If the pen is mightier than the sword, Ethan Ucker guessed that creative verbal expression, if used constructively and positively, could be equally powerful.

So, he and a colleague, Emmanuel Andre, decided to co-found Circles & Ciphers, a youth development leadership organization for young people of color who have been incarcerated or involved in the juvenile justice system.

The organization, established in 2011, is centered on the concept of “peace circles,” which are non-hierarchical settings where young people can share their experiences and form relationships based on empathy. While one person facilitates the circle, each participant is viewed as having an equal part to play.

The youth, who sit in circles, take turns expressing themselves using the spoken word and in other creative ways. Ciphers are a hip hop version of circles.

Through these activities, young men and women can learn skills to navigate conflicts and facilitate circles with other young people in a number of settings, including high schools, universities and the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

“A lot of success is measured by what happens—deciding to go back to school, getting a new job, taking on a new leadership project,” Ucker said. “But I want to see success where things don’t happen. So if a fight didn’t happen, that’s a success.”

Even though the program’s participants are equipped with tools and strategies to build healthier relationships, Ucker envisions an autonomous justice system through which youth can call someone other than the police when conflict breaks out, triggering an independent justice system supported by community members.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Ucker to discuss issues surrounding young men of color and his ideas on how to best address their needs.

Why did you co-found Circles & Ciphers?

When I started working with Emmanuel, what we really wanted to do was bring our experiences as restorative justice practitioners to be supportive of young people in this community whose voices were being drowned out or silenced in a lot of the discourse about violence in this community.

Why do you say traditional social programs do not support young people?

There are a lot of systems that “support” them­­­­—schools, prisons, courts, cops—and then the battery of after-care related institutions, such as those for substance abuse, mental health services. They provide a service or house them, but all of those institutions are underpinned by racism. I think it wasn’t a question of creating another institution that was better. …What we really want to do is meet young people where they’re at, find out what’s going on with them and what they need and what they’re lacking.

What does Circles & Ciphers do?

We have a mission statement that Circles and Ciphers is a youth leadership development organization that fuses restorative justice practices and principles with hip hop, arts and culture, in order to empower young people of color to transform legacies of violence and incarceration and disengagement. I think that’s how we would generally say what we do. But I feel like our work is creating a new infrastructure and a new justice system. It isn’t about being an alternative. It’s sort of an autonomous move away from these systems and institutions to create something that’s community-based, that’s driven by and centers the voices of young people, empowers them as the leaders of this infrastructure and this new justice system. People can experience justice without having to call the cops, without having to call the court, without having to support a system that incarcerates.

How do you see the organization moving forward?

Every summer, we do a ton of work. And that work is all about helping young people get their needs met but also giving them the tools to meet their own needs—putting them in positions where they can earn money, where they can have responsibilities, where they can have community, where they can have fraternity. …especially in the summer, [young black men are] getting picked off, getting killed, getting stopped or harassed. That’s the external deluge of oppression that our work can’t fend off. … I’ve turned this corner of feeling like our mission has changed, even if it doesn’t explicitly say that it’s changed. Our mission has become more about this autonomous model. …We’re weaning ourselves off institutional support. I don’t think that having a restorative justice alternative in this community that you can use—instead of going to detention, going to court, or going to the police station or Cook County Jail—I don’t think that is good enough.

How have you seen participants become community organizers?

At a certain point, they sort of transition from participating to facilitating, or keeping, a circle, keeping a space for others. …For the most part with other young people, it’s always great to have a peer leader, a peer mentor—that kind of dimension is always valuable. Especially, as a white dude, that’s something I could never bring. These youth leaders are able to bring a kind of cultural sensitivity that’s extremely important. It’s almost strangled out of the other spaces. Other spaces like institutional spaces are almost always led by experts or professionals who are adults.

Can you tell me a story that says something about yourself and why you decided to get involved in this kind of work?

I don’t really think I decided. It just sort of seemed like this is what needed to be done. …Initially, the way I learned about restorative justice, as well as the system it is an alternative to, was working with men serving life sentences in a state penitentiary outside of Philly. I got an opportunity to build sustained deep relationships. They’re all older, a lot of them had been locked up for 30 years, a lot of them raised kids from the visiting rooms in prison. That was a unique opportunity for me to forge those relationships and really understand where they were at and understand the sort of series of events, the predetermined institutional factors, that led to them being in that position. A lot of them had talked about how they knew they were going to die in prison, but then that happened. This dude had a heart attack, and he died and he was never free. That was the end of his life. That was very harrowing, made me very hopeless, and so I think because I’m sensitive to that, I figured that it was best to work with young people. I was always interested in working with young people but that sort of moved me to move down the age scale. Instead of working with older adults who were in prison, I could work with young people who are dealing with the same factors—those same conspiring forces but are earlier on in that process.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Yuri is an intern for The Chicago Reporter.

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