valor de este sector, en que la gran mayoría de la mano de obra son mujeres inmigrantes, es desvalorizado por varias razones—el patriarcalismo y el racismo son gran factores—y esta desvaluación es impuesto por el estado y su falta de leyes y regulaciones.  Trabajadoras domesticas individuas usualmente no reciben salarios o tratos justos en esta situación.  Estas normas son las normas globales en la época del neoliberalismo.

Las mujeres de Arlandria ya lo saben, y la cooperativa es una manera en que ellas pueden luchar esas injusticias.  Se dan la cuenta que juntas, en una estructura en que todas son iguales, con una visión de cinco puntos:

  • La cooperativa pagará salarios decentes a las trabajadoras.
  • Las trabajadoras trabajarán en condiciones justas.
  • La cooperativa proveerá horas flexibles a las trabajadoras.
  • La cooperativa no servirá solo las casas, sino también los negocios pequeños del área.
  • Las trabajadoras se apoyarán la una a la otra con cuidar de niños, con compensación correcta.
  • La cooperativa edificará solidaridad entre las trabajadoras y en toda la comunidad.

Sus visiones son más de visiones.  Son demandas, demandas por respeto, dignidad, y un modo de vida mejor, articulado por voces diferentes.

Porque una cooperativa no es solo un negocio; sino, es una comunidad, una comunidad diversa.  Las mujeres de Arlandria edifican su comunidad y su poder en esta manera, como mujeres, trabajadoras, y participantes en una democracia auténtica.

 

(Photo Credit: DCIntersections)

Reuniones, Nosotros, y Cooperativos

This past week was the second meeting of women at the Tenants and Workers United, TWU, in Alexandria, Virginia. In my fourth week, I am slowly realizing what it means to be a part of a group of women as someone from the “outside.”

Meetings are rough. I speak Castillian Spanish, cannot say gracias without a lisp, and had no idea what a carro was (I later learned it meant the same as coche).  I know little slang and even fewer curse words, the outcome of learning Spanish from my grandmother who focused on linguistics and never cursed in front of her grandchildren.  At meetings, I get laughed at frequently for my inability to catch the jokes being told.

Last week, however, I had a breakthrough. I realized that instead of listening I needed to speak up. Engage in the “we” or nosotros that the meeting had been focusing on. I had been sitting off to the side, silent, listening. It is so easy to just listen, but to speak up is harder. This is what I have encountered in my work at TWU. So many people are too afraid to say what they believe, especially in situations where the language is different or the cause is so close to one’s heart. For me, both of these are true.

I learned about the importance of staying active and honest. It’s easy to fall into a repetitive system, whether one’s own or that of an entire organization. Either way, it’s a trap. No change or security can be reached if the status quo is not constantly questioned and changed.

The women coming to the TWU meetings seek some kind of economic stability. They are concerned about their financial well-being, and they are trying to make changes in their lives to find financial security. I want to do whatever I can to work with them in that pursuit.

However, this is not what I should be doing this summer. I came into TWU believing that I could help the women who came to meetings and women in the surrounding community. My focus was on the individual even when I thought I was talking about the community. There is a different nosotros that I forgot to include in my research goals; it is a nosotros that cannot be measured, counted, or placed in a single box. It is the power of relationships that are not measured by individuals but instead by the active networks of awareness and action throughout a community.

Working with the women at TWU to create a cooperative is amazing, but the project’s focus is on individual rather than collective and communal self-awareness. For that reason, my new focus is on creating a curriculum that will engage women and men throughout the community, a curriculum that will provide education and community support for domestic workers and caregivers who work tirelessly behind the scenes. One cooperative will not change the face of domestic work or care-giving. Bringing women and men together in a space for dialogue and education will. With those tools, the nosotros will become bigger than 15 women, and instead will be a community consciousness that inspires change in wages, time-off, treatment, and access to support on a vast and uncountable scale.

Lessons of a Hispanic Gringa

I exist as a contradiction, but a contradiction that has formed a part of my understanding of self and how I interact with women within and outside the Hispanic, Latina, and Chicana communities.

I grew up hearing the term gringa. I believed I could not be one, because of the Hispanic that was ¼ of my blood and an even greater part of my personal consciousness. I believed that I had escaped that title, one that stung of ignorance and outsiderness, but I had not.

I began my work at Tenants and Workers United, also known as Inquilinos y Trabadores Unidos, two weeks ago. I came in as an unpaid student researcher, overly ready to engage easily with the women in the organization.

The dreams I had of being recognized as my mother often is, as a Hispanic woman, were dashed as my short hair, pale skin, and introduction as a university student earned me the title of gringa. I was intimidated by this title and I doubted not only my heritage, but also my ability to speak Spanish with these women. My Castellano lisp gave my Spanish away as European learned, and my insecurities silenced me.

At this point, the erasure of my heritage was almost complete. The constant work to keep my grandmother alive in me through my hispanidad felt threatened. Was it possible to be a gringa and Hispanic?

I was at a frontera spoken of by Gloria Anzaldúa. I came in as different, an outsider, but the realization that the women I work with often feel the same way in US society changed my understanding of the situation. Their language and lifestyles often push them to the fringes of US communities and limit their access to resources they need to live a positive and fulfilling life.  The mix we two ‘outsiders’ create is not negative, but instead a powerful one filled with all the positive aspects for unification and change. It became less of fitting in, and instead a finding a common ground for establishing a nosotros, a we.

Who am I at this frontera? What can I/ should I bring? What can I take away? How can I help to make this fontera a place that women can inherit proudly and safely? These questions fuel the research that I am now doing at TWU. I am brining what I have access to in order to make the goals and dreams of the Women’s Group realities.

As a Hispanic gringa I bring a contradiction, a hybrid, una nueva identidad to the conversation. I have seen a different side of the conversation and bring a new view. My outsider gains power at this nueva fontera.

 

The women of Arlandria are organizing … and they vote

On December 17, 2011, the Alexandria City Council overwhelmingly voted to ignore low- to moderate-income residents of the Arlandria neighborhood who came to City Council to oppose a so-called redevelopment plan. Most of the residents who came and spoke were Latinas. Some were high school or college students. Some were young women workers. Some were women elders, who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. Many were members of the Tenants and Workers United, others small business owners, and some simply neighbors and friends.

Women who had grown up in the neighborhood, joined youth groups and women’s leadership groups and now attend college. Women from outside women’s leadership groups who had moved to the neighborhood because of its diversity and promise. To a person, they described their fears and aspirations, and a planning process that actively excluded them. To a person, they were ignored.

Each woman looked the Council members in the eyes and asked, or pleaded, or demanded that they slow down the process, that they listen, really listen, to what was being said. Each woman explained that she has had a critical role in building and sustaining the vibrant community of Arlandria. Each woman was ignored.

The women argued that the plans for upscale development [a] are a lousy deal, [b] threaten the fabric of the community, and [c] were devised without any real consultation.

Here’s the plan: turn a low-lying strip mall into two massive six-story buildings that will include 478 residential units. If the buildings are too high, as they are by city standards, throw in 28 `affordable’ housing units … out of 478, and get a waiver. This `affordable’ is designed for those earning around $50,000 a year. Basically, no one currently living in Arlandria earns that. So, no one currently living in Arlandria will qualify.

Then, claim that 450 upscale units in a tight neighborhood will have no impact on the rest of the housing market in the neighborhood. Nearby landlords will not raise their rents. No one will be dislocated. There is no need to worry about gentrification.

When the actual neighbors look at you in disbelief, tell them that they’re getting 28 new units that weren’t there before. Those units will go to someone else, but that’s not `our’ problem.

If anything else comes up, such as questions of traffic and parking, questions of public lands and recreational centers, respond with assurances and vague promises that everything will turn out fine when the time comes.

That was the plan and that was the argument presented to the residents of Arlandria by the Alexandria City Council and its staff.

The Council altogether ignored the fabric of the community. For almost thirty years, the Arlandria community has struggled to create a decent place for working people across generations; for Central and South American, African and Asian immigrants and their children, many of them US citizens; a decent place for all low income people; a decent place for all people. The Council refused to recognize that labor of dignity. Sometimes, decades of creating a community fabric must be tossed onto the trash heap of history… in exchange for 28 `affordable’ units.

The City Council did respond, at length, to the claims of lack of inclusion. They insisted that they had tried to `include’ the residents, but the residents had proven themselves to be difficult. The City Council, with one exception, Alicia Hughes, then began to express resentment at the exclusion claims and its claimants.

What’s going on here? The City Council outsourced inclusion, and democracy, to its staff. The staff reported that they were doing the very best job possible. Who monitors the staff? The staff monitors itself. When over forty people came to the City Council to say that the staff had not included them and never had a real consultative process, and that the so-called advisory groups were mostly developers and landlords, what did the City Council do? It turned to the staff, and the staff said, “We tried.”

And nobody on the City Council asked, “Why then do all these people say you have created a culture of exclusion?”

What happened in Alexandria happens everywhere. The State outsources inclusion, under the mask of liberal democracy, and then, when those who have been excluded protest, the State resents their presence, their voices, and their claims.

Meanwhile, in Arlandria, as everywhere, the women are organizing. And, as one Latina college student said, they vote.

 

(Photo Credit: WAMU.org/Emily Friedman)

Domestics: I am myself and my circumstances

I am a member of a women’s group called Woman, Action and Change. We are part of Tenants and Workers United of Northern Virginia. We are predominantly Latina immigrant and migrant women from all parts of Latin America. Our members include Mexicans, Dominicanas, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Chileans, Argentines, many women from many countries. I am from Nicaragua. I have been living continuously in the United States for only 16 months.

When the group selected me to talk about domestic work, I was worried about how to approach a subject of which I am not an expert and then I remembered an expression of José Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher, who said: “I am myself and my circumstances” so I decided to approach it from my own experience.

I’m from Nicaragua. My mother came from a poor farming family. As a single mother she raised 5 children alone. My mother was an entrepreneur. She had a store and all of us had to work ever since we could remember. I grew up with the image of a strong, working woman, and in an environment where domestic work was part of an effort to sustain the family. I grew up working and studying, got married and, as my mother did, I took care of my home and my children as part of my duties to support and protect my family.

Antecedents

As we all know, in developing countries, domestic work has been used as a mechanism to preserve machismo. In most of these countries, girls are educated to manage the home and boys are educated to have jobs and participate in the greater world.

Under these conditions, domestic work is a form of subjugation of women because their principle duty is to look after the home. Often, women are exploited and in the case of working women, they work the equivalent of triple shifts in order to manage a career and take care of the home. This represents an obstacle to professional development because many women drop out of school to find jobs to solve the needs of their family. For Latin American women like me, completing household chores in addition to our career responsibilities is a source of identity and pride.

There are countries that have incorporated legislation for domestic workers and social security. In some cases this is an appeal by the ruling parties to provide a progressive image and appear concerned about this part of the electorate marginalized by all public health policies.

This is a way to hide the inability to create better jobs. However, the inclusion of the domestic worker in the social security system provides them with medical care benefits and pension rights.

Domestic work in the USA

In this country domestic work has become a job for immigrant women to allow them to survive and meet the needs of their family. Except for in the movies, where we see an elegant butler, well trained and educated for these tasks, this “profession” seems to be exclusively for poor immigrant women.

A little while ago, the National Domestic Workers Alliance convened in Washington, D.C. This organization deals with the work of humanizing domestic work. It has brought to the table an interesting proposal to give more substance to this career.

Estimates are that the Baby Boomer generation reached 13 million in 2000 and in 2050 will be 27 million. This will require over 3 million healthcare workers to take care of them as they gradually age, making geriatric care a moral imperative for this country. Thousands of people, who have built the economic success of this country, will enter old age alone and without help as a result of globalization and the global economic crisis.

We have heard a lot about the budget cuts to social services in the media and the only proposals for jobs seem to focus on technology. In my opinion, there is no effort being made to support real people living in this country today. This is very irresponsible. Domestic workers can help resolve major societal issues through the care of the elderly, disabled and young members of our community. In the long run, this is much more important for building our quality of life because each of us will eventually be old and need help, too.

Today anti-immigrants accuse immigrants of taking jobs from Americans. I don’t think anyone is taking anything from anybody. The jobs filled by immigrant women, in particular, are low-wage domestic workers. These women work in horrid conditions for the chance to feed their families.

It is important that we discuss the legislative opportunities available to improve working conditions and educational opportunities for domestic workers. Improvements in those areas are connected to the outcomes and improvements in the care and wellbeing of our health, for the elderly, disabled and children. By supporting the development of women we will make our society stronger.

 

(Photo Credit: D.C. Intersections / Kate Musselwhite)