This article has been adapted from the book Locked Down, Locked Out by Maya Schenwar.

Students at Umoja's Peace Room.

Umoja, a Chicago-based group, operates the Community Builders program profiled in this article. Students in Umoja’s Peace Room participate in restorative justice practices, such as the circle shown here, to resolve conflicts. Photo courtesy of Umoja.

As a rising call to close prisons and reduce prison population takes hold, skeptics continually ask what will “replace” them. Of course, for many who are currently in prison, the answer is “nothing”—they are incarcerated for crimes that have harmed no one, often simply because they are black or brown or gender-nonconforming or poor.

Locked Down, Locked Out book cover. Some people, though, are incarcerated for acts that have caused harm, and are supposedly incarcerated for the “safety” of the rest of society. And so, as we work toward decarceration, it’s crucial to have frank discussions about what “safety” would mean, in the context of specific communities. Transformative and restorative justice practices offer possibilities for responding to violence in different ways, but they also provide the chance to formulate visions of true collective safety. The healing circles and conversations that are often part of restorative justice practices, for example, offer a place where people can ask, “How can we create an environment that doesn’t just respond effectively to harm once it happens but also actively creates safety on our communities’ own terms?”

This is one of the largest questions in the universe, and one with which humans have been grappling since well before the rise of the prison-industrial complex. Much, obviously, has already been written about it. However, I want to look at a few cases in which community is nurtured in creative ways, paving the road toward lasting, widespread, collective safety.

One such flashpoint is Chicago’s Community Builders (CB) program, a summer school that trains high school students—mostly poor students of color from neighborhoods with high rates of violence—in community-based justice principles and circle-keeping. In the summer of 2013, their focus is the concept of “safe space” itself: What defines it? What happens in its absence? How can we create it in our environments? At the end of the program, the kids go out into the community, initiating circles with different groups like park district summer camps and unemployment programs.

In the middle of summer 2013, I walk over to the school where the CB kids will facilitate circles with groups of fifth-graders attending a summer program, which meets at an elementary school in neighboring Evanston. The program aims to serve “young people whose needs are not being met by more traditional agencies”—mostly youth of color who come from impoverished backgrounds.

Shortly before the CB leaders, I enter the room where the first circle will convene. It’s rowdy. One fifth-grader is industriously scooping dirt out of a flowerpot and depositing it on a table. Another kicks over a chair, screeching woefully, “She called me a name!” As they scramble into their seats, the circle keepers, four teens, write the “norms” (ground rules) in large letters on butcher paper taped to the wall. They explain that after someone in the circle has spoken, everyone will say “Ashe”—a Yoruba word often translated as “so be it,” or “so it is.”

After a quick chat about the optimal definition of a “safe space”—open, positive, communicative, connection-driven, welcoming, no harm—the question is broached: “What’s your safe space?” One of the teens discloses his (the basement in his house, where he watches movies with his brothers and sister), and the kids simmer down, thinking. Ordinarily in a circle, the talking piece would be passed clockwise from person to person, but this circle’s a little free form. When a small child near the window frantically waves his hand, the talking piece, a stuffed dolphin, is tossed his way and he catches it. He says, “My safe space is my class at school because I know everyone there!”

“Ashe!” we all sing.

“Getting to know your community,” softly intones one of the teens, a tall girl of about 17. “That’s a way of building safe space. Actually, we’re doing it right now.”

“Quiet places?” a pigtailed fifth-grader asks.

“Or places that are loud, because then you know there are other people around?” someone else wonders aloud, without requesting the talking piece.

Both receive nods and scattered “ashes”; “safety” is subjective and situation dependent. Sometimes loud works, sometimes quiet works, sometimes it doesn’t matter as long as you trust the people around you.

“OK!” says a tiny, smiling girl with huge glasses and a thin braid running down her back. “Then mine is my block because the neighbors are friends, even the dogs and cats—if they come up to me, I’m not scared because I know them.”

The frantic hand waver chimes back in: “My block feels safe because I know a lot of the people—but the next block doesn’t. The cops are always there.”

I think of something that the activist and educator Mariame Kaba said when I asked about fostering collective safety: “Get to know your neighbors—that’s an investment.” I think, also, of the criminologist Todd Clear’s research on how arrest and incarceration rips neighborhoods apart and, conversely, how community and connection building can work to stem violence.

Then the smiling girl throws the talking piece to a short kid who cranes his head up to the circle keeper standing next to him. He asks, “Is jail a safe space?”

The Community Builder teens dart anxious glances at one another across the circle. Some of them have already been to juvenile detention. One offers, “No?” just as another says, “That’s complicated, because you’re not gonna get shot there. But we could talk about it later.”

The first says, “Let’s just say—you don’t wanna go there. I know.”

You’re not gonna get shot there. The words hang in the air. In neighborhoods wracked by surveillance, racist policing, poverty, homelessness, and corresponding violence, is jail society’s best offer of a means to “safety”—not just for the “public” outside, but for the people who are fed, clothed, housed, and not shot inside its walls, who are nevertheless subject to violence in countless other forms? In a prison nation, where “safety” so often means confinement of one kind or another, is the word even a useful focal point for building community?

A swarm of emotions engulfs the room, and no one says a thing for over a minute. Finally, a serious-looking, soft-spoken fifth-grade boy raises his hand for the talking piece. He catches it and looks around the circle, catching each person’s eyes in turn. “I’m safe in my dreams,” he says, “because there you can’t get hurt, even if you fall off a building or if somebody shoots you. And you don’t have to be in jail. Just in your head. That’s all.”

The circle keeper then calls on a tall, slumping girl, who shakes her head; she hasn’t raised her hand. But then she shrugs and reaches for the talking piece. “He’s right,” she says. “I’m safe in my mind, because no one can take it away.”

“Ashe,” a small voice rises from a corner of the circle. “But I have a space to say, too.”

It’s a fifth-grade girl with huge eyes and a bow that might be bigger than her face perched atop her head. Someone rolls her the talking piece.

“I feel safe when I’m singing or dancing,” she says. “When my whole family gets all together, and we can be singing and dancing, and that’s something, you know? That’s something safe.”

As the Community Builders circle nears its end, the teens strike up a concluding activity that invokes that spirit of celebration: One of the teens sets a beat, tapping his foot and clapping, and the others join in, creating different beats with their hands and feet. Soon the kids join in, too. One kid pops in with a little tentative freestyling, which is met with lots of encouragement. As the beat dies down, the tiny smiling girl who mentioned her neighborhood dogs and cats gives the teen seated next to her a spontaneous hug.

The circle wraps up with a few big questions: “Was this circle safe?” “How did that happen?” “What did we do to make it safe?” “How can you make spaces like this in your communities?”

The ideas these fifth-graders have brought forward represent a more sophisticated framework than those proffered by many well-versed proponents of restorative justice. The kids aren’t talking about a fixed idea of “restoration.” They’re bringing up important contradictions and exposing assumptions about the concept of “safety” and its uses and misuses. They are inquiring toward freedom, issuing, as the gender and criminology scholar Beth Richie put it, “a call to develop something new.”

Maya Schenwar

Maya Schenwar is author of Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better editor in chief of Truthout, an independent social justice news website. In addition to Truthout, she has written about the prison-industrial complex for The New York Times, The Guardian, the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Ms. Magazine, and others.