By Katharine Wilson 

In February 2021, the College Park City Council established the Restorative Justice Steering Committee, which they tasked with laying the groundwork for a more permanent commission. The committee fulfilled its mission, and, in response, city councilmembers appointed 20 representatives during their April 5 worksession to serve on the newly established Restorative Justice Commission; each representative will serve a three-year term. The commission, which is planning to hold its first meeting in May, will strive to restore and preserve Lakeland, the city’s historic Black community.

Restorative justice is a broad concept through which crimes — against individuals, communities, and even societies — are examined and addressed, with remedy as the optimal outcome. In essence, a restorative justice process creates a framework for wrongdoers to correct what they have done. The city’s decision to launch such an initiative directly relates to actions that the city took five decades ago: In the 1970s, the City of College Park seized property from Lakelanders as part of an urban renewal project, and many homes were destroyed. The neighborhood was redeveloped, largely with high-density housing, and Lake Artemesia was established following excavations to create the Metro’s Green Line. 

Mayor Patrick Wojahn said that undertaking the restorative justice initiative is “making the community whole for what occurred in the past and and putting them as close as possible into the place or even better than they were before the wrong occurred.”

The Lakeland community was thriving before the city’s urban renewal program pushed many in the neighborhood out of their homes. According to the Lakeland Community Heritage Project, 104 of 150 households in the community were replaced with town homes and other structures during the city’s redevelopment efforts. 

The Restorative Justice Commission includes members of the Lakeland community, residents of other neighborhoods in the city and local political figures.

Petrella Robinson, a commission member and mayor of North Brentwood, saw the effects of urban renewal first-hand. She grew up in North Brentwood which was, like Lakeland, a historic Black community that was torn apart by urban renewal initiatives. As a child, Robinson used to visit Lakeland in the years before the city’s urban renewal process all but destroyed the community. Reflecting on the changes she has witnessed in Lakeland, she said, “I think they need restitution because they, they put them out of their homes, they came in and did what they wanted to do. It was a great, and is a great community”.

Isabella Alcañiz, also a member of the commission, is an associate professor of government and politics and the director of the University of Maryland’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Center. She has researched transitional justice, which incorporates aspects of restorative justice, in Latin America. Alcañiz is also a part of the university’s Anti-Black Racism Initiative of the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. “A truly restorative process will be one in which the voices of the community and the grievances of the community are not only heard but also addressed, and that will probably take many different forms,” she said.

Wojahn joined the commission to continue the city’s recent efforts to underscore racial justice. The mayor would like the commission to promote deeper connections between Lakeland and resources throughout the city, including educational opportunities at the university. “The Lakeland Community is essentially cut off from surrounding neighborhoods. We’d like to look at how we might be able to better integrate Lakeland into the city, as a whole, to preserve the historic identity of Lakeland,” he noted. 

Former city councilmember Bob Catlin is also serving on the commission. Catlin witnessed displacement of family and friends due to urban renewal initiatives in his hometown in Ohio, and he was involved with the Lakeland Community Heritage Project at its inception. 

Former mayor Andrew Fellows was on the steering committee and is now a member of the commission. He emphasized that the group will work as a team in their efforts to bring justice to Lakeland. Fellows also expressed his belief that the process that the city undertakes may position College Park as a leader, locally and perhaps regionally, even nationally, in efforts to understand and address past actions that call for restorative justice.

Fellows said that this commission presents an opportunity for the city to be a leader in making things right with systemic racism on a local level.