A conversation with Jasmyn Elise Story[i]

Jasmyn Elise Story

BP. Jasmyn, we met in the Restorative Justice and Social Innovation conference at the University of Padua, only to discover a great affinity between us, ways of thinking, being, and acting in the world. I am always enthusiastic when I encounter restorative practitioners with a background in activism. But before we talk about this intersection which interests me a lot, can you tell me who is Jasmyn Elise Story and where does that beautiful name actually come from?

JS. Well, I’d first like to speak gratitude, I am fuller because of our conversations in Padua. My family name has deeply informed who I am and how I operate in the world. My grandfather changed his last name from Storey to Story. No living elder in our family can say why he chose to remove the letter “e” from his name. Reinvention is no easy or simple feat, and yet there are so many of us, that are brave enough to try. So not only does the literal meaning of my name intersect with my work, but how I came to own this name, also seems to speak to the individual and communal agency I hope to see in my lifetime.

BP. It is pretty amazing how we are entangled in stories in fact. And I am sure your grandfather knew you could not have been anyone else but Jasmyn Elise Story. I would love to hear about your work Jasmyn. You are young and still seem to be doing so much! You are a practitioner, an activist, and an educator, with a deep commitment to restorative justice, but also to human rights and social justice. What is the path that led you towards the work you do now, how far have you travelled?

JS. According to my family lore, when I was a little girl, I became transfixed on one of the many 1990’s global charity commercials. After the harrowing images of children starving left the television screen at our family event, I reacted with passion and pain at the adults in the room. I yelled out at them, “but what about the babies.” I think that I have spent most of my young and adult life asking the same question over and over again. Though the form of which my oppression interruption takes has grown and morphed with time, I know that I will never be able to stop asking that question. My love of restorative justice is due in part of its potential to holistically heal both the individual, the community, and the environment. I have been blessed with many elders all over the world, who have illuminated what is truly possible in terms of community and community informed policy.

While studying as an undergraduate, I spent five months in a Human Rights field school in Cape Town, South Africa. While I lived and studied in Cape Town, I started to see parallels between the cyclical nature of pre/post-colonial harm of South Africa and the post-colonial United States. I started to understand how harm in the form of structural violence lingers in the minds and hearts of those impacted. I started to hear similar narratives about how the symptomatic manifestations of this harm resulted in physical and social disruption. I also, like at home, saw how the community could and does rise to counter the impact of that violence. I quickly realized what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: take the lessons from my elders and apply it within my own structurally violent American context. Restorative practices have given me the tools to engage with my community with equity and dignity at the forefront of the conversation.

Jasmyn, at Eastern Cape, wearing a traditional Xhosa outfit made by a mother in the village and given to her to celebrate the end of their time together

BP. And yet, restorative justice is often criticized for not taking into account that historical and structural violence you are describing. How do you engage in a structurally responsive restorative practice yourself?

JS. I believe that with any tool, it’s about the awareness of the yielder that makes a world of difference. For the elders that have informed my work, supporting the longevity of any communal transformation requires the facilitator to actively engage their participants holistically, not solely as they are in relation to the incident. A community isn’t built in isolation, and neither is harm.

In a case of mail theft, if the person responsible is starving as the result of structural harm, the restorative process cannot promise that the harmed party’s need for a cease in that adverse behavior will be met. There are structural impediments to this repair. My job as a facilitator is to use all of my restorative options to support transformation. I support restoration in spite of structural violence, not in denial of it.

So in this example, I would offer a Circle of Support and Accountability based on their unique needs (education, temporary economic relief, etc.). By providing all community members with a process to interrupt the interpersonal symptoms of structural and historical violence, I am opening a pathway for them to name, grieve, and brainstorm around their relationship to any particular structural or historical harm legacy.

BP. “Supporting restoration in spite of structural violence, not in denial of it” is an amazing way of putting it. You talk often about your elders and how they have influenced you. Can you say something more about them and their teachings?

JS. I have two elders that have significantly impacted my life and work as a facilitator. Tracey Ford, the founder of the JAGS Foundation, created a non-profit to support community healing after the loss of her only son to a youth conducted murder. While working with Tracey to bring healing to bereaved mothers and bring restorative justice into South London schools, I learned everything I now know about the role of community. For the women of the JAGS Foundation, Tracey, Pat, and Fenella, every aspect of every day was about community. They showed up without ask and without fail, despite available resources or support. Their unrelenting mission to end the Dickens old cycle of youth violence in London taught me about service.

I learned so much about the nature of service, but it was their interpersonal exchanges that taught me about community servitude. I was so deeply nourished by these women, for whom I was an American stranger. From the sharing of meals and treats to the care and consideration that went into fetching tea for the office. Before I knew it, their level of care became contagious. I looked forward to grabbing tea for the office, bringing in baked goods, bringing back a soda after my lunch break for anyone who needed a drink. I started to seek opportunities to nourish the collective community, not for praise or self-adulation, but because I deeply understood the benefit to the individual and to the collective.

So when it came to seeing young people escalating on the street, I stopped asking questions about “Should I support?”, and the question became “How can I attempt to meet everyone’s needs at this moment?” It wasn’t a question about what an adult was obliged to support them, but instead, how can I be the best version of that person for them. This I learned from observation, this I learned by osmosis. My community was blown open while I worked at JAGS; I now understand that everyone and all, belongs to me, as I do them. When I was nurtured, nurturing others never felt burdensome, but instead a small portion of a cycle of care.

Regina Lynne

The elder who formed my understanding of “equity” is the founder of the Mother Line Workshop, Regina Lynne. Upon meeting Regina, I knew that I wanted to be proximal to her at all times. She taught me that equitable exchanges require deep thought and intentionality. When discussing carpooling with a colleague, I explained that I would be doing the bulk of the driving and that the other person would pay for gas. To me, this arrangement seemed equitable. Regina challenged me to evaluate what would be the true cost of the arrangement. We qualified the experience as well as quantified it; this was no longer just about gas. It was about the wear and tear on the body of the driver. It was about the impact of the commute on the car. It was about the acquisition of a liability with each additional passenger. This changed how I understood harm repair. It helped me understand that I must make room for both the quantifiable cost of an incident, as well as the qualifiable cost that are often left unanswered.

I am so grateful for these lessons and many more. I have been blessed by what feels like a unique and vital communal forging. These aren’t my only important elders, but they live loudly in my language and my restorative processes.

BP. I would love to meet them one day Jasmyn. We have also discovered another shared passion: Fania Davis. How do you know Fania and what can you tell me about her influence on you?

JS. If I described Fania’s influence on me in one word, I would choose “modeling.” Though my interactions have been limited, her impact has not been bound to those interactions. There is one story that begins and represents this modeling. The first time that I saw Fania, I was fresh from undergrad, and I had earned a scholarship to the NACRJ conference in Florida. During one of the early evenings, there was a cocktail hour with music playing. I remember standing around with my colleagues, watching this woman with flowing curls and a flowy garment dance and laugh on the dance floor outside.

I come from a family of movers, dancers, shakers. I love music, and I love what music brings my body to do, but here I stood, still. I had a deep desire to move but felt this dread about the potential professional consequence of letting myself be free. So I stood, and I watched this woman in the flowy garment and warm smile dance the dance I wouldn’t grant myself. I instead chose to stand feeling sorry for myself, watching this woman, whose own freedom challenged my sense of immobility. I left there knowing that I had unearthed a part of myself that I never wanted to see buried again. I realized how often I stand, fearful of my freedom. Not just professionally, but personally; I am aware of many of the ways I mute my tongue and hide my body for the sake of acceptance. It’s been years since that cocktail hour, but I will never forget how the woman with the curls like mine, the garment free of restraint, modeled the freedom I wanted for myself. It would be a day later before I realized that the woman, who taught me so much, with no words, was Fania Davis.

BP. That is a beautiful story Jasmyn, and I understand what you mean, I have seen Fania dance in the EFRJ conference in Tirana to Albanian valle (dances) as if born dancing them, with joy and freedom that one can only embody.

Fania Davis, dancing Albanian valle in EFRJ Conference Dinner, Tirana

Can you tell me something more about the NACRJ (short for National Association of Community and Restorative Justice) conferences. How long have you been going there, and what is the atmosphere like? They are travelling conferences and every two years the organisation rotates, is that right?

JS. I didn’t know that restorative justice was going to be a permanent installation in life or work. The solidification of my dedication to restorative principles occurred at the 2015 NACRJ Conference. I had applied and was awarded a scholarship to attend the conference. As I write, I am overwhelmed recalling all of the vital life moments that emerged during these three days. I was rapidly experiencing a convergence of my passions. I saw BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) speaking passionately about abolitionism, self-actualization post-trauma, grassroots activism. I sat on the floor in a community circle with Cornell West, Fania Davis, and my soon to be elder, Tracey Ford. Practitioners from Chicago demonstrated the beautiful alchemy of hip hop/rap and restoration. I learned that there were people in this country, spending their time working on dismantling our criminal justice system, to build a trauma-informed system of healing. I saw myself in the folks that I encountered. I saw myself in those younger than me and those three times my age. I didn’t truly become a restorative facilitator (despite past facilitation) until this conference. I saw who I had been, I understood who I was, and I saw who I wanted to become.

At the same time, I had many one-on-one experiences that challenged my new-found love for the greater restorative justice community. Those experiences did not thwart my dedication; they merely fueled it. Finding a community to belong to is exciting. Finding a community that you love enough to challenge and stimulate its growth, well, that is simply a gift.

Jasmyn in a Circles Training with Dominic Barter, 2015 NACRJ Conference, Florida

BP. Sounds incredibly rich Jasmyn indeed, the atmosphere you are describing. And I can relate absolutely to your last statement, that’s exactly how I feel about the restorative community. If I am not wrong, this community has been for too long oblivious about the experience of Black, Indigenous and People of Color, I remember Fania Davis saying in the EFRJ conference last year that when she started engaging with the field, she couldn’t find anything written that engaged with those experiences. Thanks to her contribution, we have today the Little Book on Race and Restorative Justice, but it has taken a while. Are “the one-on-one experiences that challenged you” in your encounter with the restorative justice community related to this myopia?

JS. In 2015, there were many interpersonal conversations that illuminated what work needed to be done within our restorative justice community. I would describe these conversations as being in a room with a fire burning in the trash can. Some of those around you can identify the heat. Some of the people in the room identify the color of the orange and yellow flames. There are others in the room who know something is wrong but aren’t sure what. For those who are able to name the fire in the trash can, their voices aren’t heard over those yelling about the temperature change in the room.

The particular historical context of which restorative justice practitioners in the United States facilitate is very complicated. We live in a Nation-state that prefers collective amnesia over public accountability. This creates a unique challenge for practitioners and champions of this work. We champion a process of individual accountability in a country that has yet to acknowledge and address its own legacy of harm. This historical harm permeates every current interaction on this soil, as well as American action abroad. I am proud that in the last four years, the restorative justice community seems to be turning to the voices that could name the fire in the room. There is a lot of learning to be done. I am excited that as someone who can now see the fire, I can also collaborate with others to share the understanding.

BP. That is a lively and interesting metaphor. It also reminded me of the Indian parable of “The blind men and the elephant”. Depending on which part of the elephant they are touching, they also “see” it differently and therefore describe it differently. I think this is normal, our experiences are all limited and differently situated. It seems to me that the most important thing is what we do with that awareness and knowledge: claim absolute truth for our partial truth or create bridges of communication with each other, because we need everyone’s knowledge in fact to really “see” the elephant.

Jasmyn, you are also the founder of The People’s Coalition, an organization founded in 2017. Can you tell me something about your work in that organization, what do you try to do there, and how is that work going so far?

JS. The People’s Coalition’s mission is to increase access to resources to interrupt the impact of structural violence experienced by historically marginalized people. We are currently looking to achieve that through technology. As smartphone access becomes more available, often more so than computer access, we look to bring resources (educational, communal, social) to people through their phone. We operate through a non-hierarchical model, utilizing circles for internal planning and communication. Though we have come to a brief hold due to funding, we hope to increase our visibility and support.

I watched my mother struggle to learn how to navigate through both public and private systems with limited support. When opportunities would expire or seemed inaccessible, my mother would say somberly, “Well, you know ‘they’ had a meeting.”

This explanation describes the exclusionary experience shared by many marginalized people. I went on to study, identify, and name the structures, policies, and the historical harm that my mother called “the meeting”. Our goal is to use technology to provide everyone a seat at that meeting.

Jasmyn at a workshop of The People’s Coalition

BP. I love how you put your principles into very practical work. Justice is indeed more closely related to matter at the end of the day than to empty rhetoric. Your life is about to change. At least logistically. You are moving to Birmingham, Alabama, your hometown, in the shoes of Deputy Director of the (first) Office of Social Justice & Racial Equity. There is probably no city in the whole world that has more history of racial inequality but also a richer soil of resistance than Birmingham. How do you feel about moving there now to start new service?

JS.  I am of course honored to serve the City of Birmingham as the Deputy Director of the Office of Social Justice & Racial Equity under the leadership of Mayor Randall Woodfin. Birmingham serves as the cradle of the civil rights movement, and I am blessed to be a part of this history. Our goal is to take the tools, accomplishments, and guidance of our elders to transform the city into a beacon of Human Rights in the southern United States. Currently, our city and its citizens are impacted by the symptoms of structural violence (poverty, low literacy, interpersonal violence). Interpersonal violence is being addressed through a Public Health lens. We are dedicated to integrating restorative justice into the systems that our citizens interface with throughout their day to day. We are collaborating across governmental departments and grassroots organizations to accomplish this work. Despite the challenges impacting us, the resiliency of our community is incomparable. Birmingham, The Magic City, is truly enchanting to me for this reason. This resiliency inspires me to be creative, brave, and disciplined in my leadership approach. The work has just begun, and I’m thrilled to be a part of these changes, as well as bear witness to the long legacy of resistance in our living past. George Washington Carver said that “it is simply service that measures success”. I believe it is this spirit that fuels this administration and the Office of Social Justice and Racial Equity.

BP. Jasmyn, I wish you great joy and achievements at your new task. It will be challenging, but I am convinced you will make the most of it, as you make the most of everything that passes your way. I especially think of that purposeful way you have of building lineage and living the teachings of your elders, transforming them into creative ways of doing very ‘critical’ work indeed. It has been a true pleasure knowing you, and I hope our paths cross again. 

[i] Jasmyn Elise Story is an international Restorative Justice Facilitator and founder of The People’s Coalition. She is a dedicated human rights activist with 10 years of experience working in the voluntary sector. Formally the Director of Restorative Justice Programming at the JAGS Foundation, Jasmyn completed her MA in Human Rights at the University College London. She received her BA in Anthropology from Skidmore College. Currently, her main focus is on community mobilization and the integration of restorative practices into the city of Birmingham, Alabama. For more about Jasmyn visit her website.