restorative justice11.jpg

A handmade craft promotes the restorative justice program at the Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage.

Kyle McDaniel/State Journal archives

It’s a painful irony for Ananda Mirilli that the School Board run she tried to use to call the community to come together to do better for Madison kids ended up embroiled in such controversy.

“I’m seeing an even bigger divide in the community, and I’m sad that we are in that place,” Mirilli told me Wednesday. “But I’m hoping to continue to work to find healing in our community. We really need to have a conversation about the achievement gap.”

Mirilli, a Latina who lost her bid for Seat 5 on the Madison School Board in the Feb. 18 primary, decided against a write-in campaign when primary winner Sarah Manski dropped out of the race just two days later. But Mirilli hasn’t given up hope that the election — despite Manski’s surprise withdrawal and the allegations of dirty politics and hypocrisy it incited — can yet be made an occasion to bring together people now sometimes working at odds to improve education in Madison schools.

And as the Restorative Justice Program manager at YWCA Madison, Mirilli is wondering if restorative justice principles might be the way to do it.

“I’m wondering if we could hold a circle — not to find out the truth, but to see how we can move forward on this,” Mirilli told me.

Mirilli says she was wrongly depicted by Manski as pro-voucher because of a supposed association with Kaleem Caire of the Urban League of Greater Madison. Caire on Wednesday resurrected allegations of double-dealing by leaders of Madison Teachers Inc. in negotiating his Madison Preparatory Academy charter proposal that was rejected by the School Board two years ago.

Meanwhile, members of local communities of color and conservative commentators are using the Manski affair to question progressives’ commitment to issues like education and engaging more African-Americans and Latinos in civic life.

It’s all got people talking, all right, but it isn’t the discussion about quality education and closing the academic achievement gap that Mirilli was hoping for.

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

“Since Madison Prep, a lot of things have happened to fuel argument and mistrust. Relationships were damaged,” Mirilli says. “We want public schools, but we also want to reduce the achievement gap and other disparities. So how do we have healthy school communities?”

Restorative justice circles, which Mirilli has helped bring to several Madison middle and high schools, don’t focus on who was “right” in a dispute, but on respectful dialogue with the goal of repairing relationships.

What would such a circle on the broken relationships among local education activists look like? Who would be sitting there; and what might those first words be when someone picked up the talking stick?

Mirilli says she’s still trying to flesh out the details in her mind. One thing she knows for sure: “In the circle, you need to trust each other.”