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Langston Mayo on Restorative Justice [Podcast] - BCB #52
The idea is, "Hey, I don't even know what restorative justice is, but I know I don't want to send my roommate to jail because we've gotten into a fight."
BCB’s The Transformers talks with Langston Mayo about how his love for art and culture led him to a career in restorative justice, an alternative to the traditional criminal legal system. "I want to create a beautiful resolution," he tells us.
Mayo started his journey advocating for student rights at university and now advocates for all human rights. He rejects the traditional labels of “offender” and “victim,” promoting a more nuanced perspective on conflict. He talked with us about how he has challenging conversations on political identities, cancel culture, and media bias, encouraging individuals to expand their viewpoints and question their preconceived notions.
The following is a partial transcript of our interview, edited for length and clarity. To hear the entire discussion, listen below or on your preferred podcast distributor.
BCB: Langston Mayo, thanks so much for joining us today. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to work in conflict transformation.
Langston Mayo: I am a recent graduate from the University of Oregon School of Law Master's Program and Conflict and Dispute Resolution. It really can go as far as back in my time in undergrad where I was a student rights advocate for our student senate. and from there, getting a hands-on approach.
I was fortunate enough to get my hands in a lot of different areas. I interned for two years at our Ombudsperson's office, and that really intrigued me. What's it like to be a neutral person that is responsible for meeting with all walks of folks from custodial staff all the way up to the provost office and president's office, and how can I show up for them and really empower them to make decisions on their own, to change their work environment or their personal relationships?
And simultaneously, a good friend of mine, Sophia Solano – she's an artist. She dances, teaches dance, and has her whole life. And I also have a podcast and I love film, and [we asked ourselves] how can we merge our love for the arts, conflict resolution, and alternative disputes for resolution?
And so at the beginning of this year, Conflict Artistry was born – the ideal version of the kind of world we want to live in. [In] Conflict Artistry, our unique call to action was, how do we eliminate system harm? Because we know that while there's this option here [of the legal system], there's still a lot of harm that comes in contact with going through being arrested. These different things end up adding to impacts that aren't even related to the case [for] which you might have gotten yourself into “trouble” in the first place.
“We're inquiring, we're investigating, and we're looking to accountability. The soul of it all is, just because you've made a mistake or you've gone in a left direction, doesn't mean that you're not still an important part of your community and the community at large.”
BCB: You have an interesting corner of conflict transformation in which you're working with the criminal justice system. A lot of other people who are involved in this area tend to deal more with people who are having a dispute amongst themselves, whereas you're involved more with a specific event where there has been an offender and a victim. How do you work with people who say, “It’s not useful to use that label ‘offender’ and ‘victim.’” How do you reorient that kind of discussion?
Langston Mayo: That offender language definitely sticks to kind of the status quo of the system. But we know that everyone is affected by harm. Centering around “harm” keeps it really communal. The goal is reintegration and accountability. And so if we're sticking to it being “a harm” rather than this juxtaposition of the victim and offender, that helps break it down a little bit.
BCB: Do you have any data back on how well this is working in the community?
Langston Mayo: Nothing that's publicly available that I can refer to, but regarding restorative justice practices and alternative dispute resolution practices, we're all currently still coming up with, “How do we collect data around this?”
The state wants to be able to prove at the end of this cycle [that] these cases would've had contact with the system and then we divert them. But knowing that restorative justice is not a new thing, it's an indigenous practice that's being reintegrated into society, I have a lot of faith in it.
The soul of it all is, “Just because you've made a mistake or you've gone in a left direction, doesn't mean that you're not still an important part of your community and the community at large.”
BCB: That term, “restorative justice,” is used a lot in conflict transformation. How are you defining it within Conflict Artistry?
Langston Mayo: Indigenous people of African culture early on, in the West African Ivory Coast particularly, have practiced this idea of centering both community first and foremost, and then looking at who's been harmed.
You have the party that's been harmed, and then oftentimes we have the party that has done the harm at the same time. And then you have the facilitators and usually a community rep. And the community rep is [there] to represent those … who may be not directly impacted by the incident, but are still impacted because of their friend, their son, whatever.
Restorative justice starts at the keyword “restoring.” We're inquiring, we're investigating, and we're looking to accountability. The soul of it all is, “Just because you've made a mistake or you've gone in a left direction, doesn't mean that you're not still an important part of your community and the community at large.”
The dream of all conflict resolution practitioners is to work yourself out of the job.
BCB: It sounds like your aim for the community is to not be dependent on the police force and the criminal justice system. What does that look like, if you’ve come into a community and they are empowered to make decisions on their own?
Langston Mayo: That's the dream. The dream of all conflict resolution practitioners is to work yourself out of the job. Different folks are at different places in the journey of community self-realization, for lack of a better term, that you have everything that you need internally.
If you're part of something, especially something that's been long lasting, you have practices, you have traditions. But at first, as a practitioner, if I'm coming into a space that isn't mine or I'm not a community member, [I need to figure out] what was it that you value and how do we keep on track with you all. At the same time, though, we tell them that they still hold their legal rights.
BCB: You seem to focus also on early stage intervention. Do you think it would be better if you come in contact with people before they even have contact with the system?
Langston Mayo: We're still getting ready to launch and every one of our referrals have been self-referrals. That's the goal. That's the idea, is that people find a need … [for instance], “Hey, I don't even know what restorative justice is, but I know I don't want to send my roommate to jail because we've gotten into a fight. I don't necessarily want it to go to level 10, but something has to change.”
The dream is to have people know that whenever something is going “wrong” … that you can do something about it yourself, because we all know that once the system gets ahold of it, you are then just on the ride.
BCB: It’s another option.
Langston Mayo: Yes.
BCB: And what does that look like when you deal with early stage intervention if there's criminal activity?
Langston Mayo: It definitely ranges given on what the “criminal activity” is. It’s a lot of doing proper prior work. So before we even say, “Hey, let's have a dialogue,” we get to know the people that are involved and what happened.
The baseline for any type of healthy restorative dialogue is voluntary participation. The moment that we feel as though this looks like an opportunity for restorative justice or restorative dialogue, but if not everyone involved is ready to participate, we're just not going to come to mutually consensual agreements about how to move forward and heal past what's happened.
I love the idea that I'm not right. I don't believe that I have the best answers. I do believe I have a very unique set of skills and assets to bring
BCB: How do you deal with your own biases? Something that a lot of people don't think about is, “Well, you can't say neutral or you can't say non-biased or middle way,” because, as you mentioned, that in itself has its own biases. So how do you dismantle that approach within yourself?
Langton Mayo: It's a good question. I think back to one of my instructors … she talked about how if you're gonna be a practitioner in the field in any way, know your limitations and know what you can give, and not. It's still about you being comfortable, but very strong in the advocate role.
Because when you're passionate about something that either represents you or something that you stand for, you can do that. I love the idea that I'm not right. I don't believe that I have the best answers. I do believe I have a very unique set of skills and assets to bring to any one personal organization [but I want to learn from] someone who may be disagreeing with me, or someone that may see something different than me. I still wanna understand why they showed up in that way … and I have to honor that, even if it gets close to harmful. I know I'll have a bit more capacity to hold that space.
BCB: Space holding is so important, especially for people in your position. How do you maintain that and self-care when you have all of this conflict raging around you?
Langston Mayo: I find joy in other people. Connecting with other people fills my bucket because I [can] go back saying, “I don't know much of anything, but I know that if I can help break down a barrier … not change someone's mind, but rather just tilt their head and see a different perspective.” You can see a manifest change that gives me warmth.
I don't do it because it's a job. There's an objective because, especially when it comes to restorative dialogue, it's unforeseen. All you can know is that if everyone's willing to be here, let's go on the journey together. For other folks who may be trying to still navigate how to show up for other people in a very emotionally and mentally taxing work, know what you can give any one given moment in time.
BCB: It sounds like you need to hold that space within yourself so you can be useful to other people and that you're trying to keep this as non-bureaucratic as possible. But obviously there are fences around that and you do need some specific steps along the way.
For example, in a lot of places, this seems to start with what you are referring to on the website as a harm report. Can you explain more about what the harm report is and how that helps in the process?
Langston Mayo: [It’s] everything you're doing prior to the dialogue— what is this? Who contacted you first? Was it the harmed party? Was it the person that caused the harm? Or was it a third party? And then you'll see are there things that you can identify … that could potentially activate you, trigger you. And those harm reports inform us about how we show up our individual caucuses with folks before we have our joint dialogue.
And they're our point of reference – who's in the room and how do we get here? Of course, we always revisit it while we're in the space.
You can both honor people's place and pain. [Some] are just simply seeing the endless cycle that violence begets violence. There's a void that won't be filled.
BCB: You're dealing with a lot of areas that are often overlooked in conflict transformation like substance abuse and addiction. Why don't you tell us a little bit about your work there?
Langston Mayo: You never know what someone's showing up with. I have some training in family mediation and I think that's where it shows up the most when you're helping guardians, parents, navigate how to be separate but center their children. And then you see there’s maybe underlying pieces of, “Oh, there may be alcoholism, there may be drug use here.” There may be other ways that people have been coping in the relationship and now also how they're going to do outside of that.
[Something] I'm really proud of that we're able to budget into our grant request was a reparations fund. We have about $10,000 that we allocated to last us over the contract period. When people go through our processes, they come to an agreement, [and] part of that can be receiving funds for treatment services and different things.
When it comes to participants of our program, it's a free service. We may consult for trainings and different things, but as far as participants go, we want to remove that barrier. Also, folks who may have contact with the system, they need to pay for court fees and stuff. The reparation fund also covers those type of things.
So as far as substance abuse goes, that's another thing to remove shame around and [have a] larger conversation about—why we are punishing people for navigating a tough time while making it even tougher on them.
Their focus on restorative justice maybe looks more like revenge. So how do you walk that line?
BCB: When they are dealings with the criminal justice system, especially in the case when you have family members and loved ones who have sustained a lot of harm, maybe even lost a loved one, they're coming from a place of tremendous, unimaginable pain. Their focus on restorative justice maybe looks more like revenge. So how do you walk that line?
Langston Mayo: That conversation is one I have with peers outside the organization often. That’s something that is still to be figured out. I did a lot of my early-on writing about capital punishment and the prison system. And it's really hard to navigate it; [but] you can both honor people's place and pain. [Some] are just simply seeing the endless cycle that violence begets violence. There's a void that won't be filled. I will never minimize anyone's pain.
BCB: It can be difficult when a situation has lots of tangled roots and a long history. How do you even start to untangle all of that and come in as someone who was outside the situation – which is often needed, right? But how do you even start to work through all of that listening?
Langston Mayo: You just listen to folks. You will get most of what you need in the sense of being of service. If you have the emotional capacity, just be there for people. And it may look like an entirely different process than you [assumed.] Our communities have our own tools. And so if we're given space to grieve, folks may be reminded that they can handle it themselves and process themselves.
And that may be it. If it is a bit more hands on, you just have to show up. You have to come in and learn what [the situation] is. Not just, “I've navigated this before, and so now I can do the same thing.” The last thing that you would want to do is cause more harm because you're not … [listening to] the needs or let alone the values of the people there.
BCB: I think that's something that's overlooked a lot in legislation and with the criminal justice system— one size does not necessarily fit all.
Langston Mayo: Yes. I'm glad you even brought that back up because that's where my mind goes. As much as I have large value for navigating the folks who have caused harm, and holding space and empathy for them to be reintegrated, [it’s] in contrast to the traditional system that we operate in now.
We don't actually care about the people who have been harmed. We care about punishment. At least that's what we value as a society when someone's been harmed.
BCB: How can your organization improve the traditional approach to family conflict?
Langston Mayo: If it is a matter of parents that are separating and have children, then I still believe that there are restorative ways that mediation through restorative lens can still serve them. What does this family need? I've talked a lot about being neutral and unbiased, but this is where you interject the desire of “I want what's best for y'all.” So if that means y'all are 50/50 or however the percentage splits, and don't really want to interact, so be it.
You really don't do a lot too much of restorative dialogue because you are there to kind of make decisions and agreements. But if there is a space that [you’re invited to by] the folks involved, then you can tackle some of those long-lasting harms. That may not bring them back together, but it can set up a new path for this co-parenting plan that they're seeking to walk.
They may not know what the process is gonna be like, but they know it's not going to be punitive and they know that there's a chance.
BCB: What is the biggest misconception people have when they come into this process?
Langston Mayo: When it comes to restorative justice, it’s such a long standing thing, but still niche in the kind of new world that we're navigating now. They may not know what the process is gonna be like, but they know it's not going to be punitive and they know that there's a chance. That tends to be some of the rhetoric that's used – “Hey, I know that you don't necessarily call the police on us.”
You have to set the ground rules in all processes. There's people that have come in and tried to leverage their knowledge of the legal system and different things against the other party, and you have to make sure to break down the power and balances that may exist.
Once you just start focusing on people's feelings, we are no longer just fact finding and telling them, “Okay, what happened at what time?” [Now] it’s much more, “So after the fight, how did you feel and how did you feel when no one called you and checked up on you?”
BCB: In addition to specific issues and communities, you also work in skill building. What does it look like if someone brings you into help with that?
Langston Mayo: We're navigating [how to] link people back to the practices that existed before and what we're doing today to honor those. People just wanna know, “Hey, what is this? What is this thing that I've heard buzzwords around – what does it really look like?”
We kind of did that this past Sunday at a community center in Eugene, Oregon called Alluvium. There are a lot of seven day a week community events, and people came in and they just asked us questions. It was a circle conversation that almost turned into a Q and A. And so that's really what that looks like.
BCB: How do you work with people who are resistant to that?
Langston Mayo: I think that's one of my favorite people. I love the not-right-away buy-in, because that means that you're critically thinking. I want you to not be sure about what this is, would be.
Listening and centering people – that's what my master's program was – how selfless communication can reduce harm and relationships … If you can show up and have the capacity to center people, it changes everything, because even if you unintentionally have an agenda or you're trying to push someone in a certain direction … it's no longer about the person sitting in front of you or the people sitting in front of you. That's where all the love and magic is lost.
But if someone feels alienated, again, my basic understanding again of human psychology and conflict is that you're going to double down.
BCB: I like that you said the people who are resistant are some of your favorite people, because that shows that you are open to talking to them, and learning about them, instead of just saying, “You are the enemy and I need to end you.”
Langston Mayo: Oh my goodness.
BCB: How do we invite more people to take that approach?
Langston Mayo: We all have different roles in this revolution … I like reading [about] psychology of conflict and dehumanization. I will – at least as Langston – I will not do my part in furthering polarization and fracturing.
I know that that's a tall task to ask of many people. Since we've gotten into this space when we think about cancel culture and other things, they're all understandable symptoms of a culture that has gone unaddressed for a lot of historical harms and violence.
And we have to know that the symptom cannot be the end-all of how we heal. We can't just [say] “Oh, the cut is bleeding” … That's revolutionary. That is the answer. There’s bleeding because there was harm. Now how do we get some peroxide? We're gonna end up having a scar to show that we've been through some stuff, but it's at least healed. I know that people don't just wake up and choose violence. You get there.
BCB: You're talking about deplatforming and cancel culture, people who say, “This opinion is toxic. I don't like the history of these people and the way they've been acting, and we just would like to banish you from the platform because you, your opinions, and your history does not have a place with this more just and peace-focused society that we're trying to work on.” What do you say to that?
Langston Mayo: Certainly we have no shortage of examples happening in real time. Private-owned companies have their own right to do as such. Though when we show up in real public spaces that are shared, we cannot mimic that – to terminate your usage on the platform [for which] you sign terms and agreements … We have to acknowledge the continuum that for there to be harmless actions, there have to be harmful actions.
It doesn't mean that we give praise, we amplify platforms. Because when you push people too far, that's where we get the polarization … There are our trolls, you know – that's for attention. But then there's folks that may actually be experiencing hurt and harm, even if it seems like, “Oh, you have privilege, you have these different things that are really true.”
But if someone feels alienated, again, my basic understanding again of human psychology and conflict is that you're going to double down. One great example is folks who are identifying in the anti-vaccine realm that I'll never forget in doing research on group conflict. By and far and large folks who identify within the same [are more open.] Mothers who identified as anti-vaccine were able to reconsider and then start vaccinating their children. They were only convinced by people who also identified as anti-vaccine. So the idea that if you push people so far into a different direction, all they ever will be is an echo chamber and there will only be the binary polarization that exists …
If we do this as a team, we can go somewhere. But as soon as we start putting a stiff arm out and saying, “You're over there, we're over here,” we are only living just in the precipice of what that looks like.
BCB: How do you work with people who are reticent towards this type of process, because they don't understand that, for example, everyone has the same goal. “We want to end homelessness in Portland. We have different ideas of how to get there.” How do you work within that?
Langston Mayo: We may all want the same goal, but are we starting from the same place? … I don't believe that you can't remedy harm if you don't know the root of it … We want to be on the same page, but also everyone involved has to be willing to do that self-reflection that you may have played a part, whether it be firsthand or a beneficiary of historical actions that have led to the situation that you're trying to change.
If you still feel compelled to only listen, watch, read, insert media channel here, or news publication, I cannot, and I do not want to, pull you away from that. Because that's inorganic and inauthentic and it won't last.
BCB: How do you invite people to step outside what they may have embraced as their whole identity? “I am blue, I am red.” How do you help them to understand that people are a lot of different things?
Langston Mayo: That's a great question. It's kind of going back to that cancel culture piece, that … when folks feel [if they aren’t] heard for a long time, and when you’re able to find something that speaks to you, you almost hold onto it for dear life because you've been alienated and exiled in every other way. I swear – at least I can only speak for myself – that I know I'm willing to hold so much space for those people, meaning anyone who may feel like this … This is what I do.
As far as political ideologies go, I love having those conversations because you start deconstructing, “What do you actually value? What policy is important to you?” … Then over time you start seeing, “Oh, maybe that's not all what that part represents.”
And I think if you really cared about those policy pieces that you just talked to me about … if you wanna make people feel good again, like that they're winning at something, or you're conserving tradition, look and see. Are these parties, are these things that you've attached yourself to, really serving what you say is important to you?
BCB: I think since we're seeing this fracturing of media that often – sometimes unwittingly and unconsciously people tend to self isolate into a bubble, and they don't have any information that complicates their narratives. So what do you invite people to do to help them understand that there's a more complex reality out there?
Langston Mayo: … The bias media chart – I'm pretty sure that's the name of it – that's one of the greatest tools I ever discovered in undergrad. It was, “Look at this chart talking about even the small in-the-corner, underneath-the-rock media organizations that sometimes catch wind or have their own small fan base of people that subscribe and listen. Just look at it!
If you still feel compelled to only listen, watch, read, insert media channel here, or news publication, I cannot, and I do not want to, pull you away from that. Because that's inorganic and inauthentic and it won't last … Access to knowledge and information, we all know, is privilege too. And there are disconnects from that. However, that's where … I invite, and say, “Well, you have to be able to show me a real point of reference from whatever is being written.”
And so I just meet people where they're at, and if I know that they maybe academically have an academic background, I can be more scholastically rigorous with them. But if they're common folk, like I just ask them, “Hey, where have you seen that elsewhere? Did you see that come up elsewhere?”
BCB: How did your academic background and your coursework prepare you for what you're doing now?
Langston Mayo: Oh, immensely. In some ways. I always did … things you do outside the classroom. But once I got into the conflict and student master's program, research methods and psychology and negotiation, I really intentionally put myself outside the ones [that] just require that. I want to be able to consume information critically.
I have a podcast called Isolated Thoughts that I've been doing for about three years now. And I talk about a lot of film, music, and stuff, but it's all about critically consuming information. And while it may sound on the nose and wherever it may be, it is also a response to that.
And that's where a lot of my studies gave me – armed me with the tools of knowing how to look at charts and graphs and means and derivatives and knowing. “Okay, I may not be able to necessarily easily give this in the layman's term to the next person, but I can give like the Cliff notes version.”
Like, ”Hey, this chart looks like a meme that was made somewhere, and doesn't have any root to something that has been researched and looked at. And so while this may affirm a belief that you may have had, I just challenge you. I can give you five examples from the same source that may not be real. How do you feel about that?” And then from there we move on.
BCB: Talk a little bit more about the artistry half of this. How are art and culture influencing what you do and how can that be employed to encourage a more complex view?
Langston Mayo: Artistry is about creative solutions. The idea [is] that we have a tool set, we have a system that we adhere to and the processes that we've been learning [about] how we arrive at our destination. It's always gonna be creative.
Sophia, one of our co-founders, is an artist, and I am a lover of film and music, [and] I want to create a beautiful resolution. I want that. It isn't just, “Okay, you're going to do community service and then you're going to pay back the broken damage that you did to the window.” No. What if the kid that broke the window at the store, they [really can] paint. We help them from our reparations fund, pay for the window. But the stone owner has been wanting to do something about the empty façade of the wall on the left side. Now, instead of graffitiing, they can now paint something.
We all learn different ways, but I believe we're all artists. Even if it isn't the tangible creating space, it's about being able to appreciate it.
BCB: And sometimes art, since it's so emotional, can also be a flashpoint.
Langston Mayo: Yes.
Yes, we're all gonna have a first reaction, but we're all gonna end up having very different post reactions to that we can be in control of. And just encouraging people to look at that. Why are you reacting, and what is it, and how do we honor that?
BCB: And sometimes our philosophies can clash. For example, here's a statue. It's been there for 150 years. When you have different philosophies and they're both approaching it as a zero sum game, where do you start?
Langston Mayo: Absolutely. And that's where they turn off, maybe, the traditional restorative brain. And I just go back to my mediation training of “Oh, there's interest happening here. I say, I want this thing.” And then you start digging [in] with “There's a need there.” And, if you're fortunate enough to really stick with it, the value of the little bit of identity I have is not being erased.
And that also means leaning more into the statue piece, like Confederate pieces and stuff. “Oh, okay. I guess, we have subscribed to the Southern pride piece that is coming down as an attack on you.” Through sharing information and history and pieces, you actually surprise the other – like many other things that you do that are southern traditions and practices than this. Maybe objectively a statue of person that doesn't represent all people.
Again, I won't even speak on behalf of what other people want and need … [If] I have a visceral reaction to something and that's my truth, [I ask], “Why am I reacting in the first place that way?” It’s like if we stub our toe … Yes, we're all gonna have a first reaction, but we're all gonna end up having very different post reactions to that we can be in control of.
And just, you know, encouraging people to look at that. Why are you reacting, and what is it, and how do we honor that?
BCB: [Sometimes] you're working with people who are from completely different philosophical areas. If, for instance, you're saying there's a systemic problem here and we need to work on reforming or dismantling the system, and the other side says, “That's a Marxist way of going about it, and I really don't think that's the issue, and I completely disagree with even the premise of the question,” how on earth do you go forward from there?
Langston Mayo: I love those, I love those type of remarks, too, because when we start using certain writers, sociologists, different people that have showed up in history of time, when we demonize folks, it's easy to get into going back to dehumanization. When you say that “This is a Marxist thing,” why is that the lead front rather than, “Hey, this contradicts Republic or Democrat,” if that is where you're coming from. And then we start tackling from there.
But if the lead man, for lack of better terms, is something or actually someone that is a scapegoat for why something is wrong – socialism, all the different buzzwords – let's get back at why does it bother you? Why does it not sit right with you for change? Because again, we all know change can be scary for everyone. So that is understandable. But what about if this isn't serving everyone? If this isn't for everyone, why are you not interested in everyone having something? And of course we know there's a handful of folks that would very much say no. …
Extremes still exist, so we don't wanna exclude them from conversation, but that just takes a whole different set of experiences and commitment to a process that you can get people to get to just loosen the grip a little bit, [to realize] … I've now attached myself to an identity, a cause or whatever the case is, and [I am not allowing myself] to be fluid because that tends to be scary.
BCB: What are you working on right now that you're excited about?
Langston Mayo: We're gonna be accepting more clients, and when we do that … [we’re] just trying to hopefully be a beacon for what's possible across the country. And of course in the large community here in Oregon, we can really do something. We will commit to alternative practices.
BCB: Well, exciting stuff. Thank you so much for your time, Langston. We really appreciate it and we would like to check in with you later on to see how you and your goals are faring.
Langston Mayo: Thank you.
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