Cleveland Play House and Restorative Justice

By Corinna Schulenburg posted 01-11-2019 10:47


At the EDI Institute's June 2018 National Conference in St. Louis, we were fortunate to meet with two local restorative justice advocates, Tabari Coleman and naomi warren. I'd long wanted to support the integration of restorative justice more deeply into the theatre field. As our field finally acknowledges the traumas caused by misogyny, racism, ableism, and all forms of oppression, we need an approach to justice that, in the words of, offers restoration, accountability, and communal healingSo I was thrilled when I saw my friend and member of the first EDI Institute cohort Pamela DiPasquale posting about her restorative justice work at Cleveland Play House. She graciously agreed to answer a few questions.

GUS: Please tells us a little about the work you do at Cleveland Play House (CPH).

PAMELA: Cleveland Play House acts as a community-based arts organization in thirteen distinct Cleveland Neighborhoods. Through partnerships with the United Way of Greater Cleveland, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, The US Department of Education and the Ohio Department of Education, we employ 19 full-time artists and 6 full-time seasonal artists across a web of 3 community-based arts programs.

Together, the artists engage 50 cultural partners, 20 social service agencies and 15 educational agencies while employing an additional 21 community members as CPH hourly staff members. Annually CPH leverages more than 2.1 million dollars in resources that directly benefit those communities.

In our communities, CPH strives every day to utilize theatre as a means to:

  • Provide accessibility to theatre, theatre education and arts
  • Promote neighborhood stability
  • Enable a sense of belonging
  • Create productive uses of underutilized spaces
  • Create links to nonlocal resources
  • Provide space for cross-cultural dialogue
  • Provide a safe haven
  • Provide opportunities to learn new skills
  • Engage neighbors in creative-problem solving
  • Engage Youth as citizens
  • Develop leadership and decision making skills
  • Build opportunities for Life-long learning
  • Build knowledge across cultural boundaries
  • Build understanding of the democratic process

As a Community-based arts organization in our communities, CPH leverages a variety of relationships, capacities, and activities in unusually effective ways and realizes three overarching results:

  1. We build social relationships.
  2. We encourage problem solving.
  3. We provide access to resources.

GUS: Why did CPH introduce restorative justice practice to your education department?

PAMELA: At the hub of each one of our neighborhoods is a school that hosts our artists and all of the partners and programs. The rules and regulations at school often call for punitive action that more often results in the temporary or permanent removal of a child from the school community leaving both the community and the children (the transgressor and the victim) in need of a repair that will never be addressed. We wanted to play a part in changing that dynamic.

 Restorative justice focuses on restoring the relationship and less on behavioral consequences. It allows us to atone for our transgressions, and restore ourselves and those around us so we can all be contributing members of our community. Just recently I watched one of our teaching artists deftly apply restorative justice in a classroom of kindergarten students. One stepped on the hand of another eliciting screams and tears. The injured students yelled at the transgressor, “Get out! You hurt me! You can’t be here anymore!” The toe stepper yelled, “I didn’t do nothing! I don’t like you anyway!” The artist froze the class and with a simple conversation, restored the community:

                “What happened?”

                “My hand got stepped on and you need to kick them out!”

                “I am sorry to hear that. Did you step on their hand?”

                “I did, but it was on accident, cause I was just having fun playing the game and I was too excited!”

                “Did you do it on purpose?”

                “No, and I am sorry. Does it still hurt?”

                “It feels better.”

                “Do you accept their apology?”

                “I do.”  (hug is given)

                “Is it okay if they stay to play with us?”


…And the class continued. The hurt was acknowledged, the transgressor accepted responsibility, no one was exiled from the community, and the class and relationships were restored.

Though the transgression applied above was in a classroom, our communities and their members encounter aggressions from both inside and outside of the community daily. In order for us the build social relationships and encourage problem solving with the goal of creating safe and creative spaces we must employ the practice of restorative justice at every level of play.

GUS: Tell us a little about the training itself and how it was received.

PAMELA: We hired a consultant that we were familiar with to facilitate the training and invited full-time staff, seasonal staff and hourly community members to attend. The facilitator employed a number of exercises (that were delightfully theatre-based and very familiar) to allow us to better understand how to use a variety of tools and practices.  One exercise paired people as we sat across from each other in two concentric circles. The facilitator asked us to rotate the circle pairing us with new people each time he presented a new question. For me and one partner, the question “tell about a time when you repaired a relationship that was broken,” drew deep feeling in me and my partner, who was one of our community members. We had just met each other in that concentric circle and found ourselves hugging and consoling each other within minutes as we struggled to answer the question posed to us. When the facilitator called to conclusion, we realized that other pairs had been equally moved. The entire dynamic of the room changed, it felt as if our humanity was collectively sitting in the center of those circles and we were all committed to protecting it for ourselves and those around us.

GUS: How do you hope restorative justice will influence the education department and CPH as a whole?

PAMELA: It is my hope that members of our education department will consistently work to build positive social relationships with everyone around them- colleagues, community members, students, families, partners and friends. That rather than thinking first to punish or remove a transgressor from a community, they will instead think how to restore the safety and integrity of all those impacted by the transgressor and the transgressor themselves… And that by thinking this first, each and every day, they are also reminded that art is a healing medium, a place where we can come together to grapple with ALL of humanity and repair the bonds that tie us together.