Do Not Raise Your Hand: Restorative Justice in Community Agreements

‘To even begin to attack our destructive and punitive educational system, pedagogies that promote social justice must have teeth. They must move beyond feel-good language and gimmicks to help educators understand and recognize America and its schools as spaces of Whiteness, White rage, and White supremacy’ (Love, 2019, p. 13).

Imagine a learning environment, formal or informal, where youth come together to create agreements that build dialogue, respect, and accountability. The youth are active participants in shaping their learning experiences and co-creating a set of expectations that foster a safe and inclusive learning environment. In the co-creating, the youth feel empowered to take ownership of their education and actively participate in shaping the classroom culture. This is the building of Community Agreements.

This blog post is a call to action after our paper, ‘Do Not Raise Your Hand: Restorative Justice in Community Agreements’, for BAICE’s 2023 Annual Early Career conference, Transformative education as a force for change: reflections and experiences from around the world. We will expand on the Community Agreement practices for practitioners and researchers towards decolonising and youth community-centred approaches.

Our work as a practitioner and a researcher is alongside New York City youth. New York City is the largest school district in the United States. The public school student population is 85% students of the Global Majority. Youth face the harsh realities of the schooltoprison pipeline and policing in schools and their communities on an everyday basis. While many schools worldwide do not require students to go through metal detectors or have police examining and questioning students upon entry to the school, this is a reality for many students in New York City. New York City public schools remain some of the most segregated in the United States. Understanding the laws and policies through the lens of Critical Race Theory and Culturally Relevant practices is crucial (Crenshaw, 1988; Huber et al., 2024; LadsonBillings, 2021). By prioritising youth voices, fostering mutual respect, and embracing the ongoing journey of learning, we can advocate with youth for a learning environment transformed by restorative justice principles.

(Frey, 2023b)

What are Community Agreements: Initial Discussions

Community Agreements are learning environment agreements that formally and informally disrupt systems of oppression, re-imagine voice and participation, and are co-created through community and youth-led approaches. ‘Addressing a dehumanizing dominant narrative involves understanding’ (España & Herrera, 2020, p.116). The Community Agreements prioritise agreements in action by starting with a facilitated discussion of values and desired learning environment, including parameters for accountability. The discussion grounds youth in a journey of collective imagination that requires them to reflect on their core values (friendship, respect, knowledge) and how these core values impact their learning. This initial discussion builds a foundation of understanding that centres youth’s experiences and values by including their everyday experiences.

An initial discussion example: this is an excerpt from a student-led and co-created workshop on ‘Knowing Your Rights when Going through School Metal Detectors’:

‘Hey, Y’all, my name is *name*, and today our focus is on addressing and learning about the metal detectors on our campus. I’m excited for this discussion. This is a safe community space, and your ideas, thoughts and experiences are welcome! That being said, we want to make sure that we are able to have effective and fruitful discussions as a community around this topic where typically differing opinions arise. One way we can do that is through community agreements. Are there any agreements folks want to uplift in this space today? (Wassif, 2023) – Elizabeth Wassif, NYC public school student.

Through the discussion, key concepts are further broken down to help the youth understand concepts like ‘respect’. The youth explore what respect looks, feels, and sounds like in their cultures and backgrounds, fostering a common language for respectful interaction. Simultaneously, the conversation on the concept of ‘yet’ is acknowledged. Learning is a continuous process, and the Community Agreements focus on striving towards goals, with the understanding that mistakes are stepping stones on the path where we can lay tools alongside to guide us through accountability.

As the ideas for Community Agreements are created, some essential steps have been practical. In small groups, have youth…

  • think about how they operate in their communities.
  • think about their own needs within community spaces.
  • generate ideas about how they can contribute positively to their communities.
  • think about maximising and minimising their learning and the tools they use to mitigate that.

Beginning Community Agreements with the prompts above serve two functions. 

First, youth are challenged to be radically honest about their own conditioning and habits— thinking about their current reality and the collective reality they are intentionally building in this community. Furthermore, youth reflect on where their needs are met and where they must show up for this community. 

Secondly, youth are called to confront and explore what they know about themselves and their communities and then imagine the practical steps to move towards agreements specific to the group’s needs and responsive to the community’s vision for its time together. This work towards community and time-specific agreements helps to bypass more generic Community Agreements.

After discussing these prompts in smaller groups, youth come together as a whole group and present their thoughts; from there, a foundation is built that allows for an intentional and grounded process for generating Community Agreements.

Generating Community Agreements

Community Agreements are powerful tools for educators seeking to foster a more equitable and engaging learning environment. They establish a ‘collectiv[e] responsibl[ity] for addressing the issue[s]’ as they empower youth voices by co-creating learning engagement expectations centred on restorative justice (Emdin, 2016, p.73).

Agreements are brought up through suggestions, and each agreement is elaborated on in the following ways:

  • Checking for understanding: some agreements are stated in acronyms or are vague— being specific is crucial.
  • Checking for accountability: ‘How can we actively uphold this agreement in our space?’

The community of youth not only builds safe spaces for themselves but also challenges traditional power structures. ‘Educators and educational policy makers must build learning spaces that are responsive to trauma’ (Morris, 2019, p. 51). Community Agreement practice lends itself to disrupting traditional dynamics. Agreement Examples:

  • ‘Do Not Raise Your Hand’ challenges the traditional call-and-response system, dismantling the power imbalance between educators and youth. It fosters participation based on the desire to contribute meaningfully, not on being the fastest to raise a hand.
  • ‘Take Space, Leave Space’ challenges societal conditioning and breaks up formal and informal white supremacy structures in the learning environment. It encourages youth to become keenly aware of how much time and voice they are taking up in the community and to respect the need for others to contribute.
  • ‘One Mic’ is an active acknowledgement of who is speaking and calls community members in so every voice is heard and respected. When used in practice, it serves as a tool that youth can use for accountability without relying on a facilitator or ‘leader’, and the youth demonstrate the practice of investment in their community and their agreements.
(Frey, 2023a)

Community Agreements as Living Documents:

Community Agreements are living documents and are revisited to ensure they reflect the evolving needs of the community rooted in an environment of compassion, dialogue, and accountability. Furthermore, youth are pushed to envision this community, our society, and its potential. These agreements are not set in stone. This practice reinforces the evolving need for a learning environment to be a dynamic space that thrives on collaboration.

Thank you to the BAICE community and the BAICE student representatives for this opportunity to share the practice of Community Agreements. Thank you to the youth, our change-makers, who we walk along with in solidarity through actions of justice.

References: 

Crenshaw, K. (1988). Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law. Harvard Law Review, 101(7), 1331–1387.

Emdin, C. (2016). For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education. Beacon Press.

España, C., & Herrera, L. Y. (2020). En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students. Heinemann.

Frey, T. (2023a). Creating Community Agreements [Photograph].

Frey, T. (2023b). Community Agreements as Living Documents [Photograph].

Huber, L. P., Vélez, V. N., & Malagón, M. C. (2024). Charting methodological imaginaries: Critical Race

Feminista Methodologies in educational research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2024.2318296

Ladson-Billings, G. (2021). Beyond Beats, Rhymes, & Beyoncè: Hip Hop, Hip Hop Education, and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. In Culturally relevant pedagogy: asking a different question. (pp. 151–164). Teachers College Press.

Love, B. (2019). We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.

Morris, M. W. (2019). Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues: Liberatory Education for Black and Brown Girls.

Wassif, E. (2023). Know Your Rights: Metal Detectors Workshop.

Authors

  • Divine Soona Gertrude Ndombo

    Divine Soona Gertrude Ndombo is a Cameroonian-Congolese immigrant and self-proclaimed Harlemite. Her introduction to social justice began in an afterschool program at her middle school called GirlsTalk/GuysTalk. With its center on community building and youth empowerment, it planted a seed of love for social justice that has only grown over the past 10 years. This passion has been further cultivated in her experience at YVote and the YA-YA Network, both youth-led organizations. Divine is now an alumnus who continues to provide her knowledge, enthusiasm, and leadership. Currently, she is the Director of Youth Development at The YA-YA Network, primarily running the Empower Fellowship Program. Beyond education justice, Divine is passionate about addressing the disparities of black migrants, especially undocumented students within the education system. She builds on this work through her advocacy with BAJI and her self-directed research that interrogates the erasure of Black migrants both within immigrant justice movements and our society broadly. Outside of these endeavors, she is also an entrepreneur, a singer-songwriter, and an alumnus of City College University. She double majored in Political Science and International Studies and minored in Human Rights.

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  • Theresa Frey

    Theresa L. Frey is a PhD candidate in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at the University of East Anglia, UK. Theresa’s PhD research focuses on the anti-racist practices of student activists in education in New York City, United States, through ethnography and youth-led participatory action approaches. Currently, Theresa is interested in how student activists are challenging damaging colonial practices in education, including the policing in schools, which includes the school-to-prison[deportation] pipeline. Previous research has focused on access to education in formal and informal refugee camps in Jordan, Greece and Italy. Theresa has over 20 years of higher education and international non-profit experience, including director of education abroad, a teacher for refugee children, international faculty director, art-based learning for children who have experienced trauma, and international prestigious fellowships advisor. Outside academic work, Theresa can be found reading bell hooks (goal 2024 to complete the bell hooks’ oeuvre), laughing and storytelling while observing nature with family and community.

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