By: Eric Ruble
The United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world, according to The Washington Post. Proposals for reforming the criminal justice system are as numerous as they are complex – but one solution highlighted by USC students from the Price School of Public Policy and the School of Dramatic Arts is one you may not have heard of before: connect survivors of violent crimes with the people who committed them.
At its root, this concept – called “restorative justice” – provides a model for both survivors and formerly incarcerated people to move past the most difficult chapters of their lives.
To demonstrate the power of this idea in practice, USC Price School undergraduates worked with their dramatic arts peers to create a play. Healing Dialogue and Action (HDA), a grassroots group and leader in the restorative justice space, partnered with the class.
Public policy students were instructed by Professor David Sloane, while Professor Brent Blair taught the dramatic arts course. Once a week, the classes met together in the class titled “Performing Policy.”
“We’re working to diffuse the artificial boundary between policy and theater,” Blair said.
Sloane and Blair taught the course for the first time in 2019. Rather than postpone the course due to the pandemic, both professors chose to lead the class completely online this year. The play, dubbed “Waging Witness,” premiered live online via Zoom on April 27, 2021.
The performance’s format was unique: it wove students’ fictional narratives based on research and support from HDA into survivors’ and offenders’ firsthand experiences. Internationally renowned playwright Velina Hasu Houston wrote the latter scenes.
Sloane said the theater portion of the class introduced policy students to a “radically different” form of sharing their ideas.
“If you want to be persuasive, you have to illuminate and articulate,” he said. “It’s not good enough to do research. It’s not good enough to have skills. You’ve got to be able to disseminate. And one of the ways to disseminate is to use art.”
Through HDA, students discussed the carceral system with people who experienced it. These individuals are known as “wounded healers.”
The conversations were especially challenging via Zoom.
“You want to be right there in the room with them,” Blair said.
Still, the students pressed forward, incorporating the wounded healers’ anger, remorse and journeys to forgiveness into the play. In some cases, they spoke with people whose family member was murdered – and with the person who killed their loved one.
“Us policy students felt like fish out of water,” said Katerina Levandis, a Price student earning her bachelor’s degree in public policy and master’s in health administration through the school’s progressive degree program. “It was a huge responsibility to be respectful of the subject matter and remember the people behind the story. We had to try to do the roles justice even though we’re really amateurs at acting.”
Levandis was one of a handful of Price students to have a performing role in the play. She was cast as a corrections officer and volunteer trainer who is skeptical of restorative justice programs. When she enrolled in the class, she didn’t realize it would culminate in a play.
“Vulnerability was a very scary part,” she said of performing. “But at the same time, it was a really productive, life-changing experience.”
In her scene, she performs alongside Brendan Semian, a classmate who is currently earning a master in spatial economics and data analysis through the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. His character was a volunteer trying to convince Levandis to approve a restorative justice program.
Throughout the performance, students highlight the kind of pushback restorative justice programs regularly receive in carceral settings despite data-based evidence demonstrating their efficacy.
“Healing requires honesty, and when we share our wounds with each other, transformation happens,” Semian said, in character.
“I’m not sure we’re equipped to deal with this kind of program here,” Levandis’ character replies, giving an example of real-world bias that restorative justice advocates face.
The play was just one portion of the class; Price students also had a number of readings to complete and policy papers to write. Among the required literature was “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander.
“I really didn’t understand what a behemoth of an issue mass incarceration in the United States is until I went through all the readings,” Levandis said.
By connecting students in seemingly disparate fields, the course serves as a prime example of USC’s effort to develop more intellectually well-rounded scholars by removing barriers between schools – and the power a less traditional partnership can have for transforming students’ academic experiences.
“Trying to connect people interdisciplinarity, I think, is really important. And this class does that,” Sloane said.
Levandis said the class should serve as a model for how other programs at the university can work together.
“There are so many ways that students can collaborate,” she said. “I hope that other departments can see this class and use it as motivation or inspiration.”
During the course’s inaugural year, the play was performed in a theater with a capacity of 99 people. While the theater was nearly full, this year, 280 people watched the play live online. It remains viewable today, and continues to rack-up views.
The play itself wasn’t an exercise in an unrealistic policy solution; in fact, the topic was recently discussed in the Los Angeles City Hall. Within weeks after the play premiered, Javier Stauring, the founder of HDA, met with L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón and L.A. Country Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, both of whom help determine budgets for programs in correctional facilities.
Stauring said they approved a budget that includes allowing HDA to send wounded healers to communities and correctional facilities.
“That’s monumental, and that’s what we’re hoping to achieve,” Blair said. “I’m not sure if it’s because of our play, but Javier said it certainly didn’t hurt.”
Even the best policies can struggle to gain traction without an effective method to publicize them. The play proves, however, that simply sharing real-world experiences can help people understand both the gravity of a problem and the tangible solutions available to fix it.