October 9, 2013 | Claire Glass, Truthout

Chicago Students Build Safe Space, Practice Restorative Justice

When people ask Elma Dzanic what she does for living, she says her answer – she's a Restorative Justice Specialist – gives most people pause. She does her work for Umoja, an organization that's been working with high school-age kids in Chicago's South Side since 1997. With in-school programming and a six-week summer internship called Community Builders, Umoja teaches students to define and create safe spaces in a society that condones and normalizes the violence in their communities. The staff also directly addresses conflict as it arises in the school, working with students through restorative justice: restoring broken relationships, building new ones, repairing harm and providing resources to support those involved in conflict.

“I grew up in Bosnia as a refugee after the war," Dzanic said. "I know why this work matters from my own experience. You don't have to go to post-conflict zones to see it – you just have to come down here. These kids get stuck in survival mentality.”

Indeed, the death toll in Chicago outpaced that of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in the summer of 2012. Dzanic told Truthout about watching one of her students walk to the Community Builders meeting space at North Lawndale College Prep one morning from her car, when she was stuck in traffic. She said he was looking over his shoulders with nearly every step.

“They're thinking, how do I survive to see the next day?” she said. “That's why we're here – trying to get them to see past today. Think past today, next week, and ask where do you want to go, who do you want to be? We're here to help them access that. We're helping them envision the future.”

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