Building community in Newark with good food and restorative justice principles
by Jessica Laus | Op-Ed Contributor | May 3, 2017
Each month, members of the LGBTQ community, allies, and friends gather at the Newark LGBTQ Community Center for a community dinner. The dinners were first organized at the beginning of this year in order to provide a space for the LGBTQ community to connect with each other on a regular basis, to break bread, and to participate in a group discussion, should they choose.
The dinners regularly turn into a potluck (Angie, a volunteer at the Center, is now famous for her banana pudding), or dishes are brought in from a local establishment to pass around. The food ranges from hearty pasta to vegan desserts, and are almost always accompanied by fresh bread and salad.
Once everyone is comfortable and has a full plate of food, a moment of silence brings everyone’s focus to the event at hand, after which the group discussion is ready to begin.
Guests begin by introducing themselves and letting the group know what brought them to the table or what’s on their mind that day. The lead facilitator then reviews the guidelines for the group, which include allowing each participant to speak in turn without interruption, as well as ensuring that individual physical needs are met (to this end, second or third helpings are encouraged). Guests are welcome to add to or modify the guidelines as they see fit.
After the guidelines are established, the facilitator posits a question or statement on which the group may reflect, and each guest is invited to speak, unless they choose to pass their turn. Topics may range from pets to politics and change, and can become very personal and open as the discussion progresses.
Although these types of discussions may last for a considerable amount of time, particularly if they are focused on a divisive topic, the dinners at the Community Center last for approximately two hours and generally conclude naturally. They are democratic in nature and allow a space for everyone to share and discuss their viewpoints and ideas, or to simply listen to others. From these discussions, trust and empathy are provided a space flourish, and although not necessarily intentional at the outset, individualized healing may occur, which may then transcend to the community at large.
These discussions are based on peacemaking circles, which are used in the principles and practices of restorative justice.
Circles, according to the Centre for Justice & Reconciliation, are used for many purposes and are rooted in the Native American cultures of the United States and Canada. In the context of restorative justice, they may be used to work through harm caused by an offender, to heal those who have been harmed, and/or to resolve harms inflicted on a community. Circles may also be used, as in the case at the Newark LGBTQ Community Center, for community building, which has the potential to mitigate incidences violence and harm in the first place.
Restorative justice principles and practices have been getting increased attention nationwide, particularly in relation to criminal justice and conflict in schools. Newark Public Schools previously reported a year-over-year decrease in student suspensions of 37 percent, which they partly attributed to restorative justice practices being enacted in schools. Equal Justice USA is working to increase the capacity for police and the community to respond to trauma in the wake of violence, and has recently led trainings in Newark that focus on trauma-informed responses to violence with the Newark Police Department and Newark community members, which can save lives and help heal communities
Joining these efforts is the Community Dinner program at the Newark LGBTQ Community Center. Each month, rather than actively seeking to repair harm, we work instead to strengthen our ties to each other and our city. We hope these dinners will work to unify Newark so that we may all move “forward ever, backward, never.”
We invite you to join us.
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