Gary was arrested when he was only 15 years old for second-degree murder after getting involved in gang life and was sentenced to 15 years to life at age 17. After a transformational time in prison where he studied restorative justice, and did deep internal work, he started working with youth for violence prevention. He has only been out of prison for about two months and is already working on developing a program to divert youth from violence and gangs. The following is from a Q+A I did with Gary about the fruit tree planting where we met (you can read our post about it on Growing Together’s blog) and his perspective on youth violence and its alternatives.
(above) Gary at our July 7th Fruit Tree Planting
Mallika Nair: What was the most meaningful moment or part of the fruit tree planting event for you?
Gary Malachi: The most meaningful moment for me is when Donitra’s family spoke and shared about their loss. They exercised strength and courage to speak before community members who they might have not known. Witnessing their pain made me feel like I had a sense of responsibility in their loss because I committed violence in my past. Empathy resonated within me.
MN: As some one new to the Work that Reconnects, how did you experience the exercises?
GM: That was a unique workshop for me. Talking to someone that I dont know about my beliefs, experiences, I think it’s therapeautic. It reminds of the NA/AA 5th step, “admit to God, to yourself, and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs”. For me, I interpret that as me taking responsibility for my actions, then I seek out God and his forgiveness, then get it out there and say it to someone else that I trust. So the exercises we did seemed like this.
Even though I didn’t take part in the crime concerning Donitra, I did the same thing in the past. I lived the same lifestlye as the people who took her life, I didn’t represent my community right, so I feel responsible for that.
MN: How do you define your community when you say didn’t rep your community right?
GM: The neighborhood kids, my neighbors, schools and programs that were around, and all the people that have love in their hearts, I let them all down.
MN: What do you see as the deep roots of violence and what do you see as the solutions?
GM: I think it’s a combination of things so it’s hard to say exactly. But to try to answer the question as a start, I think living in inner city communities, a lot of kids are growing up with unstable or single parent families, with families that are involved in drugs – either selling or using. There’s ideas of masculinity and it puts a lot of pressure on boys to live up to that standard and it’s defined in a destructive way. As a man you’re not supposed to be disrespected and if you are you’re supposed to take care of it by any means, and you’re not supposed to show any emotion or fear. That puts pressure on kids to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do.
I think masculinity needs to be redefined, in order to redefine it we should really demonstrate and show young people that healthy men are educated, responsible, honest, and sensitive. If we stand on that, the youth can believe in it and want to live up to that. We have to call things that are bad, for what they are.
Right now the standards people hold are have a lot of money, women, and status and that’s the lifestyle kids want to live up to now.
So the solution starts with the grownups. And we’re the underdogs, competing against media, stereotypes, gang culture, drug culture, the capitalist system. We’re underdogs and it’s a hard win, so it’s going to take a community not just one person to build the alternatives.
MN: Can you explain a little about what restorative justice is?
In the criminal justice system there is always a winner and a loser, or it may be that both opposing sides lose. Restorative justice, to me, is a theory of justice where the offender and the offended party work towards restoration and healing in an attempt to repair the harm done. The process can only be done when the offender takes full responsibility for the harm and is accountable for his or her actions.
MN: What do you think the connection between planting trees and community healing/peacemaking is?
GM: Planting trees is giving life to something so beautiful and peaceful. Trees don’t take sides but produce shelter, food, and they represent life. When a tree loses her leaves and if her branches are broken, they will grow back. Therefore, trees symbolize healing, provision, and community. As far as myself, as some one who has taken a life, it’s a way for me personally to take part in giving life – and it’s for my healing.
MN: How would you like to see this kind of work continue, evolve and grow in the future?
GM: I would like to see more of community events in where awareness is being raised about our responsibility to our planet and its inhabitants. I believe that once everybody realizes that we all are one, instead of just individuals then a lot of growth can take place in the community.
I am actually in the process of creating a youth diversion program that is built on restorative justice principles, to guide them to a better quality of life. I want to help prevent kids from going through the same things I went through as a child or committing the same acts that I committed as a young person.
Thank you Gary for sharing from your heart!