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Restorative Lifestyle: A Conversation with AnnMarie Brown of Circles & Ciphers

IMAGE: A black and white photo of AnnMarie Brown in conversation with three teaching artists from Circles & Ciphers. One of the artists points towards the others from out of the right frame of while AnnMarie and the two other artists look in their direction.

Between August 22nd and 24th, several practitioners came together for Restorative Justice Summit 2018 to hold generative conversations about the meanings and shared narrative they locate within their work. One year into North Lawndale’s pilot of the Restorative Justice Community Community Court, we see these practices deployed in schools, correctional facilities, court systems, and community organizations throughout the city. All of these spaces hold their own internal relational dynamics which affect how restorative justice looks on the ground.

In the Restorative Justice Community Court of North Lawndale, the practice looks like peace circles made available to non-violent defendants as an alternative to the harsh sentencing guidelines of Cook County Criminal Court. During their City Bureau Public Newsroom presentation,  Jenny Casas and Sarah Conway made clear that this is not a process designed to release the defendant from consequences or grant them full autonomy. Failing to keep the agreements made in the Community Court will mean a return to the Criminal Court. AnnMarie Brown of Circles & Ciphers prefers to view restorative justice through the lens of lifestyle and choice.

This past May, Circles & Ciphers hosted a culminating event for the first session of Envisioning Justice entitled “Harambee” which translates as “Let’s pull together” in Swahili. The event exposed participants to breakdancing, experimental hip hop production, community graffiti station, and those teaching artists at Circles & Ciphers responsible for planning the event. AnnMarie Brown and I had an opportunity to sit down for a conversation to unpack her relationship with the organization, thoughts on mass incarceration, how restorative practices can rebuild community, and why we must let the youth lead now.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mike Strode: What is your role within the Envisioning Justice project?

AnnMarie Brown: I’ll give a little background first about how I got here. I worked for Circles & Ciphers over the summer as a program advisor. We worked with One Summer Chicago to have young men do internships around the community and they had circles they had to come to here [United Church of Rogers Park]. I was responsible for getting some of the kids to their internship. One of their internships was at the antique store on Jarvis [Lakeside Treasures] with an amazing woman named Betty. I had them go help her out with anything she needed and they also got to work on their own projects. That’s how I started. [After graduating from college], I didn’t want to work for corporate America which is the story of a lot of people. So I came here again, and Emmanuel [Andre] said, “Hey, I have a job opportunity for you.” That’s how I got into Envisioning Justice. I am the Hub Director for EJ and I work to make sure communication is going good with Illinois Humanities and Circles & Ciphers and try to develop these programs – not develop them, because I don’t develop them, artists do – but try to facilitate them to help make sure they go smoothly and they have all the tools they need to function.

IMAGE: AnnMarie Brown is seated during our interview wearing a white Polo baseball cap, white shirt, and red shorts. She is using her hands to emphasize a point during the interview.

Image: AnnMarie Brown speaking during our interview wearing a white Polo baseball cap, white shirt, and metal-framed eyeglasses. Photo by Edvetté Wilson Jones.

MS: What was the initial attracting force that drew you into that program development role at Circles & Ciphers? How did you come to that space?

AMB: Over the summer, my sister who was recently incarcerated got out and was offered an opportunity to come to the Women of Color circle to talk about her story in that environment. And she wanted support. So I went with her and had my first circle. Since then it has attracted me. It is extremely interesting learning about this whole restorative justice world. I don’t think it has a true definition, but it is defined in different ways depending on where you are.

IMAGE: AnnMarie Brown stands at the left side of a whiteboard displaying a floor plan for the United Church of Rogers Park auditorium during a planning meeting for Envisioning Justice wearing a black shirt and burgundy pants. To her right sits resident writer, Mike Strode. To her left sits Circles & Ciphers co-director, Emmanuel Andre.

Image: AnnMarie Brown stands at the left side of a whiteboard displaying a floor plan for the United Church of Rogers Park auditorium during a planning meeting for Envisioning Justice. To her right sits resident writer, Mike Strode. To her left sits Circles & Ciphers co-director, Emmanuel Andre. Photo by Edvetté Wilson Jones.

MS: That leads to me ask how you think about restorative justice in the way that you practice it? Because I agree it has been a very squishy term.

AMB: I know my initial reaction to it was, “How does this work? How is this supposed to change what we have now?” Because I didn’t know there was an outside solution that was like restorative justice. Now I think restorative justice is more a way of life. When you live in a restorative way, it’s like a healing. So when trauma does happen, how do you have a response to it that is not necessarily positive but that is healing, instead of responding in a way that does damage to yourself and others. I think restorative is a way of life.

IMAGE: AnnMarie Brown stands in front of a garden area near the entrance of United Church of Rogers Park. She is staring at the camera with arms slightly folded wearing a yellow shirt with a red rose imprint on the front.

Image: AnnMarie Brown stands in front of a garden area near the entrance of United Church of Rogers Park. She is staring into the camera with arms slightly folded, wearing a yellow shirt with a red rose printed on the front. Photo by Edvetté Wilson Jones.

MS: Before your sister was faced with incarceration, had other family members or people in your circle experienced that?

AMB: Weirdly enough, not really. Growing up, a lot of people in my family were never incarcerated. But that experience [with my sister] was extremely heavy and impactful on me because it was her and her boyfriend at the time. They both got incarcerated together. I was fairly close with both individuals. At that instant, that’s when I felt the real, concrete impact of incarceration. I think, now that they’re not incarcerated, what I want to do is figure out how I’m still connected to it without directly experiencing it – because we all are. But it’s trying to get a deeper understanding of how, and why things are the way they are.

MS: My brother was incarcerated when I was about 14 years old for a period of 18 months. I’ve had an interesting relationship with the justice system with no direct adverse interactions, but I felt the impact through others. Have you faced any direct engagement with these systems? Or has it been this sort of secondary impact?

AMB: So I remember around 2 years ago, we were leaving the club – it was me and three other friends – we were just walking back to the car, and one of my friends stops to tie her shoe, and I kind of heard her screaming. Right as I turned around, there was somebody, they had a gun and they had it at her head, and they were basically robbing her. Everything was going so fast in that instant – he basically held us all at gunpoint. They stole our stuff. Luckily, I had the quick instinct to throw the keys and my wallet under the car because I’ve been trained. After the whole incident, everyone’s response was just in shock. No one knew what to do. Someone called their mom, who told them, “Just call the police, they’ll help!” In my mind I’m thinking, this is not going to do anything. She calls the police anyway, and they didn’t do anything. All they asked was, “Oh, what items did they steal?” They couldn’t do anything, which I knew, but just having the feeling that there’s this system of people that are put in place who are supposed to protect you, and solve or reconcile things that happen – and they don’t. That was my most direct involvement with the police and law enforcement. In that situation they didn’t do much. And I always ask myself why? What is the reason for that? Do they just have too much on their plate? They can’t answer to our needs? What’s a robbery compared to some of the other things they’re dealing with…is that why? Do they also not care? Is the system just broken? A lot of questions going through my mind, and I didn’t really have a solution at that point.

IMAGE: AnnMarie Brown sits on a stairwell outside of United Church of Rogers Park with a child seated on her lap and another standing a short distance away.

Image: AnnMarie Brown sits on a stairwell outside of United Church of Rogers Park with a child seated on her lap and another standing a short distance away. Photo by Edvetté Wilson Jones.

MS: When I think about Circles & Ciphers and restorative justice practice, I think about developing these parallel structures that are trying to shift the focus away from existing structures. Maybe thinking about that interaction with the police, have you ever envisioned alternatives to the ways we do policing, in terms of community? Have you ever had thoughts or conversations around community police forces? As circles are a different way of mending relationships, what are other ways that you have thought of community protection?

AMB: I would say yes, thought of – but I don’t know what is the right way. That’s what’s sort of hard about restorative justice. This is a solution that I’ve seen many people do, and it has solved a lot of conflict, but there’s a lot of outside forces that you can’t control. Like environment. Otherwise, I’ve seen community policing where it’s like police have a relationship with people in the community so you’d have better trust with someone that you know versus someone that’s supposed to protect you but that you don’t know. I’ve never seen it personally with me, so I don’t know if that works. Personally, I don’t think so, because you’re still under the law, and you’re still responsible to do a certain thing. And then there’s just community in general. I remember growing up, there were people in my neighborhood who were responsible for me, not necessarily just my parents. Like if they saw I was walking down the block and I was going a little too far, they’d say, ‘Hey!’ Just community in general being responsible not just for their families but families that are around them. I’ve seen that as well, in a lot of situations. Or if they see a fight that’s going on, they’ll break it up, even if it’s not their kids. I’ve seen that too. I think those are the only two ways I’ve really seen that.

MS: So we talked for just a moment about personal experiences with incarceration, but when you hear this term ‘mass incarceration’ – what does that make you think of and how does that make you feel? What kind of response wells up in you when you hear that phrase ‘mass incarceration’?

AMB: I was re-watching the movie “13th” yesterday, and it awoke a lot of thoughts I’ve always been thinking about, and that I heard the first time in that movie. But when I think of mass incarceration, I think of the enslavement of our people. So, it’s not slavery like what we would see 100 years ago, but it’s still the same thing. I remember in the movie they talked about the idea of crack, and how that epidemic was put into a lot of poor communities. And then, when they said ‘Say No to Drugs,’ a lot of people who started getting arrested were black boys. That’s another type of enslavement. They purposefully say ‘Say No to Drugs;’ well, if most of the drugs are happening in these poor communities, then those are the people you’re targeting. Mass incarceration is the increasingly large amount of young, black and brown, males and females that are suddenly being jailed. And the hard part is that, after that, it’s the aftereffects that hurt. So when they get out, it’s hard to get a job, it’s hard to do certain things, like get a background check and work with children. It’s hard to live an afterlife after you’ve been incarcerated. It’s not just that people are in jail, but on the outside people are still feeling those same effects and we do everyday. The idea of electric monitoring – when you’re in your house. The father of my sister’s kids, he’s currently on the monitor and I still think he’s in jail because he can’t do anything. He can’t go anywhere, he can’t get a job to provide for his kids, he can’t begin to grow himself and community because he can’t be in a community. Because he’s labeled as this monster, this danger to society – when he’s a great father that is continuously growing. He loves his kids, he cuddles them, he has high respect for my mother and it isn’t his mother. You label these people as monsters and you don’t put them out in society but they can’t grow and change if they aren’t. So you continuously keep them enslaved by doing things like electronic monitors, and having parole where you still have minimal amount of ability to move and go places, but you’re still stopped from going places or doing something. Mass incarceration is the exact definition of it, is being in jail, in the jail system – but it’s the outside, too.

IMAGE: AnnMarie Brown stands in front of a garden area near the entrance of United Church of Rogers Park. She is staring away from the camera with arms slightly folded wearing a yellow shirt with a red rose imprint on the front.

Image: AnnMarie Brown stands in front of a garden area near the entrance of United Church of Rogers Park. She is looking beyond the camera with arms slightly folded wearing a yellow shirt with a red rose printed on the front. Photo by Edvetté Wilson Jones.

MS: I know that Circles & Ciphers is a prison abolitionist space. We’ve recently seen in Lawndale peace circles and restorative justice practice being incorporated into a court system. Do you have any thoughts in terms of the relationship between that practice and this other part of the state?

AMB: I definitely appreciate lawmakers and people that are in the justice system trying to have a different perspective on what should be done versus just throwing someone in jail without having any rehabilitation. So I appreciate it, but I still think that the whole – I won’t say it’s failed, because there are organizations going into the system and trying to have that as an option and bring them out. But I still think that process shouldn’t be run through the justice system because it’s inorganic. When I see individuals from Lawrence Hall [transitional living facility in Ravenswood], they don’t come in here because they’re forced to, they come in here because they want to change. Forcing someone to think restoratively isn’t going to change the problem. If you’re forcing someone and say “you need to join this circle,” or “you need to do this restorative organization, because it’ll help heal you,” it’s hard, because what if someone is not ready for that? The process seems inorganic when implementing it in the criminal justice system, but I do appreciate it and it’s a start to change, it’s a start to a better solution. But I think there’s a greater impact in meeting them at their level, so when you see a boy just walking on the street or that’s always walking up and down the street just hanging out on the street – just talking to him, getting a feel for where he’s at. And then when he’s comfortable, him coming into the space. Then I think that’s more impactful than giving someone a forced alternative, like you have to do this restorative justice alternative because that’s a better solution. It’s a hard line to balance, but I’ve seen it work when it’s not forced.

MS: Talk about how you see the Circles & Ciphers process, restorative justice practice, peace circles, disrupting the interaction of young people with the carceral state. Maybe they come in here after or before an interaction – how do you see the programs in place here as disrupting their further engagement with the justice system?

AMB: I was talking to a professor yesterday, and we were talking about the idea of conflict resolution. We were saying, let’s say Hannah and Sara got into a fight. You say, “Okay, we’re a restorative justice organization that does conflict resolution, let’s resolve their problem, let’s see where they’re at.” So, you do that process of conflict resolution, and then let’s say the Circle Keeper has an amazing feeling after all that – they restored this conflict, now they can live leveled and continue to grow their relationship. Seven hours later, Hannah and Sara are fighting again. So, that’s that forced mindset that the circles going to solve history or trauma that’s been done for 5, 10 years. I think doing one circle in trying to resolve a conflict is great, but then the restorative process should be continued healing, versus just doing one circle and feeling like that’s going to change that entire relationship. If someone has had trauma their whole life, one circle isn’t going to do it. It has to be a circle and then it has to be some type of healing process after that. So, that’s where I think restorative healing gets difficult. Because if we do these conflict resolutions, it doesn’t necessarily resolve trauma and horror that’s built over decades. I think that’s where it disrupts.

IMAGE: AnnMarie Brown is seated during our interview wearing a white Polo baseball cap, white shirt, and red shorts. She is using her hands to emphasize a point during the interview.

Image: AnnMarie Brown is seated during our interview wearing a white Polo baseball cap, white shirt, and metal-framed eyeglasses. She is using her hands to emphasize a point. Photo by Edvetté Wilson Jones.

MS: So then coming to this phrase of “envisioning justice,” one of the things Illinois Humanities talks about it is trying to figure out what the future of justice looks like. What’s your vision of a more just and liberated future, a more equitable justice system?

AMB: Ideally, despite what I said about conflict resolution, I still think it’s great. So when people do have conflict in the community, instead of calling the police, doing the opposite and calling an organization or group of people that are circle-trained, who then can go to that person’s location right away and try to resolve the conflict there. I think initial conflict resolution is healthy, instead of calling the police, which usually makes the conflict even worse. That’s one thing I see. Two, I see places like Circles & Ciphers everywhere, trying to build relationships with young people in the community because they are the future, and to support and listen to them, because I don’t think we do that all the time. I think, also, it’s young people that have been harmed trying to be the leaders of our community. I see that all the time at Circles & Ciphers. This guy who has been heavily into gang violence and he had a lot of conflict in the community. But now he’s seen as one of the leaders of Circles & Ciphers where he’s helping young brothers that was just like him heal and try and find different outlets wherever they are that are not necessarily dangerous or harmful to themselves or others. But also, kind of giving them an understanding that it’s not all their faults, there’s a lot of conflict and trauma that has formed or shaped the livelihood of where they are now. But I don’t think I have the exact solution. It’s great that huge organizations like Illinois Humanities, they’ve realized it’s an issue they’re trying to fix. They’re trying to get these communities that are doing the groundwork already, and kind of developing them and supporting them. And that’s a beautiful thing.

MS: I think we gave a short shrift to the fact that this is a hip hop-infused space – what’s your perspective in terms of the way that hip hop is incorporated with this restorative justice practice, with the circle space, with the lives of young people?

AMB: I think directly, with all the elements – when you have the MC, the person that’s kind of rocking the crowd, that’s the circle keeper, that’s the person that keeps the circle going. MC and DJ, there’s usually two circle keepers in the space, and they’re kind of going off each other. And with graffiti – there’s a lot of art that goes into restorative justice circles. When you’re doing circles, you can have art that you draw that reflects how you feel. We had an art event recently with Molly Castillo that represented freedom. So art is a huge part, and that’s the graffiti portion of it, the beautification of communities that we have. The dance, the b-boying – I think the ability to create movement that is a direct reflection of how you feel is amazing. And that’s a talent. I don’t know if you necessarily do it in circles, but even some of the icebreakers we do [include] movement of your body. And then the knowledge of self. The knowledge of self is what the peace circles bring within us. So the knowledge of self, and then the idea of healing our thoughts and our trauma. All of that plays into knowledge of who we are. I think the five elements definitely reflect circle keeping and restorative justice directly and what that looks like. Indirectly, just the freedom of expression through art heals a lot of things, it heals a lot of people. The reason someone may dance could be because that’s their happy place, so that’s healing in a restorative way, that’s healthy. Art, for me personally, has always been that too. I remember when I would get upset, or when I was younger I would be mad and I couldn’t go anywhere because my parents were like, “no, you can’t go anywhere,” so I would just sit and I would draw. That was my healing. I did a lot of graffiti, so I would just do a lot of graffiti of different words that I felt. So that was my freedom of expression, and that was healing for me. And that was healthy. I think hip hop is amazing and it’s essential that we understand that it’s just bigger than rapper, MC, and DJs, the connection of that. Healthy lifestyle and livelihood, healthy thinking, and then how do you portray that in an artistic way. Hip hop is beautiful.

IMAGE: AnnMarie Brown sits on a stairwell outside of United Church of Rogers Park with a child seated on her lap and another standing a short distance away.

Image: AnnMarie Brown sits on a stairwell outside of United Church of Rogers Park with a child seated on her lap and another standing nearby. Photo by Edvetté Wilson Jones.

MS: Indeed. One last question. Referring back to your vision of Circles & Ciphers being everywhere, I’ve been thinking a lot about Adrienne Maree Brown’s text “Emergent Strategy” which talks about organizing community institutions that are decentralized but interlinked. They are decentralized because they have their own unique identities and power dynamics. They are interlinked because they have the capacity to support one another and exchange resources. If there was maybe one component that you could transmit to all the other interlinking hubs participating in Envisioning Justice, what is the one idea that you would want people to take away from this space?

AMB: I guess it would be the power of young people that are harmed to be the ones that create change. So with Circles & Ciphers, I think what we do great is our young people lead everything. We really don’t lead anything. So it’s the idea of, even when they’re playing Uzi or G Herbo, they’re trying to say something. But we have to listen. Some people are like, “Man, G Herbo, or Chicago rappers, they’re just talking about trap music, that’s not valuable, that’s actually harming our communities.” But, if you listen to the song called “Malcolm” by G Herbo, he tells you exactly what he’s feeling; exactly how someone can be born into a society where they really have no other choices. So I think the point is that we take the time to listen to them. And once we do that, help them grow. Young people are the leaders. They are the leaders of the community. They can be the leaders of space – even the ones you maybe think can’t. They definitely are the leaders and we just have to listen.

IMAGE: AnnMarie Brown stands to the left of Envisioning Justice Artistic Project Manager during Circles & Ciphers Harambee event in May. AnnMarie Brown wears a polka dot button down shirt with a blue t-shirt, black pants, and brown dress shoes. Onyx Mandelbrot wears a camouflage baseball cap, camouflage jacket, blue jeans, and blue sneakers.

Image: AnnMarie Brown stands next to Onyx Mandelbrot, Envisioning Justice Artistic Project Manager, during Circles & Ciphers Harambee event in May. Photo by Edvetté Wilson Jones.

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This article is published as part of Envisioning Justice, a 19-month initiative presented by Illinois Humanities that looks into how Chicagoans and Chicago artists respond to the the impact of incarceration in local communities and how the arts and humanities are used to devise strategies for lessening this impact.

Featured Image: A black and white photo of AnnMarie Brown in conversation with three teaching artists from Circles & Ciphers. One of the artists points towards the others from out of the right frame of while AnnMarie and the two other artists look in their direction. Photo by Edvetté Wilson Jones.

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DSC_6268Mike Strode is a writer, cyclist, IT consultant, and collaborative social economist residing in southeast Chicago whose community engagement work has included ride leadership with the Chicago chapter of Red, Bike & Green; editorial and archival oversight for Fultonia; and co-facilitation of Art Is Bonfire. His current practice draws on all of these experiences to interrogate the intersection of timebanking, social economy and community resiliency. His grounding philosophy is mycelium, collaborative agility, empathic individualization, and all things human glue. He is founder and Exchange Coordinator of the Kola Nut Collaborative, a time-based skills and service trading platform which seeks to advance conversation on timebanking, community currency design, and social economy in Chicago. The Kola Nut Collaborative maintains a robust web presence with articles, programming, and research on myriad aspects of social economy.