Reflections on the Square One Roundtable

Reflections from the two-and-a-half-day Square One Project Roundtable in Detroit.

Activists, community members, and academics sit around a large table with a video equipment around them and a microphone in the middle.

By Aliya Brown

I recently had the opportunity to attend The Square One Roundtable on the Future of Justice Policy: "Examining Violence in the United States: Implications for Justice Policy and Practice," in Detroit. The Square One Project, in partnership with the Detroit Justice Center, hosted its third roundtable at the Wayne State University Student Center from October 10th - 12th, 2019. It was a public event, open to in-person observers like me, live-streamed and recorded for audiences near and far.

The roundtable included a comprehensive agenda with rich and at times painful discussions on violence. It featured a powerful mix of researchers, activists, historians, professionals, survivors of violence and leaders in the restorative justice movement. Following the day-long discussions, post-roundtable receptions uplifted young adult poets and featured a panel discussion on the role of art in justice and healing.

The event included raw storytelling and a robust dialogue. Roundtable participants passionately debated issues surrounding power, racism, equality, classism, gender and more. There were moments of immense vulnerability, deep reflection, and key breakthroughs. There was also an intentional focus on efforts to reduce violence in Detroit during Day Two, where local activists, civil servants and experts in the field from across the country were invited to share more about existing initiatives, and ways to sustain them for the long haul.

While there were many crucial learnings from the Roundtable, I'd like to focus on just a few major takeaways:

  • Language was a recurring theme throughout the duration of the roundtable. Roundtable participants passionately challenged each other to attend to and shift their use of language. For example, communities with high levels of violent crime are often framed as "low-income," "oppressed," "disadvantaged," or "underserved." People with lived experience and boots on the ground rarely describe themselves as such, and instead recognize themselves and others as assets to the community, with unprecedented human capital, brilliance, conviction, and power. While at the start of the roundtable, participants used a wide variety of terms, by the end of the last day, everyone had begun using "people-first" language to describe living, breathing people, and their communities.
  • Hyper-local leadership and empowering communities to develop and implement solutions to address their own challenges – as opposed to solely relying on the state – was also a recurring theme. During the roundtable, there were clear moments of disagreement about whose responsibility it is, or who is able to rectify the disadvantages that white supremacy has caused many communities. Participants, many with deep skepticism, discussed a variety of ways the state might be an agent for positive change. On one hand, that might look like electing progressive District Attorneys across the country. On the other hand, it could require that state and federal government allocate desperately needed resources to organizations and activists doing violence intervention and restorative justice work on the ground. Regardless of the form, the work takes, participants agreed that it should invariably include authorship and credit to leaders and people with lived experience in communities, rather than the too-common practice of communities solely serving as case studies and interviewees for data points and reports. Uplifting and supporting activists and leaders on the frontline must be a priority for government, in academia and in philanthropy.
  • Healing was perhaps the most essential ingredient to the roundtable's conversation about responses to violence. The sound of roundtable participants and observers shouting "Everybody Hurts" during Day Three, as the mother of a murdered son asked the group to do, still rings clearly. "We can't heal what we can't confront," her other call to the group, was salient. Roundtable participants and observers were challenged to grapple with what it means to be in the movement to address violence and preach healing, all the while too often being unhealed from loss and trauma ourselves. We listened to stories of resilience from roundtable participants who survived violence or caused harm as children and young adults. We heard the chilling account of a participant who survived being shot at seven times while conducting outreach work in one of the very neighborhoods he serves, and how the aftermath of that experience affected him. We bore witness to the agonizing grief that a mother who lost her son to violence still carries with her, and the ways in which that pain shows up in her work of supporting other mothers who are experiencing familiar trauma and loss. By the end of the event, we had a deeper understanding of her exercise's opening statement: "Everybody hurts, hold on. We can't heal what we can't confront." I can say with confidence that there is something therapeutic, healing and comforting in and of itself in being able to express your pain and be heard. The exercise on healing further affirmed the need to center survivors and their loved ones in this work, because without doing so, we fail to create the opportunity for survivors and their families to meet the demands of their own healing as they deem fit.

Like others, I certainly look forward to reading the full report, and to be a part of future roundtables. I also look forward to incorporating some of the learnings from the roundtable into my everyday work. The depth of knowledge around the table was invigorating. I liken the experience to a flower growing towards the sun: warm, brilliant, and sometimes blisteringly painful when things get hot but necessary to grow and stretch to new heights that would have otherwise been impossible.