Together ... everything is possible
Pasadena nonprofit Collective Voices plays matchmaker between teacher needs, community resources
By Sara Cardine 02/22/2012
Many of the CIS Academy students who shuffled into the classroom Friday morning for an elective course on the topic of restorative justice had no idea what the next two hours would bring. Some came because a friend had talked them into attending, while others were there at the behest of teachers of the small, independent study-focused school that operates on a small corner of the Pasadena High School campus. Still other students were called to the 10-week class by the perceived allure of easy course credits.
They entered a plain room, whose walls were lined with chairs fashioned in a circle, and sat down. Instructors and facilitators took seats among the students as Monica Chinlund, director of development at the Ojai Foundation, Council in Schools program, welcomed everyone and began the session.
“How many people here feel you have a story to tell?” she asked the room. A mere four of nearly 30 students in the circle raised their hands.
“I’m hoping that you’re going to change your minds, and when I ask you again in 10 weeks, you’re going to have a different answer,” Chinlund responded, “because we all have stories to tell.”
Giving a voice to underserved students is an underlying premise of the Restorative Justice/Youth Law Project, which aims to expose the students to topics ranging from street law and conflict resolution to nonviolent communication and positive social change. The class is a collaboration of the Council of Schools, Loyola Law School’s Center for Restorative Justice, Pasadena’s Western Justice Center Foundation and InsideOUT Writers, a Los Angeles nonprofit that provides creative outlets for members of LA County’s Juvenile Hall system.
The mastermind behind this innovative partnership is the Collective Voices Foundation, a Pasadena nonprofit that plays matchmaker between educators who want to bring project-based or “real-world” learning into the classroom and community groups that can provide the speakers, funds and tools needed to make it happen.
“There is a division in Pasadena between resources and under-performing students,” said Executive Director Diane Fisher, who also teaches communication studies at Cal State LA. “I really wanted to envision a way to bridge that division.”
To create the Youth Law Project at CIS Academy, Fisher and Collective Voices Associate Director Liza Bearman worked with the participating organizations to create a survey learning experience that would engage students in the deeper issues surrounding America’s justice system.
This Friday, students will spend their second class at Loyola, where the Center for Restorative Justice will hold its 2nd Annual Another Way Conference. The free event is open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and will feature discussions from Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye as well as many others.
Throughout the class, CIS students will be asked to keep a journal, and members of InsideOUT Writers will help them respond to several writing prompts by recording their thoughts and opinions. By the end of the 10-week curriculum, the students will prepare their own projects that reflect on what they’ve learned and how it relates to their daily lives.
CIS Academy Principal Jack Loos said he was happy to be contacted by Collective Voices with this unique educational opportunity.
“The district did away with a lot of the elective courses last year. So when this came in, I thought, ‘This is perfect.’” Loos said, “Just the process of exposing them to different things in life outside the core curriculum of what schools offer is a plus to the development of the students. And it’s a topic we need to look at, because the system of justice we have doesn’t always work.”
Collective Voices has already brokered several successful learning projects in elementary, middle and high schools in and around Greater Los Angeles since it began in 2009. Fisher and Bearman see their work as “resource choreography,” a dance of connecting schools with people and groups who can offer unique learning experiences. The pair has created dog tags with the Collective Voices logo on a black background to pass out to students as keepsakes. The slogan on the back sums up the mission in four succinct words: “Together … everything is possible.”
Recently, sixth-graders at Aveson Charter School took part in a multimedia project that included a visit to and collaboration with the Pasadena Humane Society. English learners at Washington Middle School began a program that brings in Spanish-speaking professionals with math and science careers to help students develop science fair projects. Another successful collaboration had culinary students from Le Cordon Bleu working side by side with students whose families receive government subsidized food to create healthy, balanced meal plans.
Since its move to Pasadena last year, Collective Voices continues to make inroads with philanthropic and community-based groups, such as the Flintridge Foundation and Leadership Pasadena, to expand the scope and depth of what it can offer schools. So far, it’s been a difficult but worthwhile venture, Fisher admitted.
“You can use the Internet to start a revolution in Egypt, but you can’t connect a classroom to a leading science school in the same county,” she joked.
To make those connections easier, Fisher and Bearman have launched an online platform called Collaborate Now, where teachers and students can post project needs and wish lists, sponsors can create their own grants and professionals can sign up to receive a weekly email list of educational needs in their specified fields.
The hope is that the site will eventually become like Craigslist, where people can post and browse through proposals, schools, speakers or sponsorships.
“The goal is to get everyone plugged in to really create collaborations that are cool and possible and interesting,” Fisher said. “We want to get the word out to educators that this site exists, this tool exists — post.”
Justice = healing
Over the next nine weeks, the CIS Academy course will introduce students to the idea of restorative justice, a philosophy that aims to heal victims and offenders, often themselves victims of larger societal dynamics and disenfranchisement, according to instructor Seth Lennon Weiner, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Loyola’s Center for Restorative Justice.
“It’s not anti-punishment. It’s a community investigation of how to right the wrong,” he added. “If crime is a wound, then justice should be healing.”
Understanding and unraveling the mystery of American jurisprudence — which can often seem unfair and exclusionary toward certain groups — is something 18-year-old Felix Hernandez wants to learn more about. Hernandez initially came to the class when a friend mentioned it to him that morning but admitted after the first session, “I have to come back.” He wants to learn more about the perception of racism in the criminal justice system. “It’s kind of unfair how it’s still going on,” he said “It’s like they’re bringing it back and just enslaving other races.”
Aidyn Cooper, 17, said she was more interested in seeing what the class might offer on the topic of community building. “That’s the part that really intrigued me,” she added. “In high school, you have judgments about people — I’m open to changing that, and I think this class could help.”
When other students were asked in class to list topics they wanted to cover, they were not ashamed to speak up. “Learning more about law and what we can do, like if we get pulled over for no reason, how to fight that,” said one male student.
“Why rich people get away with stuff we can’t,” added Richard when it was his turn to speak.
“Laws in Arizona,” Alfredo said. “Racial profiling,” said a student named Skyler. By the time the round-robin was done, a long list had been recorded: How age restrictions are determined; why some people get tougher sentences than others; how far our freedom really gets us; and how morals become laws.
How the next two months play out at CIS Academy is anybody’s guess, but educators like Gareth Siegel, who helps prepare seniors for the California High School Exit Examination, believe Collective Voices has struck a nerve with the class and that students stand to gain a lot from the experience.
“I see this as a basic way to reconnect these kids to the community and help them feel empowered,” said Siegel, who himself attended Friday’s class. “And frankly, I’m learning right along with them.”
To learn more about Collective Voices or the newly launched Collaborate Now! platform, visit collectivevoices.org or call (626) 354-3144. For more information on the Feb. 24 Restorative Justice Conference at Loyola Law School Los Angeles, visit lls.edu.