Imagining Circles and Spaces for Reassessment

Most recently, I had the joy of being in a Restorative Justice (RJ) Imagination & Practice Space hosted by Project NIA that allowed me to better understand the praxis of abolition. I attended this training to also practice discussing how BYP100s de-escalation training fits within larger safety and transformative justice (TJ) discourse. The trainings we lead are adapted bystander intervention trainings developed in part with CASS (Collective Action for Safe Spaces; DC) to focus on interacting with patriarchal violence in environments that may test your personal and physical boundaries. In a larger scale of TJ, I consider de-escalation training as a way to build up our social skills to prevent harm that is predicated in imbalanced power dynamics held up by social markers of identity. That is, we are preparing to identify and stand with someone when we notice they are vulnerable.

The main action of RJ that we focused on in the training was practical application of a “circle” to readdress and develop values and community agreements. Jodie and Bijon, who lead the training, discussed the circle being developed in indigenous cultures to address conflict. It serves to hold a delicate time for people to readdress their aspirations in community. Presenting to a circle is something that is not accidental or taken lightly, and often requires deep preparation on behalf of all the participants. The circle is a crucial moment in situations where harm has already happened and requires the dedication of members to continue addressing the hopes, actions, and reactions the circle contained even after it is done.

After considering how circles are foundational in my own teaching style in contemporary dance, I was reminded of Paolo Freire’s culture circles which provide circles as a way to embody dialogic problem solving. I placed this alongside of ciphers in hip-hop culture which provides time for everyone to work out their inspirations and concerns in real time through movement in a large dance circle (this is, importantly, not always equate to a “dance battle”). What struck me so plainly is the use of a physical formation to encourage participants to reassess the power dynamics. Although these spaces are not designed to directly address harm and change, it makes me take a step back to consider how pervasive the need to have genuine sharing spaces are and how movement can be a gateway to bringing people together.

Further, my project makes me consider how the art I produce (dance and intentional embodiment) can be used to activate spaces in a way that directly addresses structures of power at play which may cause patriarchal violence. As such, this training provided a moment for me to consider which tools I have to encourage an open circle feeling. This seems particularly pertinent in a time where Americans in the US are physically distanced, and we need clearer intention with how we gather online as we have limited capacity to do so. The formation these spaces digitally presents as an important question that I had following the Imagination & Practice Space.

To reassess how this has happened in the Triangle area seems pertinent for this project, because the clarity of the Imagination & Practice Space encouraged me to be more specific about how trainings are people centered. Previous de-escalation trainings were taught to very diverse groups like election poll workers and volunteers who may only share space for a few hours during an election. Ideally, we would bring intentionality of a RJ circle as inspiration for our working relationships for safety trainings as a way to help encourage strangers to work together. Luckily, we already have a main priority during training to identify people that can help with confronting potentially harmful situations so that the idea of being supported can be associated with actual people.

Like much of the world has realized by now, we also only have so much physical capacity to engage each other over a computer. The week of March 8th we, the cohort leads, will host a check-in for cohort members to see how the training fits into their chapter goals. Currently, the major actions reported from chapters are ongoing mutual aid actions and responses to policing in our respective areas. The need for safety trainings may be more urgent in some places than others, and ideally this meeting will allow us to start necessary discussions on the reality of how safety is talked about in our respective chapters.

More about Project NIA:

Project NIA is a grassroots organization that works to end the arrest, detention, and incarceration of children and young adults by promoting restorative and transformative justice practices. https://project-nia.org/

Further readings on TJ/RJ:

The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice: Black Lives, Healing, and US Social Transformation by Fania E. Davis

Colorizing Restorative Justice: Voicing Our Realities edited by Edward Charles Valandra

Ayan Felix is an MFA in Dance student currently researching how physical and social improvisational practices interact in spaces that affirm Blackness and gender fluidity. Their most resourced practice is site-responsive using improvisational styles based in modern/post-modern dance, physical theater, house, and majorette training which they learned over years of experience in Texas, Pennsylvania, and now North Carolina. As such, experimentation in ephemeral movements leaks into their arts organizing work. Ayan’s research relies on multi-disciplinary collaboration to choreograph worlds that blur the line of audience-participant, performance-practice, and artist-organizer. By approaching dance performance capaciously as a type of social movement, Ayan seeks to understand how to produce performance spaces that are accessible yet not necessarily material. They are in their second year at Duke.

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