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Penn State’s Students’ Restorative Justice Initiative Flourishes With Open Dialogue

Social justice and restorative change at Penn State are topics that students continuously fight for. That’s why the Students’ Restorative Justice Initiative (sRJI) is available for students throughout University Park.

As an expansion of Penn State’s Restorative Justice Initiative, sRJI is the first of its kind in the educational environment. The organization is “primarily a student group committed to advocacy around justice-impacted people, especially through education.”

SRJI stems from RJI, which is made up of Penn State students, faculty, staff, and community members.

A specific initiative it has is teaching in carceral facilities and hosting a program titled Rising Scholars, where formerly incarcerated individuals come to Penn State and experience a day in the life as a college student. SRJI has the chance to participate in a fellowship program to meet and listen to Rising Scholar participants and their stories.

Due to sRJI’s involvement in justice equity, it’s supportive of downtown and on-campus efforts, outreach, and awareness. For its own events, sRJI hosts restorative circles and speakers while providing educational material of its own on social justice matters. SRJI also offers material support for individuals.

“[SRJI] is creating those spaces where we can give students the chance to be heard but also feel empowered,” sRJI President Jada Okundaye said. “I feel like that’s something that gets lost in the work we do.”

Okundaye attends Penn State as a senior social and health policy major while earning a minor in social justice and education. During Okundaye’s time in State College, she recognized there was still room for more vital social justice dialogue. That’s when she helped lead the organization alongside senior Vice President Maggie Bond.

In years prior, sRJI was focused on system-impacted individuals. During this school year, sRJI is “broadening the outreach.” SRJI is determined to hear voices from all marginalized communities, urging that the communities are supported.

“Some of our outreach now looks like supporting Centre Safe with the hygiene drive, but also doing juvenile justice awareness through social media campaigns,” Okundaye said. “[SRJI] used to be more centered and focused, but that puts a limit on the projects we could do and the goals we want to achieve.”

In continuous efforts to broaden conversations, sRJI recently paired up with the Gender Equity Center for a consent restorative forum. In all, its goal is to be more reachable to students and bring it back to the student’s perspective.

Although the goal is to open the perspective, sRJI recognizes the need to support all individuals impacted by different systems.

“We forget to humanize a lot of people that do get impacted by the system. When they do get thrown into the system at such young ages, they get stripped away of the chances of being able to come into a college campus and have those community conversations,” Okundaye said.

Currently, sRJI is leaning toward the usage of the word “transformative” in place of “restorative” to look at individual stories in a more hopeful light.

Because sRJI is student-run, it’s currently working on new and different fundraisers because it’s more student-centered. For now, sRJI is working on expanding its restorative circles.

“Restorative practices in general are based on Indigenous philosophies of when harm occurs in a community or if something goes wrong. It’s more about like bringing someone back into the community and what needs to happen for everyone to move forward,” Bond said. “And it’s a sort of a different way of thinking about harm than we usually have in like a system that’s very carceral and very much like punishment.”

Based on this process, sRJI trained individuals in December 2020 in facilitating restorative circles and practices. Students and facilitators will sit in a circle, discuss the general rules of the meeting, and establish how everyone can be comfortable.

As of now, sRJI is determined to train other individuals to be house facilitators. With specific facilitators, they strive to incorporate a conference at a higher level.

The circles themselves create spaces for dialogue around complex or controversial issues that students might not have the chance or space to talk about or feel comfortable bringing up in other settings. Examples of these discussions are abortion, racial justice, religion, consent, academic burnout, free speech, and perfectionism.

“Even if we do have controversial opinions and don’t agree, I feel like when we do have the chance for community dialogue, at the end of it, we realize that we have the same goal in mind,” Okundaye said. “That’s what restorative circles are really about. Trying to see how we can bridge those gaps and have those conversations so that we can reach that goal.”

To get involved with sRJI, you “just need to be passionate” and have a want to know more about the State College community and its commonwealth. Any student can join and there are no requirements. Students from different backgrounds and majors are currently involved with the “common idea that all students should be heard and treated as equals.”

You can keep up with sRJI’s posts on Instagram and restorative circles every Tuesday.

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About the Author

Larkin Richards

Larkin is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. The only words that leave her mouth are "yinz" and "dippy eggs." Luckily, her writing has much more substance than that. As a Steelers and Pirates fan, sports can become a hot debate. Share your thoughts on dogs (specifically Boston Terriers) with her at: [email protected]

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