Justice for Who?: A Brief Overview of Restorative Justice in Chicago

Written By: Shiri Burson

We all know what justice looks like. We saw it on Friday October 5th when Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to second degree murder and 16 accounts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, a sentence for each bullet he put into 17 year old Laquan McDonald's back. This punitive form of justice is the form of justice we all root for when it comes to those who deserve it. Lock the bad guy up and throw away the key. The trial on Friday successfully did just that. But what it didn’t do was promise safety to an entire demographic of people impacted by police brutality. Can you imagine a type of justice that seeks to preserve safety through community accountability and harm reduction? As stated in the Safe Schools Consortium “Restorative Justice is a philosophy that maintains all members of a community to have a collective responsibility to develop and sustain positive relationships in order to prevent harm from occurring, and that when conflict does occur, it is addressed in a way that focuses on the harm caused, rather than on the rule/law that was broken.” 1

Restorative Justice has been in practice for centuries. Indigenous cultures have come together in circle for conflict resolution since before written history. The term Restorative Justice can be attributed to a tiny town in Manitoba, Canada. The aboriginal people of Hollow Water worked in tandem with the Canadian judicial system to heal members of their community from a continuous cycle of sexual abuse and violence. Offenders were given the option of going to jail or going through a process of healing conducted by elders within the community, their families, healing professionals, and their victims. Community members used traditional Ojibwa rituals to hold circles where offenders were held accountable and given agreements they needed to follow.2 A similar process is happening here in Chicago. North Lawndale Restorative Justice Community Court has teamed up with the Department of Justice to hold non violent offenders between the ages of 18 and 25 accountable. Instead of incarceration offenders are given agreements to uphold that are decided by their peers and the person they’ve offended. 3

Chicago HOPES for Kids uses restorative discipline in the After School Program. This season the program team completely revamped the key components to behavior management at each shelter site. HOPES uses a behavior chart as a tool to help young ones decipher their behavior throughout the entire program day. Originally the chart was a vertical system. Everyone gets a clip with their name on it and everyone starts in the middle of the chart on “I am ready to learn.” Throughout the day clips can move up or down at the discretion of staff and volunteers depending on whether children are being cooperative, thoughtful and kind, good listeners, or could make better choices. The goal of the original behavior chart was for students to reach the top where they become “role-models.”

A State/National Americorps Member felt this system needed some improvement. Nora Laidman suggested that we hang the behavior chart horizontally, not vertically in the hope that it will “help students begin to see their choices as an ever evolving path rather than a ladder of superiority that one may slip and fall from.” Everyone still starts in the middle where they are ready to learn. However clips are moved horizontally to show growth or regression throughout the day. At any point a child’s clip can be moved in the direction of growth when their behavior improves. The program team also changed the wording. Instead of “I am being a role-model” the final destination is “I am being a leader.” Another major change within the HOPES classroom is a Feelings Finder, where young ones can place a magnet over a depicted feeling on a chart. This tool allows our youth to identify and discuss their feelings with a volunteer or staff. It can be used at the beginning of the day or during program when moods change.

Throughout Chicago there are initiatives that use restorative justice principles in order to build community and heal community. Chicago Public Schools have written into their code of conduct more restorative practices such as peace circles. In an article by Ken Butigan he explains that Peacemaking circles are

composed of victims, wrongdoers and members of the community,

it creates a container designed to hold anger, frustration, joy, truth,

conflict, opposite opinions and strong feelings. The Peacemaking Circle

process maintains that no one has the complete truth and strives to

create a bigger picture. It does this using shared agreements, rituals,

symbols and a talking piece held by the person who asks to speak.

A Circle Keeper — what we otherwise might call a facilitator —

guides the process. 4

From 2010-2014 CPS has seen a 36 percent decrease in school suspensions since implementing restorative approaches to discipline. 5 Organizations like Alternatives Inc hold Peace Circles and train youth, teachers and community members at large to become Circle Keepers.

Outside of the school halls in another institutionalized system Pamela Purdie, affiliated with Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, trains officers within Chicago Police Department to become Circle Keepers. In a video produced by A Connected Chicago she describes her experience as at first being intimidating but after time she was able to see the humanness within the officers she worked with. She states “my dream [is] to bring police officers with our youth interacting together so they could see that part...human beings trying to be accepted, trying to be heard.” 6 Enacting restorative practices within CPD won’t guarantee the safety of black men like Laquan McDonald from police officers who have implicit bias, but it is the beginning to a path of healing.

Although restorative justice was created as an alternative to punitive disciplinary actions, it innately builds and rebuilds human connection and empathy. As this movement grows, so do the interconnectedness of the communities impacted. So do accountability, relationships, and healing. While restorative justice is seen in large scale institutions such as the Department of Justice, it starts small with lasting effects as can be seen at an after school program for children experiencing homelessness.


1-Safe Schools Consortium






A Glance at Mckinney-Vento

Written By: Nora Laidman

The often cited McKinney-Vento Act is a series of laws set in place to protect the right to go to school for students experiencing homelessness. This law covers any student without a fixed, regular nighttime residence, also known as Students in Temporary Living Situations, in the Chicago Public School Act. This umbrella covers students living in shelters, those living doubled up (with a family or friend due to financial constraints), students staying in motels or trailer parks, and those living in cars or any place that is not ordinarily used for sleeping.

A principal pillar of this act is the right of students to stay in their school of origin even if they move due to loss of housing. If they are to stay, transportation shall be provided to them in the form of a bus, public transportation pass for child and parent, or other means. According to the National Law Center of Homelessness and Poverty (NCLHP), students remaining in their original school while homeless “means they are less likely to fall behind in their schoolwork, repeat a grade, receive unsatisfactory scores on standardized tests, or drop out of school. They can also find comfort with familiar teachers, friends, and activities”. Should a school transfer be necessary, the act further requires that schools enroll students immediately without typically required records such as proof of residency, immunizations, school records and other papers.

Another key tenement of this act is a student’s right to get all the school services they need, a foundation laid by the Title I Elementary and Secondary Education Law. Its purpose is to grant funding needed to educate disadvantaged children and give them whatever extra academic help and resources they may need. By these laws, students must also be given access to all field trips, before and after school activities, as well as extracurriculars such as sports. For children with disabilities, all special education needs and services must be met. Students must also be tested for gifted programs and granted equal opportunity to partake in them.

Should these rights come into dispute, the student is to be placed immediately into the school and given services until the dispute is resolved. The school must place the family with a liaison who will quickly resolve the conflict. If it is not resolved quickly or their needs are not met, the family has three routes as listed by the NCLHP . The first is to contact their state coordinator. For Illinois this is Marica Cullen, reached at 217-557-7323. A lawyer is another useful resource, with free legal services available at  www.lawhelp.org and www.lsc.gov. Lastly, contacting the U.S. Department of Education is a step families can take into getting schools investigated that do not follow the law. To reach the Department’s Education for Homeless Children and Youths Program, call (202) 260-4412.

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                                                                                                     -Nora Laidman, Americorps

Cited Sources:

"Education of Homeless Children and Youth: A Guide to Their Rights .” National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty - About Us, June 2011, www.nlchp.org.

“Title I, Part A Program.” Home, US Department of Education (ED), 5 Oct. 2015, www2.ed.gov/programs/titleiparta/index.html.

Behavior Patterns of an Abuser in Domestic Violence

Written By: Namratha Meesala


Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is practiced by one partner to gain or maintain control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence is one of the most chronically underreported crimes. Anyone can be susceptible to domestic violence, regardless of age, religion, gender, sexual orientation, educational level, ethnic background and/or socioeconomic status. While women report higher rates of experiencing domestic violence overall, men can also be victims of abuse.

In general, domestic violence is often viewed as physical assault that results in visible injuries to the victim. However, physical violence is only one type of abuse. There are several categories of abusive behavior, each with its own devastating and unique consequences. Other forms of abuse include, but are not limited to: sexual, emotional, economic, psychological, threats, stalking and cyber stalking.

Power and Control

One consistent component of domestic violence is one partner’s persistent efforts to maintain power and control over the other. At first, the abuser may appear charming, charismatic and even easy-going, however, as the relationship continues, aggressive and controlling tendencies begin to manifest and intensify. While at first certain behaviors, such as name calling and possessiveness or distrust may easily be downplayed, over time, controlling behaviors can evolve into more serious incidents such as threatening to hurt or kill the victim if they speak to family and friends. Abusers may also manipulate the victim by apologizing profusely for their actions or attempting to convince the victim that these are displays of love and care. Overall, it is important to keep in mind that domestic violence is not about the loss of control but about total control.

The Cycle

       Source: https://bit.ly/2xl070s  Figure1: Domestic Violence Cycle

Source: https://bit.ly/2xl070s

Figure1: Domestic Violence Cycle

In gender-based violence, men are often found to be controlling, manipulative and may even believe they are victims themselves. Some abusive behaviors may stem from a belief in a pre-ordained right to be in charge of all aspects of the relationship. At times, the abuser may seek to change the other’s identity. When this fails and the abuser cannot tolerate it, the path chosen in abuse. Domestic violence is cyclical and can be difficult to escape. The image below demonstrates the phases an abusive relationship may go through and the behaviors abusers may exhibit to gain control in the relationship.

Advocating for the Victim

Domestic violence victims may be hesitant to seek help for reasons such as threat of physical harm, isolation, economic stress, etc. A victim may also stay with his or her abuser for various reasons such as: culture, religion, love, financial hardships, children, etc. However, even if the victim is able to escape his or her abuser, that does not necessarily mean that he or she is completely “free.” Leaving can provoke greater violence as the abuser may feel a loss of control over the victim. In fact, the victim is often times in greater danger following the escape of the relationship. Studies have shown that 1/5 of homicide victims with restraining orders are murdered within two days of obtaining the order and 1/3 are murdered within the first month.

Creating Change
Ending abuse begins by providing a secure outlet for the victim to escape safely from their abuser. This includes increasing the number of safe havens, domestic violence shelters, counseling services, and other forms of trauma support. However, rather than simply addressing the victim, the perpetrator needs to be offered services as well. Apart from being held accountable for their actions, abusers must be offered the opportunity to break the cycle. Not doing so may lead to either the abuser continuing the same behavior with the previous partner or preying on someone new. Interviews done with abusers have shown that abusers rarely believe they have a problem. Therefore, this highlights a need to provide counseling services to the abusers as well. If the issue is not addressed on both ends, a single abuser can generate several victims and continue the cycle of violence. Providing counseling support will have a potential for victims and abusers to refocus and reinvent themselves.

Lastly, abusive behavior is never acceptable, whether it’s coming from a man, a woman, a teenager, an older adult, etc. Everyone deserves to feel valued, respected and safe.








Gentrification Displaces People, Cultures, & Memories

Written By: Xavier Mann

Gentrification is a complex process that generally involves the rebuilding of a dilapidated, or what is perceived to be dilapidated, neighborhood which results in an increase of affluent people in this area. Some praise gentrification by pointing out that the process promotes economic growth, beautifies neighborhoods, and decreases crime rates. Others lambaste the process by emphasizing that it displaces low-income residents, cultures, and memories. Gentrification is accrete or gradual meaning that the convenience and historical significance of a neighbor may drive a few affluent people to move to and open up businesses in this area, and as others begin to recognize these changes and feel more safe they too move in. This may cause some to believe that gentrification integrates minority neighborhoods, but in actuality gentrifiers prefer areas that are already white. According to Scholars Strategy Networks, "Neighborhoods with more blacks and Latinos were less likely to continue to gentrify or even to reverse course and decline after early signs of transformation" and "[In Chicago] only neighborhoods that were at least 35 percent white continued to gentrify after 1995". This further isolates people of color and increases segregation and inequality. Nonetheless, gentrification is happening and has astounding impacts on housing. 

Tranquilina Alvillar was 25 years old when she moved from Mexico to Williamsburg, a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn. Tranquilina landed a one-bedroom apartment for $400 a month, and it was rent stabilized. For 25 years, Tranquilina lived in this apartment and experienced minimal increases in her rent. In 2011, property developers bought the building for $4.5 million and wanted to completely renovate it. In order to do so, they demanded that all tenants vacate the premises immediately. When some tenants refused, the developers began offering tenants cash. First, Tranquilina was asked to move for $17,000 but she refused, then she was asked to move for $40,000 and she refused again. Eventually Tranquilina was the only tenant remaining. The property developer began to perform construction on the surrounding apartments and hallways. One day, Tranquilina came home discovered that her keys no longer gave her access to the building; the developers had changed the locks. Months later, a city inspector made a visit to Tranquilina's building, saw the hazardous conditions, and demanded that she leave immediately. Tranquilina was given a few hours to pack her things and then moved in with her nephew who was living in Coney Island. The developers finished renovating the building and increased the rent of Tranquilina's apartment from $700 to $2900. Tranquilina could no longer afford to live in her home. 

In 2007, Rosalinda Hernandez moved into an apartment in the West Town neighborhood of Chicago. Her rent was $500 a month and similar to many of her neighbors she did not receive a written lease but instead made a verbal agreement. Rosalinda did not know she had a right to a written lease. In 2015, her landlord decided to sell her building, and a few months later Rosalinda was given a no-cause eviction notice; it was wrongly addressed and slipped under her door. Under the impression that this was a mistake, Rosalinda continued to live in the apartment. About a month later, Rosalinda's landlord gave her a verbal notice asking her to move out within 24 hours. Somos Logan Square, a antigentrification group, helped Rosalinda protest her landlord and the legality of the property management's eviction notices and she was able to stay. A few months later, the property management company refused to address a number of maintenance issues such as a broken furnace and broken plumbing, so Rosalinda decided to withhold rent. Eventually she was taken to eviction court and lost her case. 

The reality is that gentrification causes the cost of housing to increase which eventually pushes people out of affordable housing. Commonly, individuals relocate to low-income areas causing poverty in cities, such as Chicago, to become concentrated.  This can place more burden on families living in these neighborhoods and also on surrounding neighborhoods, which can make it more difficult for families to escape cycles of poverty and homelessness. 

How We Can Support Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth Experiencing Homelessness

Written by: Xavier Mann

 Francisca Ferreira Dr Vasconcelos showing a photo of her daughter, Dandara Dos Santos, 42, who was brutally killed in Brazil last month.(NYTIMES)

Francisca Ferreira Dr Vasconcelos showing a photo of her daughter, Dandara Dos Santos, 42, who was brutally killed in Brazil last month.(NYTIMES)

Early March, a video surfaced. It was shot using a cellphone camera and it featured Dandora dos Santos, a 42-year-old transgender woman from Brazil. The video circulating on social media platforms like YouTube shows Santos being kicked, brutally beaten with a plank of wood, and thrown into a wheel barrow before being carted off to an alley by multiple assailants. Santos is then shot twice in the face and bludgeoned to death. This gruesome story is apart of a larger narrative of the violence inflicted upon transgender people in Brazil, where murders of transgender people have tripled since 2008. 

This is not an anomaly. Globally, according to a report released by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights titled Discrimination and Violence Against Individuals Based on their Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, "Between 2008 and 2014, there were 1,612 murders, across 62 countries, of transgender persons." This is equivalent to a killing every two days. 

In Chicago, trans women on the West Side do not trust the Chicago Police Department,  perhaps because transgender people face relatively high rates of harassment and discrimination at the hands of law enforcement. Last year in September, T.T. Saffore was the third transgender person to be killed in or near Chicago's Garfield Park neighborhood. The Chicago Police Department consistently refused to acknowledge Saffore as a transgender woman and misgendered her has a man as they proceeded with the investigation. 

 A portrait of TT Saffore by Melisa Stephen of For The People Artists Collective

A portrait of TT Saffore by Melisa Stephen of For The People Artists Collective

Oftentimes this cycle of marginalization and violence begins early on in the lives of individuals who identify as transgender. Transgender youth are particularly vulnerable to homelessness due to family rejection, bullying in school, sexual violence, and a lack of resources that culturally and appropriately serve them. Because of these factors, rates of suicide attempts and substance abuse are significantly higher for trans youth. Even homeless shelters can be hostile environments for transgender youth and oftentimes they are pushed out into the streets where they are exposed to violence and sexual exploitation. Click here to gain an understanding on how we all can better support transgender and gender nonconforming youth who are experiencing homelessness. 

There are several organizations in Chicagoland that work with LGBTQIA individuals who are experiencing homelessness. Here are two organizations that provide educational resources and volunteer opportunities, as well as a WBEZ list of organizations in need of support.

The Night Ministry - Youth Housing

Youth Outlook - Youth Services

WBEZ - 14 Chicago LGBTQ organizations you should know

The Effects of Homelessness on Children’s Health and Nutrition

Written By: Nam Meesala

The rate of poverty among U.S children has been increasing. Children comprise 40% of the U.S American poverty population. Poverty erodes the nutritional and health status of children. Many homeless individuals eat fewer meals per day and are more likely to have inadequate diets and poor nutritional status in comparison to individuals with stable living situations. This is also linked to other negative conditions such as, inadequate nutrition, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and underfunded school districts which greatly impact children. Homeless children are at a greater risk for poor academic achievement, dropping out, abuse, neglect, behavioral issues, socio emotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.

Some of the impacts of poor nutrition on the development of a child is described below:


  • Maternal malnutrition during pregnancy increases the risk of premature birth, smaller head size, and lower brain weight.

  • Premature babies are vulnerable to an increased risk of developing learning problems when they reach school age.

Infancy and Early childhood:

  • The first 3 years is a period of rapid brain development in children. Too little energy, proteins, and nutrients during this sensitive period can lead to lasting deficits in cognitive, social and emotional development.

  • Protein malnutrition, iron, iodine, zinc and other vitamin deficiencies can cause brain impairment.

  • Hunger negatively impacts a child’s motor skills, activity level, and motivation to explore their environment.


  • Families often work to hide food insecurity and some parents may feel embarrassment that they are not able to feed their children. Children may also feel stigmatized, isolated and ashamed by their lack of access to food.

  • Hungry children are more likely to repeat a grade, receive special educational services, and mental health counseling.

  • Hungry children are 7-12 times more likely to exhibit symptoms of conduct disorder (fighting, trouble with teacher, not following rules, stealing) than their non-hungry peers.

  • Hungry children show increased anxiousness, irritability, and aggressive/oppositional behavior in comparison to other kids.

Lastly, multiple stressors associated with poverty result in a significantly increased risk for developing psychiatric and functional problems. The effects of undernutrition depend on the length and severity of the period of hunger. Effects of early undernutrition are not permanent, with better nutrition, environmental stimulation, and emotional support a child can lead a healthy life. The human brain is very flexible and can recover from early deficits but brain structure can remain vulnerable to further negative experiences throughout childhood.






Trauma Informed Math- Pt. 2

Written By: Jerry Winn

Continuing from last month’s advocacy piece this article is about how math education can benefit significantly from being trauma-informed, as well as the ways in which our students can benefit from the new Common Core math standards. Mental functions like math happen through complex processes in the brain, and a basic understanding of these processes might help foster a deeper appreciation of the subject. Researchers in the field of cognitive neuroscience claim to have identified at least two distinct subsystems for two different kinds of math problem. Remember that being trauma-informed doesn’t mean that we need to know all or any details about someone’s experiences - only that we be committed to being compassionate, supportive, and to protecting of their dignity. After a brief summary of  math and trauma in the brain, comparing two multiplication methods will hopefully help to illustrate these points.

Trauma can be thought of as a deeply disturbing or distressing event that leaves a lasting impression on the psyche, as well as on the brain itself. Because trauma doesn’t go away, it can be triggered and cause someone to experience a fight-or-flight response and relive aspects of the reaction to the toxic stress of the initial event. During a trauma reaction the right amygdala generates a fight-or-flight response, and the left brain, which is largely responsible for logical and analytical thinking, is shut off. This can become a serious obstacle in the way of a student’s education - asking someone in the midst of a trauma response to engage in left-brain thinking styles is like asking someone to reach for an object with their arms tied. Thinking that is less dependent on the left-brain may be more accessible to people with trauma.

Researchers found that there are two different subsystems in the brain that handle two different types of mathematical tasks. Both engage, in different ways, both the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Both sides of the brain operate independently and cooperate with one another. They develop relative strengths and weaknesses. The ways in which they do specialize are nuanced and complementary to one another. Even though the two hemispheres of the brain operate independently, they share information in a very efficient manner. This means that learning through one circuit is likely to be applicable within other similar circuits. One of two subsystems in the brain adapted for math is biased toward areas in the left-brain. Unfortunately previous math education methods were very focused on this type of mathematical learning, such as exact calculation and memorization of arithmetic processes.

This left-brain oriented circuit seems to be adapted for tasks like exact arithmetic calculation and memorization of facts for quick recall. It overlaps with other left-brain areas that are involved with other logical functions like grammar. The other system, however, engages both hemispheres of the brain more equally. It makes use of areas engaged with visual-spatial reasoning. It is this second circuit that had previously been neglected in math education. Common Core math methods engage this kind of reasoning head-on. In contrast to the logical, exact calculations of the left-brain system, the visual-spatial math system underlies processes of approximation. Approximation is a crucial tool in math, maybe undervalued by previous education standards. Approximation is both practical for everyday use and of theoretical importance. It’s worth noting that methods of approximation underlie much of advanced mathematics such as calculus, which is required for many STEM and business careers. Those familiar with calculus (or interested in irrational numbers such as pi) may recall that an exact answer usually doesn’t exist - only an arbitrarily close approximation based on context and modeling.

One notable way in which Common Core attempts to reconcile the divide that has grown between these two kind of reasoning is by encouraging students to explore the connections between arithmetic and geometry - something that many of us who were educated via the old methods may have never come to fully appreciate. This connections aren’t coincidence - they are due to the fact that these ways of thinking are complementary and deeply interconnected. This pair of abilities, which are distinct but interrelated, seems to align with the distinct cognitive circuits referred to by the neuroscientists. With an understanding rooted in deep connections like these, students are free to use their right-brain to aid their left-brain or vice versa. There are two ways available instead of one. Since trauma involves a lack of access to the left-brain, these visual-spatial, right-brained methods could help students circumvent the obstacle.


A good example of this approach is the new Common Core multiplication method called the ‘area model,’ or ‘box method.’ It has these names because it involves drawing a visual aid: a rectangle where the numbers to be multiplied represent the lengths of the sides. Remembering that area equals length times width, we interpret a multiplication problem as finding the area of a hypothetical rectangle. This reinforces the understanding of the connection between arithmetic and geometry, and when students are eventually taught the standard algorithms for multiplication (‘carry the 2’ etc) they are in a position to appreciate what they are doing. The area model also lends itself to approximation; whereas a problem involving decimals or fractions might be frustratingly abstract when trying to multiply out via the standard method, seeing the numbers as lengths and areas of a rectangle offers an intuitive, visual-spatial support for the abstract symbols.

Neuroscientists suggest that there are two modes of mathematics in the hardware of our brains, roughly corresponding to “left-brain, exact calculation, verbal/logical skills” and “right-brain, approximation, visual-spatial skills”. These are distinct but not mutually exclusive. They are both available to us. A deeper understanding of mathematics comes from the ability to work with both of these techniques, and to confidently apply them in creative ways. This ability is very helpful in seeking STEM or business careers. We work with a population that suffers from trauma, and so an increased emphasis on non-left brain learning can be seen as an opportunity for organizations like ours. Considering that an important step in overcoming a trauma response is reintegrating the left and right brain, exercises that involve this kind of executive function could take on a therapeutic dimension and help with social-emotional learning and executive function.

Math First- AID

Written by: Jerry Winn

Starting in Fall of 2017, Chicago HOPES for Kids expanded our capacity beyond literacy to include a strong focus on mathematics in our after school program. In considering our implementation of this program, we were initially inspired by two sources: 1) the new direction of Common Core math, which puts new emphasis on a big-picture understanding of math and often associated with right-brain learning and 2) a discussion of trauma-Informed teaching practices.


Trauma can be thought of as a deeply disturbing or distressing event, either a single event or chronic, that leaves a lasting psychological impact. It is impressed on the right-brain, which is associated with sensory input and episodic memory recall. Trauma doesn’t disappear. It can be triggered by words, facial expressions, smells, and many other experiences. This causes aspects of the toxic stress of the initial event to superimpose onto normal situations. While these symptoms may have been helpful in surviving the traumatic event,.they become maladaptive in normal situations.

People with trauma, especially children, are often not able to understand that these perceived threats are not real, and it requires leap of faith to accept this counterintuitive notion. However, there is a neurological Catch-22. A trauma-reaction involves a high level of activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for “fight, flight, or freeze” reactions. Due to this, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for analytical abstraction, becomes inactive. The ability to think in abstraction, which would be helpful for differentiating reality from the trauma reaction, becomes unavailable during the trauma response - meaning logical thought isn’t happening.

A recent brain imaging study from Stanford University discusses the neurological reaction of people with math anxiety when faced with a math problem, and it looks a lot like a trauma reaction: high activity in the amygdala and low activity in the prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, this reaction did not occur when the researchers presented both groups with spelling problems, even if they were difficult. Research has shown a close relationship between math and executive functioning that doesn’t seem as strong with other subjects, which are often more focused on memorization of content rather than performing mental tasks.

This reflects a deep learning process, unrelated to rote memorization. If students feel or experience a threat in the process of learning, their attention to the task is disrupted because they pay attention to the (real or perceived) threat. When this happens, the prefrontal cortex, where problem-solving takes place, shuts down. One way to interpret this is that some people have experienced trauma in some way associated with math, and this trauma prevents a math-anxious person from beginning to work on a problem. The children we work with tend to have a high incidence of trauma which may have been compounded by experiences at school. This could result in an even more complex negative reaction to math. Given math’s heavy engagement with executive functioning, this has the potential to become even more disadvantageous for our students.

Significantly, the Stanford researchers found that when the math-anxious person actually began to work on the problem, their neurological activity approached that of the control group  who did not have math anxiety. The important factor in this was overcoming the initial response that prevented the individual from beginning the problem. On some level, the brain anticipates similar trauma to ensue so it prevents the process from beginning. Overcoming this anxiety requires that we actively interact with our own brain.

The fact that mental activity physically changes the organization of the brain, known as neuroplasticity, is significant. The result is that new physical and mental behaviors that can become habitual through repeated engagement. This is evident in the way trauma is permanently impressed on the brain, resulting in a learned behavioral reaction, but also in the way we can overcome this trauma by learning and establishing new responses to our trauma-reactions. In fact, this is a tenet of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy - a highly flexible form of talk therapy - where people learn to change unhelpful thought patterns underlying problematic behaviors. Neuroplasticity is a double-edged sword and it is in our best interest to learn to use it with intent.

At the end of the day, our left and right brain are supposed to work together like our left and right hands. We can use right-brain thinking and understanding to get the left-brain unstuck from trauma and anxiety responses. Then, we can use left-brain analysis to reflect on what just happened and intentionally direct our capacity for re-learning. After repeating this process multiple times, the plasticity of the brain allows the new behavior to become the norm. We come to believe through experience that we can solve the problems we encounter, meeting less and less resistance as the new pathways become more established.

Math is a powerful subject, and has the potential make or break a child’s educational experience. Its engagement with executive functions in the brain can cause experiences with math to either have lifelong benefits or become traumatic and compounding. Also, considering its central importance in STEM and business fields, a student’s experience with math can be extremely empowering or disabling. A trauma-informed approach is a best practice for math education and for life in general, and the right-brained methods of Common Core math offer us a new world of opportunities for helping children with this potentially challenging subject.

Doubling Down on Double Up

Written By: Nora Laidman

This past June, The University of Chicago’s UrbanLabs released a startling report on the state of homelessness in Chicago. The number making headlines was a shock: more than 10,000 families currently experiencing homelessness- here. Where were they all? And how had our data been so wrong for so long? A similar study completed in 2017 accounted for just under 6,000 individuals. To reconcile these chasms, it takes a bit of education.

For Chicago Public Schools to identify a child as experiencing homelessness they must “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time place of residence.” Thus, CPS, and the Department of Education as a whole, recognize “doubling up with friends or family” as a form of experiencing homelessness. Previous studies only analyzed data gained by looking at individuals and families that accessed the CoC (Continuum of Care) for services such as food and shelter. The UrbanLabs report combined CoC findings with those of CPS to create a more complete sketch of the population. Also referenced was information provided by the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) on "at-risk" families, as well as families who obtained services not provided by the CoC.

Knowing the extent of students living in a doubled-up situation is critical. For the 2016-17 school year, new data revealed that 57.7% of families accessing CoC services, while experiencing literal homelessness, had reported or been identified by CPS as living doubled-up less than a year earlier. In part, this trend results from families frequently doubling up with an already low-income household. Therefore, a reexamination of the eligibility requirements for public assistance provided to households with unrelated dependent adults is a path that has been advocated by policy makers since the 1990s. Of course, this would also require reframing the general mindset surrounding doubling up.

There are so many different routes that can be taken when providing support systems to any given subset. Marin and Vaccha (1994) succinctly express the current institutional setbacks facing doubled up families and glimpse at future possibilities available when they write, “As long as public assistance programs exclude those people who share their homes with unrelated adults and reduce the allotments of families who share a home, public assistance will be a barrier to doubling up. Instead of considering the practice of living with unrelated adults while on public assistance as a kind of fraud, perhaps we should view it as a way to stretch severely limited resources as a strategy for easing the low-income housing shortage.

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Cited Sources:

Marin, M. V., & Vacha, E. F. (1994). Self-help strategies and resources among people at risk of homelessness: empirical findings and social services policy. Social Work, 39(6), 649+. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.naperville-lib.org:2674/apps/doc/A16435546/AONE?u=napervillepl&sid=AONE&xid=60badfba

Nathalie P. Voorhees Center For Neighborhood and Community Improvement. (n.d.). 2017 Homeless Point in Time Count & Survey Report (Rep.). Retrieved https://www.cityofchicago.org/content/dam/city/depts/fss/supp_info/Homeless/2017PITSummaryReportFinal.pdf

UChicago Urban Labs. (2018). Ending Family Homelessness Report: Understanding the scale and needs of families experiencing homelessness in Chicago (Rep.). Retrieved from http://www.csh.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/20180531_Ending-Family-Homelessness-Report_FINAL.pdf

The Importance of Mentorship

Written By: Latoya Jones

“I was looking at pictures today and I cried. I was thinking about how way back then we were struggling and so poor and you two didn’t even know it. You two never gave me any trouble. I just wanted to let you two know that I love you dearly.”

This was the text message that I got from my mother while at work some months back. I am the oldest and I have a brother who is 2 years younger than me. I started to tear up while reading this and my coworkers asked what was wrong. I told them and we started to talk about our childhood experiences. It made me think about the same things the students we work with might be dealing with. I was a child who dealt with homelessness. My parents divorced by the time I was 6 years old. After the divorce, we lived in a shelter for some months. We moved in with family a bit after that and eventually bounced around living with either friends of my mother or with family. We did not have our own housing until I was in 6th grade. I did not get my own bedroom until I was in 12th grade. I knew that we were poor but my mom shielded how bad we struggled.

In my youth I had mentors who helped shape and mold my life. These mentors came in many forms: teachers at school, instructors at after school programs, Sunday school teachers, members at church, and family members. If it wasn’t for these mentors, I would not have had exposure to things outside of my world. These mentors in my life exposed me to art, theatre, Black history, different foods, the city outside of my neighborhood, and to what life would be like to go away for college. I was extremely shy in my youth. Knowing that I was so shy, I had countless adults who took it upon themselves to acknowledge me and ask me how I was doing. All of these people helped me in some way through my youth. Their presence was important, it brought some brightness into my life. I eventually attended college with encouragement from many of my mentors.

Mentorship is important for youth to experience, especially for the population Chicago HOPES for Kids serves. According to an article from Psychology Today, youth who have a mentor have fewer behavioral issues and are more confident. This is according to a 5 year study sponsored by Big Brothers, Big Sisters Canada. Also according to the article, youth with a positive mentoring relationship are twice as likely to go to college and less likely to indulge in drug use or break the law. Based on the research of this article, if you have the following six qualities, you would make a good mentor: supportive, active listener, you push youth just enough, you have an authentic interest in youth as an individual, you foster self decision-making, and you lend perspective. If you have most or all of these qualities, you should consider volunteering and being a mentor.

There many benefits for young people when they have a mentor. According to www.youth.gov, youth who have a supportive relationship with a mentor have a better attitude about school, enhanced self-esteem, improved behavior at home and school, and better relationships with teachers and parents. Some of the benefits that mentors receive are an increase in self-esteem and a “sense of accomplishment” as well as “increased patience and supervisory skills.” You may think that you do not have the time to volunteer but according to The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), “59% of all volunteers who engage in mentoring work full-time” and are more likely to volunteer than those who do not work. College students are the most likely to volunteer. Volunteering is a good experience for college students, especially with gaining supervisory experience and they’re not being too far removed from childhood. They can also relate better to young people. Many mentors are willing to work with youth from various backgrounds, whether they are children who are immigrants, children of incarcerated parents, and children with disabilities, according to CNCS.

Due to my childhood experiences, I decided that I wanted to give back and be a mentor to young people. When I was laid off from work, I decided to volunteer and came across Chicago HOPES for Kids. I am so glad that I did. My experience as a volunteer with this organization has been a great one. I volunteered at Primo when it was in the Austin neighborhood and then volunteered with SRHAC once we started a program there. I saw myself in the children in our program because I was once that child too. It is very important for people to give back to their communities. It is also very important for young people to see people who look like them and who come from the communities that they come from. As a Black child, it was important that a lot of my mentors looked like me. I did have mentors who were not Black and they touched my life very much as well, but the mentors who were Black definitely touched my life greatly. My family came from the Austin community and that is the community in which I was born. It was important for me to volunteer in that community. It was also important to me that the children saw a volunteer who looked like them. With that said, I am asking everyone to volunteer their time no matter your race, ethnicity, or background. I am especially calling for people of color to volunteer in communities of color.

Eventually, I became an Americorps VISTA with Chicago HOPES for Kids and I am now completing my year of service as of June 30th, 2018. I have learned so much from the staff and other Americorps at HOPES as well as the children we work with. Giving service is important. It helps the communities we work with. Being a mentor is important. You can start being a mentor by volunteering.The children in our program get so excited when they see us coming to program. It gives them a little bit of brightness in their life. It will give you a little brightness in yours too.

If you would like to volunteer with Chicago HOPES for Kids, please sign up here: http://www.chicagohopesforkids.org/volunteer/