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Q + A: Joshua Saleem

Photo: / AFSC

Director, St. Louis Peace Building Program

Young people in St. Louis are taking the lead in working for racial justice in their schools and community.

Q: Tell us about the goals of AFSC’s work in St. Louis.   

A: Our goal is to help young people access their own power to change themselves, their communities, and society. We do that by supporting youth-led efforts in several ways. We work with Northwest Academy, a school that understands the importance of developing students as change agents. We have a peer mediation program that trains students to help their peers resolve conflicts peacefully. It’s a practical way to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by providing alternatives to suspension or expulsion.   

We also provide support to Northwest’s restorative student court. When a student commits an infraction, their peers serve as judge and jury, working with them to discuss the impact of the harm, who was hurt by the harm, and what the student can do to repair that harm.  

Q: What kind of results have you seen?   

A: We know it’s changing the school climate. Since the peer mediation program began during the 2013–2014 school year, the number of student suspensions has decreased significantly. This year alone, peer mediation helped prevent 15 to 20 suspensions. Beyond the numbers, students play a lead role in shifting the school from a punitive to a restorative discipline model. In our peer mediation workshops, students deepen their experience with empathy, caring for and understanding where others are coming from, and feeling connected to the larger community.  

When students first take part in training for student court, they’re given mock cases to deliberate on, and some students initially want to give out harsh punishments like suspension—exhibiting the kind of inclinations of our larger society. But then they see why we need to get away from that punitive mindset—and how restorative justice could help end policies and practices that have disproportionately criminalized Black, brown, and poor people.   

Q: What work is happening with young people outside of schools?   

A: Over the past year, around 60 young people have taken part in our Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) group and AFSC Freedom Schools, which help young people build their analysis of how poverty and violence in St. Louis relate to a history of structural and institutional racism. YUIR participants also implement projects that challenge racism nonviolently.

A few years ago, they created a community garden in an area where there wasn’t a grocery store within five miles. The garden is run by community members and helps them grow their own food and teach kids where their food comes from—an example of young people building systems that come from and are accountable to the communities they serve.   

Recently YUIR produced a documentary called “Pipe Dreams,” which focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline. Through interviews with students, teachers, and administrators, the film examines implicit bias, the effects of internalized racial oppression, and how racism plays out in schools. 

Q: What’s next for this work?   

A: YUIR plans to use “Pipe Dreams” in public presentations to pressure the school district to change policies that feed the school-to-prison pipeline. This summer, we’re holding a town hall meeting where the public will hear from students directly affected by these policies.

At some point, we want to see the restorative tools we use at Northwest expanded to other schools in St. Louis. Every school should have resources and staff providing a vision for restorative discipline.   

In the long run, my hope is that the young people who come through our program become adults in positions of power in these institutions and, with the understanding of how their decisions can affect a whole community, do what’s needed to make change. ■