Changing Policy, Healing Community: a Participatory Action Research pilot study about a Latino Immigrant Community’s Campaigns for Restorative Justice in Orange County, California

Image of a healing circle: people in a circle with their arms around each other
UC Irvine
Constance McGuire, PhD

In recent years, social protest of police-related shootings in Los Angeles and Anaheim, as well as the escalating migrant crisis on the California-Mexico border, have given regional visibility to two of the most urgent policy concerns of our time: criminal justice system reform and comprehensive immigration reform. These two issues intersect locally in Santa Ana, California, a majority Latino city with large numbers of undocumented immigrants and a pattern of conflict and mistrust between the police and the community (HIP 2015; Montoya 2013). In Santa Ana, a group called the Restorative Justice (RJ) Collaborative has taken an innovative approach to addressing these crises caused by social inequality by promoting policy change. The RJ Collaborative uses a restorative justice framework that emphasizes healing from trauma, both collective and personal. This Collaborative stands at the intersection of two growing bodies of research: trauma studies and participatory policymaking. However, the current scholarship has not examined how participatory policymaking practices could be designed to be intentionally healing, and how healing practices in turn can enable more effective policy campaigns. Through ethnographic examination of this innovative practice of healing-as-policymaking in Santa Ana, this pilot study will bring together topics that the existing literature too often relegates to separate spheres: trauma, which is dealt with in private with the family or the therapist, and policy, dealt with in public through political mobilization and legislation.

The researcher’s proposed project, Changing Policy, Healing Community: Latino Immigrants’ Campaigns for Restorative Justice in Orange County, California, will address this gap in the understanding of participatory policy making with traumatized populations by conducting a pilot study in collaboration with Santa Ana’s RJ Collaborative. This group of community organizers and city residents—most of whom are 1st, 1.5, and 2nd generation Latino immigrants—are using the framework of restorative justice to conduct community healing circles, which function both as a space for participants to heal from traumatic experiences and as a tool for community organizing in a participatory policymaking initiative. The findings from this research may be used to make policymaking practices with communities marked by trauma more humane, inclusive, and politically impactful.

Building on over three years of experience as an applied anthropologist with the RJ Collaborative, the researcher is using funds from the Center for Collaborative Research for an Equitable California for support between July 2015 and December 2015 to: a) conduct participant observation in healing circles and participatory policymaking meetings, b) conduct 5 in-depth interviews with participants in RJ campaigns in Orange County, c) and, hold one meeting to begin planning a community oral history project with and for Restorative Justice Collaborative members.

When fully funded for a 2 year period, this investigation of a participatory policymaking process in Santa Ana will produce much-needed knowledge about the intersection of two key policy issues of our time—immigration and police conduct in communities of color. This research project is of critical and timely relevance to the CCREC’s mission to work together with communities to understand and solve California’s most pressing problems.