In Remembrance

Remembering Alice O. Lynch, A Restorative Justice Pioneer

Alice Lynch: A Remembrance

Alice LynchMinnesota’s restorative justice community lost a pioneer in January. Alice O. Lynch was a circle keeper, trainer, mentor, collaborator, kind councilor, founder and executive director of BIHA: Black Asian Hispanic and Indian Women in Action and friend to the restorative justice community. She worked on all levels of RJ: re-entry, juvenile diversion, school implementation, parenting support circles, crimes of severe violence conferencing, Circle keeping and training.  She and her partner Gwen Jones provided 4 day circle trainings at least two times a year for a decade or more; always the training included supper: “Alice will cook,” the announcements read. Her home was open to ex-offenders and judges. She helped to develop the circles as part of the Minnesota Science Museum’s Race Exhibit, a model for discussion that was taken up by all museums that presented the exhibit. Alice traveled to each location across the nation to train the exhibit’s local circle keepers. Words fail to embody her spirit, mind and heart. 

Alice O. Lynch died going to a meeting. At Alice’s wake, Alice’s family testified to her heart, her wit and her cooking prowess. Alice was no less generous to people who she was not related to, by blood, but to whom she was related to by concern:  educators, youth workers and the restorative justice community. They also benefitted, so very much, from Alice: her knowledge, her insight, her ability to teach. All of this she gifted us through her heart and, as she showed on her last day, her commitment.

If you are going to touch the future, be a teacher. If you are going to change the future, teach a teacher. Alice was a teacher’s teacher. In the restorative justice community, Alice was a pioneer. She had trained in, developed, or trained people on, every model:  family group conferencing, family group decision-making, circles to repair harm, restorative practices for crimes of severe violence. She helped to design the Minnesota Department of Corrections “Facilitating Restorative Group Conferencing” training manual.  She, along with other circle keepers, developed circle training—“I prefer four days; you learn the most in four days” that has been the standard for the field in Minnesota. She trained, she coached, and she consulted.

So these are all impressive words. But what does that look like in the day to day? It looks like hard work and it looks like saving lives. Let me share two stories of how Alice worked. 

I take calls from parents and try to help them navigate the challenges of school, trying to maintain relationships between the adults—parent and principal in this instance, for the good of the child, a middle school student, in this instance. The student was getting in trouble. Transitions were hard, and the student would strike out—shouting and running from adults and other students alike.  The parent and the principal did not see eye to eye as to how to support the student. The principal wanted to have the student assessed.  The parent did not—her child did not act that way at home so the problem was with the school. Tempers flared.  The parent was barred from the school.

I called Alice to see if she could help the parent. ‘Alice, I have a request. I don’t know if the school has any funds to pay you, but here is the situation.’  Alice was direct: ‘I will call her. I get the tension with the school: she is an African American mother who is loud.  Principals don’t always understand ‘loud.’  I think I know the principal (was there anyone Alice did not know?). I will meet with the parent in her home, you learn so much more then. She needs an African American school psychologist.  I know one.  She needs someone to help her understand the findings of the testing.  I will sit with her when she gets that information.  No, I will do this for free.’

Any student who was suspended as much as this child was does not have an easy road to graduation, unless the problems are identified and the parent is supported. This was the last parent I knew who was assisted by Alice.  She got the mom to have her student assessed, and transferred to a school that could support her student. In the process, she increased the ability of the parent to help navigate school.  All to the benefit of the child. And it was not due only to the prodigious knowledge and wisdom that Alice carried.  It was due, first to her humanity:  ‘I will call her. I will meet with her. I will sit with her.’

The second story I learned from teachers who had been trained in circle by Alice.  They work at a small charter school.  They had a 5th grader who was using very adult-like behaviors and words that scared the girls in his class, and also the boys. The dean had learned to ask the boy the question, “What happened?”  Well, what happened was that he was looking at adult websites whenever his parents fought, which was often. Seeing lead to acting out. 

The boy needed mental health treatment, and the other students needed support.  The treatment program lasted several weeks, but as the time drew near that the boy was to return to the school, the dean and teachers were worried: how would he be received?  What would this do to the other students?  The dean turned to his teacher, coach and now mentor, Alice.  Alice met with the teachers and administrators.  They developed circles of support for the girls, for the boys, for his classroom.  The students talked about what had happened, how they felt and what they could to do support each other and the returning student in a good way for all.

I have to stop and think.  Alice worked her career to prevent interpersonal violence.  One powerful place to prevent adult interpersonal violence is by helping children who have been hurt get their voice and power back.  It is prevented by helping the child who did the hurting make amends, repair the harm, know that they can do better, and get support to do better. Hurt people hurt people. But in this case, hurt children were helped. With Alice helping the adults remember that they knew how to help all these children. What will their adult behavior look like, with this kind of care and concern?

Counting: Alice held over 1000 trainings.  Say that each training had 30 people in them.  That is 30,000 people.  And say that one of them was a teacher who in 15 years taught 500 children.  So then let’s just guess that 15,000 people were teachers.  That is 7,500,000 children. That does not count the number of family members those 30,000 trained people have—their own children, their siblings, their cousins and Aunties.  It boggles my mind.  Alice.  Her legacy is in the children of our lives, the children that, with her humanity, love and wisdom, we touch. 

The restorative justice community shares its grief with Alice’s family and friends. We are all grateful for the gift of your Alice.

by Nancy Riestenberg

Author, Circle in the Square: Building Community and Repairing Harm in School

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