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Meet Dina: Deepening Connections to Advance Restorative Justice

“Relationships, relationships, relationships!” That is what Dina Thompson says is the key to restorative justice. “It’s about building, restoring, maintaining and healing relationships,” she elaborated.

In her role as Executive Director of Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition, which provides training, support, consulting, and conferencing services in restorative practices to organizations, courts, schools, communities, and with youth, Dina partners with the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable’s Juvenile Justice Works (JJW), an initiative focused on reducing contact with and improving outcomes resulting from juvenile justice systems to advance equitable outcomes for young people.

JJW is comprised of more than 35 partners, including the Buffalo Public Schools, Erie County Probation Department and the Buffalo Police Department. In 2021, the group completed an action plan with the nationally recognized W. Haywood Burns Institute.

Following that, JJW hosted focus groups with community leaders and youth. The overarching theme from the focus groups was that everyone must participate in order to strengthen community policing.

As a result, through racial healing circles and open dialogue, Dina hopes to empower and equip youth with some agency about their responsibility in keeping the community safe, as well as help develop strong, positive relationships between community members, such as youth and law enforcement. “By helping others make these connections, we’re breaking down barriers and tensions, even if it’s small baby steps, and people are more open-minded, which creates a ripple effect,” Dina said.

She noted that restorative practice is not only about justice, but also about what people need to be able to meet the expectations of just behavior. “Sometimes that means we have to address the social inequities that are in our cities, states and nation,” she explained. “If we’re not looking at these underlining issues that cause behavior, we’re never going to have true justice.”

Dina values the partnership with JJW that furthers the important restorative justice work in Western New York. “The number one thing we hear from kids is that they need jobs, So how are we going to streamline all of these different things? There are many people doing great work, but if we bring people to a table, we can do better work. Juvenile Justice Works gives people an opportunity to explore ideas, and then create something out of those ideas.”

The JJW collaboration has allowed for different facets of restorative justice coming together to create a supportive pathway for youth, including partnering with Buffalo Public Schools to implement restorative justice programs in the district, and introducing the practices to more juvenile residential centers. Dina attributes this movement to the conversations around the JJW table, which has also led to other Roundtable initiatives, such as the Youth Employment Coalition, developed to create a coordinated approach for youth ages 16–24 to access career pathways leading to family-sustaining jobs. In addition, from the JJWorks table as a Co-Chair with Sharon Brown, Chief of Student Support Services at Buffalo Public Schools, Dina stated, “We are implementing a Restorative Practice culture to increase positive engagement in school and reduce suspensions, thereby, increasing school safety and academic success.”

“The racial healing and being involved in expanding that work and doing more circles within the community is an overflow of taking that into schools,” Dina explained. “That to me is the equitable part. We’re meeting youth where they are, and we’re here to help everyone and ensure that they have what they need in order to be successful.”