A conversation with Rick Kelly[i]

BP. Rick, thank you for joining me in a conversation. As a substantial part of our lives is spent in virtual platforms, I have initially ‘encountered’ you on twitter, and we sort of found ourselves amplifying each other’s voices. You know I hold my conversations with scholars and practitioners, and I am usually very curious when I can have a conversation with the ones who are far away, as you are, in kilometers, but also in experiences. You seem to me to have something I am interested in, and that is a certain ability to engage with many things and yet keep a core that holds all of that together. Life can be seen as a collection of unrelated events, without this ability or need we have to tell our story. I wonder if you can share something about your childhood and youth, if I don’t take you too far back, as I think we have a bit of a gap to close before I can truly ‘hear’ your reflections about (restorative) justice. It seems appropriate to me also to start there, given that your life is also dedicated to youth.

RK. Well this question does not put me into a memory lane that is too far back since many memories have recently been spurred on by discovering a large cache of childhood photos.

Rick (left) with his sisters and Clown, Scarborough, 1961

We lived in a community called Scarborough. Scarborough was experiencing the type of suburban growth happening in and around Toronto in the late 1950s until 1970s. Our family, like many other working-class families, moved into these newly burgeoning suburbs. Scarborough possessed no real culture or arts of any form, and high school could be a terrible and interminable existential wasteland.

However, there were a few saving graces. One was the school band, ran by an eccentric, less than 5-foot-tall, Ukrainian, former classically trained cellist and pianist, who introduced all youth to the wonders of classical music. As a quasi-symphonic orchestra -strings replaced by rows of wind instruments- we won all the city-based Kiwanis competitions and travelled every year throughout the U.S. Another pathway that opened up was the opportunity to work in the local, and well regarded, fine eatery, Watt’s, first as bus boy, but quickly rising to the rank of waiter.

The Golden Mile Plaza, Scarborough, Toronto, 1960, @Ralph Greenhill

This was transformative at three levels. I was an introvert and painfully shy, but the experience literally forced me out of my shell. It also gave me money and the opportunity to travel at the age of 16, to Denmark, Holland and Sweden for 6 weeks with my Danish friend who worked with me. Lastly, I was introduced in the restaurant to a huge host of “characters” who were employed there who ranged from housewives supplementing the family income to the more eccentric. This included the PhD in philosophy, who was the bartender. He had spent his scholarship on expensive rugs and opera records. As result my friend and I became recipients of his wisdom.

The other, and probably most impactful event in those years, was the person who became a lifelong friend, as our paths wove in and out through the various ebbs and flows of life. Zoya was a young and passionate woman, raised in a family where the father was a diehard communist and union organizer for mine and steel workers, and who believed in world revolution. They had a cat named Trotsky who refused to go outside. The father was concerned that this might pose a barrier to any revolution and often said so to the cat.

Her mother was the first true feminist that I had met, other than my Grade 10 English teacher who spent as much time in the office for discipline issues for dress code violations as I did for non-attendance. Zoya’s mother’s actions and words modeled a very different approach of being a woman in the world. These influences led Zoya to be an ardent and passionate spokesperson for social justice issues. We often joined our voices in protest in school since it was the era of the war in Vietnam and the global protests. We were clearly outnumbered, targeted and scorned by our classmates. I, as a curious reader, had found the works of various anarchists through the work of George Woodcock. This infused my thinking on the pernicious effects of government and the ability of individuals as citizens to organize themselves. I was precocious and very idealistic. Neither quality has been diminished although they have been somewhat battered by historical events, especially in the most recent time. This began a lifelong commitment to social justice issues.

Anti-Vietnam War placards surround Toronto’s war memorial in 1969 @Reg. Innell

BP. I find it amazing Rick, how stories are able to close a distance, that in our case might be generational but also just context-dependent, as I was born in Albania, in a complete other atmosphere. And yet, you managed to take me to Scarborough, and I could almost glance at it through your eyes. I find impressive also the fact that even though, in terms of urban development, arts and culture, Scarborough was poor in stimuli as you yourself notice, crucial experiences imprint themselves in the mind of a child anyway, making everything seem magical and impregnated with meaning. And experiences that mark us are usually related to certain people, whom we tend to carry forever with us. I would like to hear also about the events that have ‘somewhat battered’ your idealism, but if you don’t mind first to take me further in your memories. A lifelong commitment to social justice is starting, Zoya is there present, together with her feminist mother, revolutionary father, and stubborn cat. When do you leave Scarborough, and where do you go next?

RK. A new transit line had been built close to my home which ran right into the heart of the city to Union Station. It was essentially a hop, skip and a jump to the action, Yorkville. This was the coffee house scene. To two 16-year olds, this was an unimaginable oasis of music and protest. Many of the performers from there went on to become the famous performers we know today, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, Eric Anderson, Tim Buckley, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. With our white turtlenecks, money in our pockets and small Dutch cigars we were quite a pair. This experience pointed and confirmed a direction for me. Somewhere out there, was where I would find whatever.

Yorkville, Toronto, 1968, @Toronto Star

But that “whatever” was the challenge! I was moving into an extended and lengthy existential abyss and mental health crisis that lasted for the next 6-8 years. While due to my marks in school, I was scripted to go on to University, being working class there was no pathway, acceptance or direction on how to or what the meaning of this could be. In fact, my father was apoplectic when he heard that you had to pay to go to University. He assured me that there would be nothing forthcoming from him to support me with this.

With the next choice in my life facing me, and no support, I chose to not do what all my other friends and close peers were doing. I did not go on University. I decided to get a job and move downtown. Throughout this period and prior I had become an inveterate reader and styled myself somewhat like Karl Marx, reading and studying in whatever imposing library could be found in large cities. And I did, reading Husserl, Hegel, the anarchists and others. This was exotic but lead to no answers that could satisfy.

The year after I decided to go to University. I lasted 6 weeks. It might have been the course taught by Thomas Langan on Heidegger and the resounding question “was heisst denken?’ that did me in! I started a 6 months journey in Europe with my new friend, Tom. Tom was another fascinating person. He had spent one year in a seminary, obviously raised as a Catholic, now an apostate and, shame upon shame, a conscientious objector from the U.S. He was also a Russian and US history major, so our conversations were rich. We made quite a pair since his and my depression was often times counteracted by excessive drinking and what were bouts of intellectual acting out. We toured all of Western Europe and the British Isles, but never made it to Albania. We had little money but enough for cheap cigarettes and wine.

BP. And I assume at some point even that little money ran out?

RK. It did. I moved back into my parents’ home completely broke, pretended to work by leaving the house most days, while collecting employment insurance. This meant many days spent in the libraries downtown. I think that is where I discovered Joseph Needham’s 24 volume set on Chinese science and technology through the ages. This went on for a year or so until again the money ran out.

At that point I got a job with Mr. Miller who owned a fur company downtown. All of my friends, who were following their own existential pathway, worked for him at one point or other. This was another fascinating real-world exposure to people of incredible varied backgrounds. Lada, the head cutter, was from Czechoslovakia and loved brandy and opera, Tina was from East Germany, Elana was from Northern Italy and the two seamstresses were both men in their 70’s, Izzy and Charlie, were Jewish, and detested each other, while working side by side. Our main buyers and suppliers were Jewish. I was the conduit for picking up pelts and delivering the finished products to the two large outlets that sold the coats. Mr. Miller asked, since I was so sharp on the job and could do the books as well, if I wanted to be in line to take over the store. I, to my regret now, laughed in his face. Not for me a furrier to be!

In that period, my girlfriend, introduced me to her sister who was a trained youth worker. It sounded like something I could see myself doing. I enrolled in 1974 in the three-year College program and with that began and continues to be my profession and vocation, which is a Child and Youth Care Practitioner. It was also a lengthy personal process of discovering the roots of my depression, integrating a sense of self as a male who nurtures and with insight into my own emotional make-up.

A few years later I undertook a degree in philosophy at night school at York University, which was one of the more invigorating opportunities I had at a university. These were all small classes and I chose only those profs who were highly recommended. I also did a minor in classical Greek. I undertook the degree at the prodding of my clinical director who said that if I wanted to grow and advance, I would need further education, or I would amount to nothing. I took his suggestion seriously. When I saw him a year later, he enquired as to my educational plans. I informed him what I was studying. He told me that I would definitely not amount to anything. He later left the agency under a cloud. Maybe I ended up on the moral and ethical high ground.

BP. You certainly did Rick. Thank you for sharing that story, I find impressive the way you have worked through and with the ‘materials’ of your life, like some kind of Masterchef. There is the poor food, the pretentious food, the food to be thrown, the meaningless one, the one difficult to digest, the exotic one, the one you crave for, and so on, and you turn them through some form of craftsmanship into vital nutrition. It’s all a give and take, to eat, to be fed, to feed, and it’s all existential, and you know it. Your life is rich and full, but what seems to me to be even more important is what you have ‘made’ of it. We are now into your first years of youth work. How were the first experiences and did your conviction on having run into the right thing for yourself last?

RK. For about two decades, I focused on the various clinical practices and perspectives that I was able to glean from excellent child and youth care mentors and child and adolescent psychiatrists. This took me on journey through various family therapy models, training as a play therapist and a deep dive into the world of Milton Erickson and various thinkers focused on borderline and ego-based frameworks. As we know, this was and still is a highly individualized and “psychiatrized” way of looking at children and youth. It lacked a deep contextualizing of individual children and youth or cultural understanding, and it was apolitical.

In the early ‘90s that all took a sharp turn. I began a position as a project manager for one site in a 25-year longitudinal policy demonstration project, Better Beginnings, Better Futures[ii]. The focus was to investigate and demonstrate the cost benefits of early intervention, prevention and health promotion using a community-based approach. The site I managed was located in a community variously labeled high-risk, urban improvement area or inner city. This was in Rexdale in the northwest sector of Toronto. The community had over 40 different language groups in the school population. It was a microcosm of what the larger Toronto was and would later become.

Rexdale Gateway Mural, East Wall, Rexdale, Toronto

I had been given the privilege, opportunity and responsibility to do things that I had little training or experience in, especially community development. However, I was bolstered with the idea (and naivete) that had been imparted to me by one of my early mentors in College. He said that as a Child and Youth Care practitioner (then called Child Care Workers) I had in my toolkit, the ability to go anywhere and build whatever was needed, as long as I listened very closely to what others needed. I had worked previously in the homes of families as part of a children’s mental health program as a way of preventing admission to residential care. I had some sense of what I called “programs without walls” where my work took me out of the safety and constraints of an institution.

As the manager of this program site, I steered the energy of the project, the staff, partners and extensive roster of volunteers to three areas: children at the centre, grassroots leadership, and politics. It was the latter focus that became quickly and sharply vital. The project was being implemented through three different regimes of provincial governments, Liberal Party of Ontario, New Democratic Party and the Conservative Party of Ontario. The Conservative Party predominated for the life of the project and implemented major changes throughout that province. This led to the subsequent amalgamation of the school boards in Toronto from six into one and a similar process for the newly formed City of Toronto, of six cities into one megacity. It was also an era of cuts to services, crackdown on social assistance recipients and austerity in general. Events took on a very political turn, especially for children, families and communities who had much less of the privileges and advantages of other school communities around the city.

It was around that time that I stopped seeing myself as a Child and Youth Care practitioner! I did not see any form of voice in the chambers of Child and Youth Care practitioners at that time that were speaking out about the politics and economics of care and voice for the people of these communities. The project, with core agency partners, who were not frightened of fiscal repercussions, sponsored a host of advocacy efforts towards all three levels of government. Key spokespersons were community residents, elders, parents, youth, children and in one case a crying baby who went to a deputation to Toronto City Hall. And I wore a Zorro costume to emphasize the A to Z’s of economic cuts to communities and families. In concert with various coalitions, we conducted voter education workshops including a ‘kid’s vote’ model, workshops on economic literacy and created a local newspaper titled the ‘Rexdale News’. The other significant sea change for myself involved participating in the development of the Rexdale Community Health Centre from a mall office to an actual building and in my role as the chair of the program committee.

BP. It seems to me that instead of stopping to see yourself as a Child and Youth Care practitioner, through these experiences that raised your political awareness, you were changing the way you looked at this profession and were moving significantly away from those first narrow clinical approaches to childhood and youth. Besides having been and being a leader and a practitioner, you are also an educator Rick. Can you tell me something about that?

RK. Indeed, all of these experiences “changed my lens” on my work. My focus turned towards the systemics issues of poverty and the racialization of poverty and the racialization of individuals through effectively segregated neighbourhoods and differential treatment in schools. This also gave me a bird’s eye view onto the politics of poverty and their community impacts.

I went to college to teach in 1999. In short, I carried over my community development orientation and approach to both the content of my teaching and my role. This entailed finding initiatives that worked with community partners to generate projects that could extend beyond artificial and semester constructed time frames. I sought opportunities that created an engagement with the community through partners that could allow students to participate in the life of these micro communities (e.g., schools). However, the bureaucracy of the college often worked against this type of engagement other than for a few enlightened administrative leaders. Ironically, or perhaps not quite, those were Child and Youth Care practitioners.

On the teaching side it was gratifying to see the publication of the Ontario report on The Roots of Youth Violence. It gave the words and documentation of what I had lived and worked through throughout the 1990s. This also confirmed for me that the true solutions for the majority of young people lay not in continuing to apply a narrow clinical lens but required more broad- based community-based approaches that focused on prevention, promotion and early intervention. The ‘village’ loomed large as central to solutions but flew in the face of models that had been inherited from the collective medical/psychiatric DNA. There needed to be a shift. It was not an either or but rather the challenge to forge a synthesis of what was relevant and useful from both paradigms.

BP. How did your ‘encounter’ with restorative justice come about and how did the restorative thinking start to ferment in your work?

RK. During this time, I stumbled across the restorative justice model which for Canadians and Ontarians was a small tag line in the renewal process of the Youth Criminal Justice Act. I was fortunate to be introduced to it through Rupert Ross’s book Return to the Teachings. His work was not simply an introduction to the restorative model but also to the deep spiritual and historical roots in Indigenous and First Nation ways of being.

This is what spurred me on to see it as not only a way of addressing ‘justice’ related issues through a different lens but also as a basis for practice which complemented, mirrored and enhanced the core relational work of Child and Youth Care practitioners. That is what I have been doing for the past 20 years, Restorative Practices.

In that capacity I sought out funding for a 2-year project to research the adaptability of the model to children under the age of criminal responsibility, 12 years old and under. This was a watershed moment since in our literature search, we identified the correlates between child development milestones, effective practice and the restorative/relational approach. I was able to use this opportunity to offer training to the faculty team and selected students. This led to significant acceptance of this way of working and the underlying values from this amazing, newly formed team. This led to its subsequent adoption as one of the 4 pillars underpinning the curriculum.

From that point on I began a concerted effort to grow not only the profile of the restorative paradigm but also to endeavour to create a centre for continued development. I sought out training as a youth conference facilitator and conducted conferences on a volunteer basis for over 3 years. I then completed a Train the Trainer program to allow myself to become a licenced trainer. This afforded many opportunities to provide extra curricular and enhanced training for students, grads and agency partners. The Child and Youth Care program had over 300 plus youth serving agencies and school boards that offered field and internships for the program’s students.

All of this was happening as all the school boards in Ontario were anticipating changes to the “Zero Tolerance” regime and moving to what was called a” Safe and Caring” policy era. This encouraged school boards to adopt the restorative model as one step in a progressive discipline model. Therefore, I had the fortune to be a part of many of the first trainings of school boards throughout the province under the umbrella of the Ontario Multi-Faith Council.

As they say, one stone, many ripples. Various requests came in from the larger College community to conduct workshops, consult to programs encountering challenges, the human rights office and the newly built student residence. In my last two years at the College I was asked to include a restorative component to the newly developed Social Innovation Hub. This supported students to take a passion and an idea and convert it into purpose, mission and product using a blended model of social enterprise and social justice. I also worked on developing an international placement in Jamaica which paralleled and complemented their incorporation of Restorative Justice since 2004 and the creation of restorative centres around the island. I also saw faculty and students apply the circle aspect of their training into another new placement in India in New Delhi and Rajasthan.

I was charged with developing my work into a social enterprise and self fund my own position. Not doable in one year, this became a venture that went beyond my days at the College and what I have been doing for the past 3 years as Just Us: A Centre for Restorative Practices.

Rick Kelly at work during one of his trainings with young people

I continue training but mostly see these as opportunities for knowledge mobilization, program renewal and systems change. My efforts are focused on those most marginalized and placed in a position of disadvantage through the impacts of multiple and intersecting systemic barriers leading to risks. I have continued to expand my range of partnerships to include a number of colleges and universities which allows the reach of the model to impact a next generation of restorative leaders and practitioners in the youth serving sector.

This is also where our story began, in part. One of the 21st Century success skills we were encouraging students to develop in the innovation hub was digital literacy and citizenship. I have gone on to experiment with and play in this environment as a new frontier for myself and my work. This where we found each other. Although, I had previously read your article Con-texting Restorative Justice and Abolitionism with Christa Pelikan, while doing my Masters in 2014-2015, a piece that resonated strongly with me.

As I told you before, one of the dilemmas I grappled with in the 1990s was the lack of political consciousness on the part of Child and Youth Care practitioner in all forms, individually, in institutions, in education and as a profession. I would say that in many regards this dilemma has been somewhat resolved. The resolution rests with what I see as the new and next generation of leaders and practitioners. Many of them are part of the generation that are now pursuing their Master’s and, in some cases, PhD’s. They have a finer eye on critical issues, analysis and identity issues and a keen sense of the necessity to hear the voices of children and youth who are the most affected.

This arises as we move into times that are again, dark politically, and I would add darker than before as the reaction to inequity transforms into ideological populism of a nationalist bent that focuses on walls, exclusion and preserving hollow senses of identity. While there is still much to be done in the realm of Child and Youth Care work, since addressing needs and ensuring rights for those who are made vulnerable, is part the ongoing historical struggle in order to achieve universal inclusion and equity. However, I am emboldened to have hope because of the next generation of thought and practice leaders on the rise. And I would like to illustrate this sentiment of hope with a quote I love very much and that is attributed to an American author called Edward Everett Hale.

I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

BP. That is a great quote as it really goes into the heart of inaction and impotence most of us feel under the sheer weight of things that we cannot carry in fact. It also reminded me for different reasons of a wonderful poem by Bertolt Brecht, that Christa Pelikan loved very much.


I hear that in New York
At the corner of 26th Street and Broadway
A man stands every evening during the winter months
And gets beds for the homeless there
By appealing to passers-by.

It won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation
But a few men have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway.

Don`t put down the book on reading this, man.

A few people have a bed for the night
For a night the wind is kept from them
The snow meant for them falls on the roadway
But it won’t change the world
It won’t improve relations among men
It will not shorten the age of exploitation.

Thank you, Rick, for this wonderful conversation, and especially for sharing both the good and the hard stories of your life. What a difference it would make to practice and to education if we stayed awake during and in touch with those first experiences that have made each of us, if we reflected about and questioned all the time things that happened to us and to others at a very existential level, which is in my opinion the one most prone to lead to an enduring political consciousness, and if we carried with us always the ambivalence and complexity of storytelling?

[i] Rick Kelly has been a Child and Youth practitioner since the mid-1970s. Starting from a mental health and clinical perspective, his perspective widened in time to include innovative approaches to family engagement in their homes, to an ecological focus on the role of the community and “whole village” approaches through a “school as a hub” model. His last 20 years have been dedicated to knowledge mobilization and systemic change using a restorative lens and practice. He began this part of his career while teaching full time at George Brown College in the Child and Youth Worker program and was introduced to it through an indigenous and First Nations worldview. Since 2004, Rick is a youth justice restorative conference facilitator and since 2006 a trainer with the International Institute for Restorative Practices where he also completed his Masters in 2014. Early on he expanded his focus on restorative practices to embrace peacemaking circles by studying with Kay Pranis at the Canadian School of Peacebuilding. Since 2012, Rick continues this work and training through his own practice Just Us: A Centre for Restorative Practices and collaborates closely with YouthRex, a province-wide initiative based at York University, 360Kids, a youth shelter, housing and transitions organisation for youth in crisis, NextGen Builders, a community, labour and industry mentoring partnership for Black youth funded by Toronto Community Benefits Network, and with Fanshawe College, George Brown College, and University of Toronto. Rick has a number of publications using a restorative lens to address College student rights, humour in youth, working with children under 12 years, and more recently a grassroots focus on “gang” involvement for a public health and a community-based approach.

[ii] Better Beginnings, Better Futures is one of the most ambitious research projects on the long-term impacts of early childhood development programming ever initiated in Canada. The model is designed to prevent young children in long income, high risk neighbourhoods from experiencing poor developmental outcomes. It has been implemented in 8 socio-economically disadvantaged communities in Ontario since 1991.