Using an interlocking set of strategies, the Black-led Freedom Community Center in St. Louis integrates restorative justice with personal healing and broad-based advocacy to transform communities. “We’re positioned as a fusion of individual, intrapersonal, and systemic intervention,” explained Mike Milton, the Center’s executive director. Milton and his staff—all of whom are violence survivors—know first-hand how the work of healing personal trauma can be leveraged to spur system-shifting change. “We know that the opposite of trauma isn’t healing, it is power,” he said, “and how we can use that power to divest from systems that continue the generational trauma cycle.” To keep people out of the criminal legal system, the Center oversees a survivor-centered restorative justice process that includes pre-charge diversion for people accused of doing harm. Notably, the neighborhood-based process is driven by community members rather than district attorneys, as is more typically the case. And Mike has helped lead hugely impactful campaigns such as Close the Workhouse, which defunded the biggest jail in St. Louis and diverted funds to rebuilding neighborhoods—a win that put communities of color in charge of their own destiny.
In 2020, St. Louis’ homicide rate was the highest in 50 years, and the majority of those killed were Black men. Today in our community, 4 in 10 Black women experience intimate partner violence. At the same time, spending on police and incarceration accounts for more than half of our city’s budget. The arrest and incarcerate model for public safety does not work. FCC uses community-based approaches to violence centered in power, healing, accountability, and repair. Through community building, alternatives to police and incarceration, and organizing for systemic change, FCC is redefining public safety with practices that actually keep our community safe.
Between the age of 17 and 21, I cycled in and out of St. Louis jails for small crimes of poverty. After my last stay, I met a man that cared for me more than I cared for myself. He and other mentors taught me new tools to deal with my loss and depression. They introduced me to therapy. It was there that I learned that the harm I did to my community was a response to the harm that was done to me. Simultaneously, the world witnessed the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. At that moment, it clicked: to address violence at its root, we needed to build a community based on transformational, healing relationships and political engagement. With both of those tools, we could translate the power we gained from healing into systemic change. That’s what we do at Freedom Community Center.
At FCC, we fight against centuries of punitive practice and policy decisions. Punishment and control is so deeply ingrained in our society that imagining an alternative can be challenging. Additionally, because of our reliance on punishment, addressing violence at its root involves simultaneously addressing individual trauma and decades of trauma at the community level. FCC tackles the critical question of how to respond to serious harm in our communities. Our imaginative alternatives to police and incarceration, as well as our organizing for systemic change, push the boundaries of what many in our society consider possible.
I am first and foremost inspired by the leaders and survivors on our staff and in our St. Louis community. Martin Luther King’s idea of the beloved community is infused into every aspect of our work. The principles of nonviolence have inspired me in this work. I have also had the great fortune to learn and be inspired by prominent abolitionist thinkers such as Mariame Kaba, Dr. Joy James, and Beth Richie. Finally, Danielle Sered, the executive director of Common Justice, continues to be a major inspiration for our transforming responses to violence work.
In one of the first restorative justice circles that I facilitated, we worked with a young man who had shot his friend. The families of both men were devastated. Given the damage that police, jail, and prison had previously caused in their lives, they decided that they wanted to pursue an alternative process. We worked with both parties to connect them to mental health support, reconnect them to school, and involve them in a restorative justice process. The young man who shot his friend took responsibility for the action and its impacts, and these men were ultimately able to make amends.
Every Campus A Refuge
North Carolina (Operating nationwide)
Every Campus A Refuge leverages the sizable resources of colleges and universities to provide a stronger, more dignified landing for refugees.
New York (Operating globally)
Wikitongues safeguards threatened heritage languages by giving people resources to document, teach, and promote culture-sustaining mother tongues.
District of Columbia (Operating nationwide)
Cambium Carbon upcycles fallen urban trees, growing green jobs while building equitable cities and mitigating climate change at scale.
HEARD’s trauma-informed reentry program provides healing, empathy, and justice for deaf/disabled people who have been harmed by the carceral system.
Black Women Build - Baltimore
Homeownership and construction skills-building come together as a platform that centers Black women, reclaims historic homes, and sparks neighborhood-scale change.
Co-op Dayton builds community- and worker-owned cooperatives that center Black workers, expand democratic participation, and renew long-neglected neighborhoods.
Respond Crisis Translation
California (Operating globally)
Respond provides trauma-informed, life-critical translation and interpretation services to asylum seekers and anyone needing language support in contexts of crisis.
Nuns & Nones
Wisconsin (Operating nationwide)
Driven by a reparations ethic, Nuns & Nones collaborates with Catholic sisters to invest their land and assets in regenerative land stewardship.
Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program
A promising California model builds a pipeline of needed wildland firefighters by forging career pathways for individuals formerly incarcerated in “Fire Camps.”