OAKLAND -- It might seem strange, to those with a dim view of them, to witness young men with gang affiliations and juvenile records gathered in a ceremonial circle and disclosing their deepest regrets. But for George Galvis, this is the way people are supposed to resolve their problems. Everyone, he said, wants their voices heard.
In two decades of observing and sometimes fighting the criminal justice system, Galvis said he has watched it swallow up too many of California's youth in a vortex of punishment. So he's trying to foster a new system of justice in East Oakland, one rooted in ancient rituals of healing, forgiveness and mental restoration.
"Sharing stories is part of it," Galvis said. "When you understand what other people have gone through, it helps you understand them better."
With his long twin braids and collection of berets, Galvis cuts a distinctive figure in the Fruitvale district where his work is centered.
The co-founder and director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, or CURYJ, culls from North and South American indigenous traditions -- including his own Quechua roots -- as well as a growing movement promoting "restorative justice" over a starkly punitive approach.
He holds intimate "healing circles," sometimes at places where violence has occurred, inviting youths but also community elders and others affected by their actions. They're asked to discuss their cargas, a Spanish word for burdens, but also their regalos -- gifts.
"A lot of the work I do is teaching young people how to heal from trauma," he said. "It's a group process, collective. Every student is a teacher."
Friends say it's not just his ideas, but his skills in getting people to gather and listen, that have made him effective.
The Los Angeles-based California Wellness Foundation agrees. The organization awarded him and two others its annual $25,000 California Peace Prize on Oct. 10.
"A lot of people who work with youth, they generally try to choose youth who are already destined to be successful," said Dorsey Nunn, director of the San Francisco-based Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. "George reaches out to people who are going to have to struggle to be successful, and he's fearless about it."
Testing that compassionate and nonjudgmental approach last month was a deadly crime involving two young men Galvis had worked with closely.
Oakland police say the teenagers, both 17, shot into a house on 82nd Avenue on Sept. 23, then sped away in an SUV that broadsided a car and killed its driver. The victim, Robert Wollo, was a 75-year-old pastor, caregiver for the disabled and refugee of the Liberian civil war.
Galvis was busy finalizing preparations for his Oct. 5 wedding at Tilden Regional Park when calls came from the mothers of the perpetrators. He was devastated, and organized a healing circle at a school.One of the suspects had helped pilot a young men's group that launched within the past year.
"The program really, really resonated for him. We began to see a lot of change," Galvis said. "It's really frustrating and disappointing, and tragic, to see there was so much promise in both these young men and they're in the situation they're in right now."
Prosecutors are pursuing charges including vehicular manslaughter against the teens and looking to try them as adults, though for now their names have not been disclosed because they are minors.
"They did a terrible thing," Galvis said. "But we also know their hearts and believe that 20 years to life -- that may not necessarily be suitable in terms of punishment and it doesn't reflect the root cause."
It won't be the first time Galvis rises to help some of Oakland's most unpopular.
He took a prominent role in the politically-divisive feud over gang injunctions, protesting and eventually helping to halt the city's attempts to restrict the movements of about 40 alleged Norteño gang members.
Galvis also takes lessons from his own transformation. He was incarcerated for a drive-by shooting when he was 17, but later steered himself to community college and connected with the American Indian community.
"It's hard to show a product" in the kind of therapeutic work that Galvis does, but "it shows over time" in the young people he guides, said former Alameda County Public Health Director Arnold Perkins.
"Imagine having your voice squelched all the time," Perkins said. "George allows them to open up to themselves and to others. It's a very special gift."
CLAIM TO FAME: Counsels young men as co-founder and director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice
QUOTE: "A lot of the work I do is teaching young people how to heal from trauma."
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