Building community through transformative justice in education

“Who are you? Why are you here?” I was not expecting to be asked these questions at the start of a workshop on transformative justice at my home institution. Like many individuals I was inspired by the 2020 national racial awakening to take action. As a scientist I began by researching the problem. I read articles about the history of structural racism in the United States. I participated in workshops on recognizing microaggressions, implicit biases, and social inequities in academia. I attended countless seminars on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

As chair of the Neuroscience graduate program, I established a DEI committee composed of faculty, staff, and students. We held focus groups and surveyed faculty, staff, and students to assess the climate of the Neuroscience graduate program. We organized a workshop that focused on recognizing microaggressions in response to the results of the climate survey. We incorporated antiracist training into the orientation for incoming first-year graduate students. We partnered with other programs on campus that were establishing similar initiatives. However, I always returned to the realization that these long-standing social injustices and inequities we were trying to address are embedded within the very fabric of our institutions. These initiatives are steps in the right direction but address the symptoms not the root cause. I now recognize along with many others that the institution of science is part of the problem, as are all of us who do not advocate for change.

“By first admitting that science has been part of the problem in the widening gap in equality we can start to understand what we must do to start addressing the problem” 

Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences

I was particularly enlightened after attending a seminar from Maisha and Lawrence “Torrey” Winn, co-directors of the Transformative Justice in Education (TJE) Center in the School of Education at the University of California, Davis ( The mission of the TJE Center is to collaborate with researchers and practitioners who are committed to imagining just futures for children and their families by addressing harm caused by racial inequities and creating restorative, transformative, and humanizing learning committees. Restorative justice is a paradigm that focuses on relationships, listening, and consensus building through a variety of practices including (but not limited to) community-building circles and repairing-harm circles. Restorative justice is most often associated with prison reform. A transformative justice approach, while grounded in restorative justice, is more expansive and seeks to create space for institutional reform based on the five pedagogical stances: history/ies matters; race matters; justice matters; language matters; and futures matter.1,2 Critically, a transformative justice approach is a journey, not a destination. Like science, it is a life-long learning process.

The TJE Center organizes workshops for the community to provide processes and tools to apply in the pursuit of racial equity using a transformative justice approach. I organized a TJE workshop for department leadership, faculty, staff, and trainees that took place this past spring. The first workshop focused on building community, the first tier of restorative justice work. While I felt that I had established good working relationships with my colleagues, after this first session I realized that I did not really know anyone that well and that my colleagues did not really know me. Relationships are at the core of justice, and we as members of the institution of science must be able to reconcile our own individual and shared histories as the first step in transforming the institution of science.

“Who are you? Why are you here?” I had never really considered this question about myself or any of my colleagues. I am a native Californian born and raised in the Bay Area to parents originally from Mexico. I am privileged because of the hard work of my parents, their older siblings, and their parents, which allowed both of my parents to obtain a college education and become high school teachers. I am the oldest of four children, and we all went to college; it was always “when” not “if.” I am privileged because my parents could afford to pay for my college tuition. I always liked science and math and I benefited from programs as a high school and college student that target individuals from underrepresented backgrounds. I feel an important responsibility to mentor students, especially from Latinx backgrounds, who were not afforded the privilege that I had. I learned that many of my colleagues were first-generation college students, some worked their way through school, and many were children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. Most importantly, I learned that we could all find common ground.

The second workshop focused on the three pillars of restorative justice: harms, needs, and obligations. Participants were asked to recognize that everyone has harmed someone else and everyone has experienced harm. We participated in small group discussions to help us understand the foundations of harm and wrongdoing and define pathways for making the wrong things right. The third workshop focused on learning how to become communicators within our own communities to allow for thoughtful and meaningful discussions on race, class, and privilege.

The second and third workshops seemed similar to other seminars and workshops that I had participated in and yet they were different because of the community building that took place in the first workshop. The first workshop made all the difference for each of us to have meaningful conversations about these sensitive topics. We had a built a community of trust as a foundation from which to grow. I have subsequently incorporated community building into my research, teaching, and service activities with positive responses and outcomes.

“Who are you? Why are you here?” I encourage you to start your own journey toward transformative justice by answering these questions with your colleagues, including faculty, staff, and trainees. It is the beginning of a transformative journey.


1Winn MT (2018). Justice on Both Sides: Transforming Education through Restorative Justice. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.

2Winn MT (2019). Paradigm shifting toward justice in teacher education. University of Michigan: Teachingworks:

About the Author:

Elva Diaz is the chair of the Neuroscience graduate program and a professor in the Department of Pharmacology, University of California, Davis, School of Medicine. Email: