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Monday, May 1, 2023

Finding Purpose in Restorative Justice

Written by Anais Rivera

My name is Anais Rivera and my ancestors come from Native American and Mexican roots. I am the great-granddaughter of Matilde “Robert” Portales, Ernestine Louise Davis, Irene Gurule, Benito Bustos, Lougarda Ermalinda Maes, and Leroy Cruz Gonzales Sr. I am the granddaughter of Geraldine Marie Bustos, Benjamin Rivera, Holly Bernadette Romero, and Leroy Cruz Gonzales Jr. I am the daughter of Dorian Samuel Rivera and Seferina Holly Rivera. I believe in the interconnectedness of everyone and everything and know that there is a divine destiny for all. I pull over in my car often to admire beautiful landscapes. I close my eyes tight and say a prayer when taking off in an airplane. I cry easily, especially when I see an injustice being done or I see others hurting. I talk too much during movies and laugh too loudly at corny jokes. I love deeply and I am known to take care of others. I am a nurturer. I am an advocate. I am an educator. I am a peacebuilder. 

In May 2021, the US was just coming out of the mass shutdown due to the pandemic, and I was transitioning from my undergraduate degree in International Relations where I was considering fields in Foreign Service or working for an NGO like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. Since those fields were nearly impossible to obtain amid a global pandemic where international travel was not possible, I decided to apply to obtain a Master of Arts in Peace and Justice Studies. And although international human rights work was an interest of mine, on the sidelines, education remained my passion and my calling. At the time I applied for my master's degree, I was working for Teach for America, a national nonprofit organization focused on dismantling educational inequity in US school systems. Spending time with this organization and advocating for its mission truly sparked my passion to advocate for marginalized communities in the education system. I wanted to research peace and justice efforts and how to better shape our nation, and ultimately share my research and knowledge by building and forming the minds of students into equity-minded leaders. A Master in Peace and Justice Studies ensured that I could choose either route that I was interested in (international or domestic) and was crucial in helping me learn how to make a meaningful impact in my local and global community as a successful changemaker, social innovator, and leader. 

My journey through the Master's program displays me finding my way into who I am as a peacebuilder. Alongside obtaining the degree, I have been working both a full-time and a part-time job which informed much of my coursework. However, it was the strong connection within the Restorative Justice community at the university that truly allowed me not to find myself, but to reconnect to the fire within myself that simply needed a spark to ignite the flame. In the first course for the Restorative Justice Facilitation and Leadership certification, I never felt something resonate so fluidly and deeply. I felt so validated because a lot of the core principles of RJ that I was learning I was already doing with the students whom I worked with daily, and living restoratively was how I was striving to be and show up in my everyday interactions. I found out that “restorative justice” just felt innately part of who I was and how I was raised.

PD training circleProfessional Development Learning Opportunity with Oceanside District staff in a circle learning how to utilize restorative practices when resolving conflict.

As luck would have it, while taking that first course, I received an email from Justine (as part of an email list) for a job opening with the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC) and their Juvenile Diversion Initiative. Working two jobs-60 hours per week-and being a full-time student, I was not looking for a new opportunity nor needed another obligation. However, on a whim and questioning whether I was even qualified, I sent in my resume. That next week, I received a call from the CEO who thought based on my background I would fit better working with their Restorative Justice in Schools team. I went through a round of interviews and got a job with NCRC as a Restorative Justice in School Specialist for the Oceanside Unified School District (OUSD), and within a matter of months, RJ engulfed my life. As I started to embrace my natural calling for youth advocacy and RJ, all my coursework in every class started to have a restorative embellishment. I started engaging my assignments more meaningfully with what I was experiencing day-to-day and could apply my learning to aid in making the school district where I work a more restorative, safe, affirming, and welcoming space for all students and staff.

MANA club circleCommunity-building restorative circle with a group of girls in the Hermanitas Program, part of MANA of San Diego focused on empowering Latinas through education, leadership development, health and fitness, cultural awareness, community service, and advocacy.

The journey to where I am now was simply a string of “Yes’s”, an aligning of stars, and an embrace of something I have always known to be true. It is hard for me to truly encapsulate in a few words how I have been led full circle over the past couple of years. Finding a home in the USD RJ community has helped me connect more fully to who I am. It has helped me to recapture my culture, traditions, and family but most importantly it has connected me to what I believe to be my sacred purpose. Who I inherently am is directly linked to my work and my impact on this world. As an RJ Specialist, I have been able to work with the OUSD’s Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) to support in implementing restorative practices district-wide at their 22 different school sites; 2 high school, 4 middle, 3 K-8, 12 elementary and 1 alternative. Within the first 6 months of working, our partnership was able to offer 14 professional development training sessions with 316 school staff in attendance, 266 one-on-one coaching sessions, 15 classroom circles with 377 students and 46 staff in circle, 81 students sitting in Restorative Forums regularly while coaching 5 adult staff to hold these forums, 19 formal restorative conferences, countless one-on-one meetings for support, and the active involvement of parents and community members the whole time. Although the quantitative data is impressive, it doesn’t compare to the qualitative data which is even harder to capture. I’ve had parents cry during circle in appreciation and gratitude, I’ve had students open up more fully about their experiences than they ever have before, I’ve seen “AHA” moments in many teachers and staff’s eyes during training and coaching sessions, and I’ve worked alongside extremely skeptical and resistant individuals of restorative practices and seen them gain a new appreciation for the philosophy. That said, there is still so much more to be done in creating a sustainable restorative culture within this single school district, but seeing the passion and drive of the individuals I work with spurs hope within me that it is possible.

MANA_clubGroup of Hermanitas after presenting posters they made on influential Latina role models


Anais co-facilitated 3 sessions on Introduction to Restorative Practices for youth that attended the first annual Black Student Summit hosted by the San Diego County Office of Education. 

I graduate this May with my master's degree, and I plan to continue working with NCRC as a Restorative Justice Practices in Schools Specialist because I’ve just begun this journey and I know that I can make a meaningful impact in this role. I am applying to USD’s Education in Social Justice doctoral program because through my experience and work, I have displayed an extreme passion for social justice, and as I begin this journey as a person of influence within the education system, I wish to exponentially expand my understanding through research on how to be a social justice champion in this work. I want to be a lifelong learner and although I still have a long way to go, I have the Kroc School to thank for equipping me with the skills and knowledge necessary to turn my desires to change the world into a tangible outcome and impact for good. 

Anais Rivera

About the Author

Anais Rivera

Anais is a MA in Peace and Justice candidate at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego.