Transformative Justice by philanthropy

Maisha and Torry Winn
Maisha and Torry Winn

Faculty couple transforms the way communities think about education

By Ashley Han

Husband and wife Lawrence (Torry) and Maisha Winn ’94 co-direct the Transformative Justice in Education Center (TJE) at UC Davis, which officially opened in September 2017 after a soft launch during the 2016-2017 academic year. TJE brings the community and university together to stop racial inequalities in education and strengthen UC Davis’ efforts to create a cohesive, justice-seeking community.

Maisha, the Chancellor’s Leadership Professor in the School of Education at UC Davis, has a rich background in the intersectionality of language, literacy and justice using critical participant ethnography methods. Torry, with over 15 years of experience in non-profit organizations, has worked with a variety of youth-serving institutions. His expertise includes race and equity, youth programs and education as well as community engagement and research. Together, the couple works with the School of Education to create and sustain a restorative culture in the teaching and learning spaces.

The following is a conversation with the two visionaries and cofounders about restorative justice and transformative justice. According to Maisha, restorative justice is a paradigm shift from a punishment approach to harmful behavior to a consensus-building process. Transformative justice looks closely at the reasons why an incident occurred, which is often rooted in unhealthy relationships and social systems. This creates a responsibility for the individual, social structures and institutional policies to resolve and prevent reoccurrences of harmful incidents.

Q: Do people have misconceptions or false narratives about restorative and transformative justice?

TW: They’re buzzwords. Some people think restorative justice is an easy-fix program where you sit in circles and that’s it. They don’t understand that before you sit in circles to repair the harm, the whole community needs to come together to restore that culture. A program can be here today and gone tomorrow, but restorative justice lasts generations, with the responsibility falling on everyone to restore that culture.   

MW: One of the biggest myths is that when schools use restorative justice, children aren’t being held accountable. However, suspending and expelling children is not true accountability. I would argue when people say students are getting off too easy with restorative justice, then it’s not being implemented in the correct way. To me, the highest form of accountability is when someone has to understand why they are harming others and engaging in inappropriate behaviors. Most adults don’t even know how to do that.

Q: What are some inequities in education today?

MW: We are not addressing racist ideas that dictate our beliefs in others and ourselves. For example, in Myosha Mcafee’s research in math classrooms, self-defined equity oriented teachers asked African American children low-level questions that weren’t going to build their mathematical skills, while asking white and Asian students more complex questions. This is part of a history of racist ideas in the United States about certain groups of people, which is referenced in Ibram X. Kendi’s award-winning book. We assume that some students won’t understand because they don’t have the foundation to comprehend.

TW: There’s other inequity: suspension rates, lack of teachers of color and the curriculum. Many students don’t get the chance to learn about different ethnicities and their histories. This starts with children’s books. In a 2013 study, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin found that out of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people. Children are reading books that don’t relate to them. That’s inequity.

Q: What are your plans for restorative justice training?

TW: We are very excited about partnering with our Teacher Education Program because we want to train all of our elementary and secondary preservice teachers in restorative justice before finishing our programs. We need to build in a three-to-four day training session for these amazing folks who have come here to become teachers. We are also working with current teachers.

MW: And these trainings are for schools that already made a commitment to end racial inequalities in education. We’re not here to convince people that they need to do this. When we come in, people are present and ready for restorative justice training, and we support them.  

Q: What made it possible to open TJE this year?  

MW: You can’t do this kind of work without support from leadership, and Dean Lauren Lindstrom at the School of Education has created space for TJE because she wants UC Davis to be a leader in equity oriented problem solving. She stands by us and wants our school to be guided by the principles of justice, which has been part of the School’s foundation since the beginning.

TW: In addition, the gifts we’ve received from individual donors, corporations and foundations have gone a long way and allowed us to have visibility in our community. These gifts allow us to partner with schools, train preservice teachers and bring in graduate and undergraduate students who are interested in this work. When folks talk about restorative justice from on now, they will mention UC Davis.

Read this article on AggieXtra Spring 2018 issue.