Bringing the Community Together, One Circle at a Time

The Restorative Center in Newburgh practices restorative justice through open-to-anyone community circles.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” is a favorite Nelson Mandela quote at Newburgh’s The Restorative Center. You may not have heard of The Restorative Center yet, a restorative justice non-profit founded by Shailly Agnihotri in 2015. But the Center has a mission that some would describe as impossible: to unite members of various social and economic backgrounds to sit down together and address common goals and issues during Community Circles.

Spending many years as a public defender in New York City, Agnihotri witnessed first-hand both the beauty and the frustrations of working with the criminal justice system. “Come on, we are not looking for justice here,” Agnihotri once half-jokingly admitted while working on a particularly frustrating case. But, Agnihotri questioned, if not here, “where do we look for justice?”

Agnihotri embarked on a journey to find out. She traveled throughout the United States, Jamaica, and South Africa to explore different forms of restorative justice, a community-focused alternative to the criminal justice system. She learned much, but ultimately concluded that none of the models were exactly what she was looking for. After receiving restorative justice training in Pennsylvania, Agnihotri created her own independent, free-standing model in Newburgh. She gathered a team of like-minded individuals around her to create a curriculum, and the result was Community Circles, also referred to as “the Newburgh model.”

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But why a community-based model? “Restorative justice is restoring the justice back to the people. ‘We the people’ — that’s what our nation is founded upon, and we want to restore that and give everyone the opportunity to experience justice,” explained Gabrielle Burton-Hill, the new director of Newburgh’s Community Circles. For the Restorative Center team, it’s not just about seeking an alternative means of justice. Rather, Agnihotri believes that this model is the only way to move forward. “I don’t believe the criminal justice system is going to reform; I think we as a community are going to come to solutions that are much more profound that we just need to access,” said Agnihotri.

Newburgh Community Circles Director Gabrielle Burton-Hill. Photo by Lauren Berg

The Community Circles generally meet Thursday nights from 6-8 p.m. at Space Create on Broadway and cover a different topic each month. February was focused on Police-Community Relations; future topics include Parole Re-Entry and Parenting. Led by a “circle-keeper,” who acts as both facilitator and participant, anywhere from six to 40 community members take turns sharing with and listening to each other. Conversations are often based around a specific prompt, but it’s flexible. The goal of these circles is to create a new kind of dialogue, first by forming a common ground of shared experiences before moving onto addressing more challenging topics. The Restorative Center team believes that once a community bridges those social and economic divides, and realizes its shared goals, it will have the capacity to resolve conflicts among its members.

This year, Burton-Hill says the Community Circles are hoping to expand, hosting “Street Circles” that will occur outdoors in the community and “Family Circles,” which would focus on addressing a specific family’s conflict. The Restorative Center has expanded into the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, with a program in Bronx high schools already training teenagers to run circles themselves as “circle-keepers.” The program is hoping to offer that training to Newburgh teens this summer.

Want to get involved? The Restorative Center is looking for help, and can use volunteers in multiple different capacities. Burton-Hill adds that the Newburgh Community Circles are a great introduction to the organization, and are open to everyone. “Come to the circles: you meet new people, you learn more, you just experience a positive environment like none other, and it’s just a wonderful place to be when people come together with like minds,” said Burton-Hill.

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