In your neighborhood

Restoration in Central Falls is a human construct

An interview with Julia Steiny, who is directing efforts to change the way that schools handle discipline, and transform Rhode Island into a child-friendly state

Photo by Richard Asinof

Julia Steiny, director of the Youth Restoration Project, is managing a youth restoration initiative in partnership with Central Falls schools.

Photo by Richard Asinof

The free shirts handed out at Gov. Gina Raimondo's inauguration celebration on Jan. 6, featuring the new marketing slogan, Make It in RI. A similar slogan had been used by Gov. Edward King of Massachusetts in the early 1980s, "Make It In Massachusetts."

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/12/15
A new effort is underway to establish a youth restoration project in Central Falls, putting the emphasis on conferences and conversation as an alternative to punishment. ConvergenceRI interviewed Julia Steiny, who is directing the effort, to get a better understanding of the project, how it began, and where it hopes to go.
How can the work of the Youth Restoration Project become better integrated with efforts now underway to build a more comprehensive system of integration with mental health and behavioral health in primary care, focused on substance use? What kinds of innovative shared savings program can be developed for providers who take on this challenge, so that the cost savings don’t just flow back to the insurance companies? How does this kind of initiative become part of the collaborative efforts in communities around Health Equity Zones?
In the early 1980s, Gov. Edward King of Massachusetts launched a marketing campaign to promote the Bay State, called “Make It In Massachusetts, replete with a video and bumper stickers that featured a thumbs-up image. It became a source of parody. How ironic that Rhode Island under Gov. Gina Raimondo appears to have borrowed the same phrasing for her campaign to ignite a comeback.
More than a marketing slogan, or the message on a t-shirt, the work being done at the community level in Central Falls – building a healthier community through collaborative efforts in health and education – could serve as a better model for innovation in Rhode Island. More than just making it in Rhode Island, it needs to be about making the connection between public health, educational outcomes, and future economic development.

CENTRAL FALLS – On Inauguration Day, when Gov. Gina Raimondo called upon Rhode Islanders to join together to help her “ignite a comeback,” with the State House lit up that night with the marketing message, “Make It In RI,” did the square-mile city pop into your mind?

Probably not; but, perhaps it should have.

Central Falls is on the rebound, rebuilding from the ashes of its bankruptcy and the state’s takeover of its school system, despite Rhode Island’s difficult economic climate.

A new collaborative health clinic at Central Falls High School, the progenitor of a “Neighborhood Health Station” in Rhode Island, is redefining the way that health care can be delivered, a partnership between the city of Central Falls, the city’s School Department, Memorial Hospital, Blackstone Valley Community Health Care, and the R.I. Department of Health. [See link to ConvergenceRI stories below.]

A second initiative, also focused on the Central Falls school system, is a restorative youth program, funded as part of a three-year, $3.68 million federal grant, being managed by the nonprofit Youth Restoration Project.

Under the leadership of its director, Julia Steiny, the group’s mission is focused on the belief that “all members of the community need to be engaged in an ongoing process of setting group norms, defining common goals and resolving conflicts.”

Central Falls School District Superintendent Frances Gallo described the project as a unique opportunity to demonstrate how we can keep children safe in our schools.

“Beyond the academic skills that students acquire, schools must also teach care, kindness and empathy,” Gallo said, in a statement when the grant was announced by Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation. “In doing so, schools must be receptive to embracing students who make mistakes, be willing to have uncomfortable conversations when they do and teach students how to make amends in meaningful and deep ways.”

Gallo said she strongly believed that the project would improve the “climate and culture” in the schools – and that the results would extend to the community of Central Falls as well.

The project has built into its efforts a strong metrics component, working with the Providence Plan locally and the Urban Institute nationally, focused on the project’s evaluation. About one-third of the federal grant is invested collecting and analyzing the data, according to Steiny.

ConvergenceRI sat down recently with Steiny to talk about the project and its origins at Olga’s Cup + Saucer, the point of convergence for so many conversations in Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem.

Steiny, a columnist who spent more than two decades writing on education, including 16 years at The Providence Journal, talks quickly, in short, intense bursts, her thoughts coming almost too quickly to fit within the boundaries of sentences and paragraphs, often filled with elliptical phrases. In responding to questions, her answers can take an involved route.

Her work with restorative practices and restorative justice grew out of her experiences when she participated on a peace-keeping mission organized by Teny Gross that traveled to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 2007.

Steiny is passionate about her work to replace the traditional emphasis on punishment and coercion in schools, which she believes fosters an attitude of combat rather than cooperation among students, teachers, administrators and parents. The alternative is not lax discipline, she said, but a system in which all members of the community feel they can be heard, while holding each other accountable for creating a safe, respectable social environment.

Having spent so much time as a member of the fourth estate, Steiny is also wary of interviews. “I’m nervous talking to the press,” she began, in a husky, direct voice. “I know where it can go.”

ConvergenceRI: What do you hope to achieve in Central Falls with your project?
There are two converging international agendas that I’m currently working with.

In 2007, Teny Gross [the founder of the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence], took me to Belfast, Northern Ireland, on a peace-keeping mission. Because, at the time, I was writing about prisons, and doing a lot of research that basically said: Prisons are a form of mental illness.

If you cannot be maintained in the community, then you need to be maintained in a good mental health facility. If you can be maintained in the community, you need to have [access to] social services – what I would call restorative practices – there, working with families, to become healthy.

Because what happens [with prisons] is that you take the kids out of the community, because you don’t know what to do with them in the first place, make them work, then put them back, [which only] speeds up the cycle [of violence].

That’s what I was writing about. So Teny took me to Belfast.

On the tips of everyone’s tongue in Northern Ireland was the concept of restorative projects and restorative justice.

I kind of had it in the back of my mind, but it was pretty vague.

I shadowed Teny around, listening to eye-opening, astounding [stories] of a different culture. I saw with my own eyes a kind of domestic violence beyond the pale.

These were people who recognized the culture as being radically violent, and if they could not shift from the punishment mentality to restoration, they were going to blow up.

That was, in and of itself, a wow, a wait-a-second [moment]. This is about restoration.

On the last night, [when many of the others went to Paris], I went with Teny, [thinking] I had a whole night, I can pick his brain.

Teny wanted to go to a lecture at the University of Ulster by a guy named Donald Shriver, and he gave a speech [about restoration] that made me cry. I am not a crier. But I did go home and say: I wanted to do that.

I had been looking for a decade [for a way how best] to inform the mental health of kids and teachers at school so that everyone had better efficacy.

My thing is mental health; it’s just left off the table at every juncture.

[As part of] the function of being a professional, I don’t want you to bleed your feelings all over my meeting, don’t get me wrong. But to leave it out as radically as we have, it’s just bizarre. And it’s making everybody nuts.

I came back [to Rhode Island], writing a lot about restorative practices and restorative justice. And Dr. Fran Gallo called me up in 2008 and said: The stuff you’re writing about in The Journal, on restorative justice, can you do it here [in Central Falls]?

I said sure.

I was already getting trained up, because I was sick of writing, quite frankly. Because it felt like no matter how logical, how much data, no matter what you did, no one was listening.

You can stand there and be as articulate and smart and funny and everything else in the world, and it’s absolutely a black hole.

I was ready to get my hands dirty with this stuff, knowing that the only way to do it was actually to do it.

ConvergenceRI: What happened next?
We started, and I got [involved] with mediation and family group conferencing. I got involved with Vermont’s restorative system; Vermont has a restorative justice system, it started with kids and then went to adults.

Vermont now has [one of] the lowest [recidivism] rates for both juveniles and adults.

The training [in Vermont] was not fabulous. The training that I do now is a little bit from column A, some from column B.

The first thing I did when I came into Central Falls was that I was sympathetic to [the fact that] teachers don’t want to hear about kids lives if they can’t do anything about it.

They don’t want to hear: “The reason why I’m late is because my stepfather comes to me at night…”

OK, I needed, I knew, an immediate handoff.

So, I brought in family services and social services and developed in-school counseling.

ConvergenceRI: And how does the project work?
In restorative practices, we’ve got the same high expectations for everybody.

The punishment system is external: [it says that] we’re going to beat you or humiliate you or control you somehow into compliance. But compliance does not teach you these internal skills, to be able to do it right, on our own, for your own reasons.

Restorative practices work [on developing] the internal skills.

The grant is to build a conferencing system, so that between suspension and the cops, we’re building something in between.

ConvergenceRI: How much is the grant for, and for how long?
It’s for $3.68 million over a three-year period, by grant request. A third of the money goes to our data partners [for evaluation], because it’s a knowledge grant. Our data partners are The Providence Plan, locally, and the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., nationally.

ConvergenceRI: At the end of three years, what are you looking to have in place?
A family group conferencing system. [The model] was started in New Zealand. It’s now used internationally, everyone does it – except that very few people do it here [in the United States].

In New Zealand [and Australia, the work occurred kind of simultaneously]: instead of taking their kids and putting them in the pokey, they pulled together all the [people], whomever was around [the kids], and held a conference, talking to everyone involved, to figure out what was going on.

As a result, recidivism has dropped like a stone.

ConverenceRI: In 1976, I had the opportunity to interview Toni Morrison, right before The Song of Solomon was published, and I asked her about the violence in her books. Her response was that within the constructs of community, violence was often controlled. The community sets the limits on violence. And that violence often happened when the community broke down. Morrison also said: “Violence happens when you don’t feel the real emotion.”
Violence is frustrated attachment. I’ve been going with that since the 1990s. 

In restorative practices, there is a lot of emphasis in maintaining and building relationships, maintaining community. Where restorative practices have already entered [the society], historically, it is through the repairing of the heart, it turns to empathy.

Internationally, it’s been able to chew through social services, housing, it’s everything, at prison, with juvenile justice, with how to deal with chaotic families.

In American, that has not been the case.

I would argue that our individualism, the feeling that this is something we can do [on our own], is a very common thread.

As opposed to: I can’t do it, I need help – help-seeking behavior.

In the trauma-informed environment, which is the same as a restorative practices environment, we can’t be re-triggering the kids. Their water tables are completely full; it spills over.

[Dealing with that situation] is part of restoration. What’s going to help us get out of here? It requires lots of heavy lifting.

If we only focus on conferencing at the high end, kids who are about to go to the training school, kids who are about to go to the cops, we will get no results whatsoever.

We can teach restorative practices – the middle school and the high school [in Central Falls] has some very good people.

Everything in school has a layer of punishment. So, we’ve been, layer by layer, trying to remake [those layers]. The most obvious one is detention.

We have “after school” restoration conferences, with groups of 10. We ask them: Help me understand, why are you here? What was going on?

We find out what’s going on with the kids. And we help them to understand what’s going on with them. We ask: how do you think you can stay out of here?

With the ones that are frankly, higher capacity, we never see them again. With the ones that aren’t, we need to create a relationship with them.

ConvergenceRI: At AS220, at the entrance to the youth program, there is a painting on the wall that says: “Haterization gets no toleration.” Is that kind of public declaration helpful?
Restorative practices are always a big relief. [There is a realization that] this is good for everything, I can use this at home. Right, got it, you’re there.

ConvergenceRI: Perhaps the R.I. General Assembly needs to learn about it…
They’re not going to listen to me. I have to build a demonstration project. And a database, and figure out how to get enough results. Mostly, they’re not listening. Trust me, I wrote for The Journal for 22 years, they never called me on the phone and said: “What’s that?”

We don’t have 100 percent teacher buy-in by a long shot. The kids like the democracy, they like to be able to talk, and they like being treated with respect.

The teachers often feel that there are not consequences. Their vision of a consequence is external punishment. They want us to be much more hard on the kids.

We do call the cops. We do.

ConvergenceRI: How will this project change Central Falls?
Our scores, our attendance, things have been improving. There is some data that shows we are getting results. Until now, with this grant, there has not been enough bodies on the front lines to help with this.

ConvergenceRI: Are you now able to hire from the local community?
Yes. Right now we’re looking for an implementation director. We need to keep really good records, not just for results, but also for ourselves. How did it go? Are we getting the picture?

If we know there is a probation officer, we would call them up. There’s a lot of information. That’s the idea of convergence.

ConvergenceRI: How does this project fit into the new health clinic at the high school?
For the most part, our students’ parents in Central Falls have Neighborhood Health Plan of Rhode Island [through the managed Medicaid program], not exclusively.

Which is why the Blackstone Valley initiative means so much. I want to be able to hand off counseling.

ConvergenceRI: Can the youth restoration project in Central Falls be replicated elsewhere in Rhode Island? Are there opportunities for collaboration?
I already feel it is my personal job to try and re-engineer social health and educational services so that they work better for the kids. It’s a state of a million people. I can’t do all of this by myself.

In Hull, an English city where the shipping industry fell apart, there were three mini-[restorative] initiatives going on there, one in the high school, one in the elementary school, one in social services. And Nigel Richardson got the idea, what if we train all the town’s professionals?

Which [is what] they did – they trained some 23,000 people [who work with children and youth in social services] in restorative practices. I’m trying to figure out how to do that. It’s not rocket science. Hull’s social services [needs] dropped like a stone.

ConvergenceRI: How does this fit into a broader agenda for Rhode Island?
In Hull, they wanted to go further than restorative justice, they wanted a positive, and so they became a child-friendly city.

I’m meeting with mayor of Central Falls today, to see how the city can become a child-friendly city. I want to see Rhode Island become a child-friendly state, to put Rhode Island on the map.

It’s all part of the equation, it’s all about the kids. To have the public face of Rhode Island be child friendly.

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