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AnnMarie Brown Cultivates Space For Healing And Growth

Written by on May 12, 2022

“Let’s take a step back. Let’s look at what this person’s actually dealing with. Let’s look at not just the chapter and the conflict they created, but let’s look at their whole story, their whole book.”

– AnnMarie Brown on restorative justice

AnnMarie Brown uses hip-hop and peace circles to heal her community.

AnnMarie Brown is the co-executive director at Circles and Ciphers, a restorative justice-based non-profit organization using peace circles and hip-hop to promote healing and foster community.

Brown first attended Circles and Ciphers in 2017, when her twin sister sought support after being incarcerated. Enamored by the healing quality of the group’s peace circle sessions, Brown quickly became involved with Circles and Ciphers’ programs and officially began working there in 2018. 

AnnMarie sits on the couch inside Circles and Ciphers’ Rogers Park space.
All photos by Morgan Ciocca.

Hip-hop is a central part of Circles and Ciphers’ mission, giving young people a creative outlet for self-expression and encouraging constructive discussions. A popular genre among young people in Chicago, hip-hop is a form of communication attendees often already identify with and understand. The groups analyze hip-hop lyrics to create discussions about topics like safe space, growing up impoverished, life trajectory and more, fostering community and a non-judgmental environment for free expression. 

In the latest installment of audio interview series “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” AnnMarie Brown delves into the power of restorative justice and creative self-expression to heal trauma and break down societal boundaries.

The music used in this interview is by AnnMarie Brown herself.

Brown stands in the center of a circle of chairs, many of which are hand-painted with bright colors. Behind her hangs an art piece created by young people attending the organization’s peace circles.

“I just want to cultivate space for people to heal, for people to grow into whatever they want… You know, I’m still growing. I’m still growing.”

– AnnMarie Brown

Where are you from, and where do you live now?

I grew up in Evanston my whole life, didn’t get more in tune to Chicago and the culture of Chicago until I graduated college and started working here. But I’ve been super grateful for the experience, it’s given me such a different perspective on the city that I didn’t have growing up. I live in Andersonville, so I live down the street. I work in Rogers Park, so, convenient, but I used to live on 68th and Stony. 

What do you love about Chicago?

Chicago has so much culture. People with various different stories and backgrounds come here and kind of make Chicago their stomping ground, you know, like, where, where they can start a foundation of whatever they want to do and then grow from that. And so, for me, restorative justice started here for me, in Chicago. Like, my experience with it… my trajectory with it started here. 

What is restorative justice? How is it part of the work at Circles and Ciphers?

Restorative justice is basically a practice that incorporates indigenous practices, such as peace circles and conflict resolution, to be able to provide healing for others. The systems that are created now creates more trauma on top of someone that’s created conflict and has trauma. So, it’s punitive, but restorative justice is like, “Hey, let’s take a step back. Let’s look at what this person’s actually dealing with. Let’s look at not just the chapter and the conflict they created, but let’s look at their whole story, their whole book.” And then restorative justice is like, “Ah, okay. Now let’s heal it.”

Circles and Ciphers is a nonprofit that is based on restorative justice principles, such as peace circles, and then they combine that with hip-hop. A peace circle comes from indigenous practices and it’s basically how our ancestors and our people used to handle conflict. So really, they used to just come together, sit together and talk about it. Peace circles are just a way of communication. So being in a peace circle is a method of just hearing different experiences that may or may not be like you, but you can take something from it into your own healing. 

Hanging near the door at Circles and Ciphers is a whiteboard, one of two listing values like “patience,” “positive mentality,” “speak your mind” and more — all established by attendees.

Why hip-hop?

Man, hip-hop is the number one communication for young people. They’re listening to hip-hop, they’re listening to trap music, they’re listening to Durk, and that is their method of communication. So, coming to this space, we’re like, “Okay, cool. We’re going to communicate… in the way you know how,” instead of saying, like, school systems communicate in a way that… they don’t understand, right? But we’re like, “Okay, how can we use hip-hop?”

So in our peace circles, we use, sometimes we use music, right? For example, we’ve used Tupac’s “Thug[z] Mansion” to talk about safe space, right? Or we use G Herbo’s “Malcolm” to really talk about the trajectory of how a young person starts in an impoverished neighborhood and what is their life, and their trajectory looks like after that. And so we use these different songs and these different methods of hip-hop to really just communicate and allow for freedom of expression.

“I think we just create a lot of separation when, all in all… the city is one, you know? It just looks different depending on where you are.”

– AnnMarie Brown

Who runs Circles and Ciphers? How did it begin?

I’m the oldest actually, which is weird now, but I’m 28. All of our staff are young people who started in the space and just grew out of it, right. They have gone through different things, previously incarcerated, different backgrounds, but we all come together and show young people in this space, too, that it’s possible to have, you know, be in the space where you can lead and support each other. They are the direct conduit for change. We believe in that and we honor that, and so we have young people work here, come here, support each other, build a community. It’s all based off of that.

It started in 2010, because Emmanuel Andre and Ethan Ucker, who were the co-founders, they both were new to Rogers Park and really wanted to create relationships with young people. And then, you know, build some support and love and community around all this trauma that was, you know, coming in and all this… all the things that they were being attacked for, you know, for just, you know, being young people who were struggling, who were dealing with trauma. And so they did that. They started doing peace circles. Once you have one peace circle, usually you want more. So they just kept doing it and it kept getting bigger and bigger, and then eventually an organization became part of it. 

How did you find your way to Circles and Ciphers?

I have a twin sister, so we’re really, really close. Summer 2017, my sister had just been incarcerated, and so she was also pregnant, too, and just was looking for support. So her best friend brought her to Circles and Ciphers. And then she was like, “Come with me,” and I’d never been to anything like this, didn’t know anything about restorative justice, but I came into the space and we did a peace circle, and I thought it was beautiful. At the time, I needed that space, you know, because I was dealing a lot with school, et cetera. So that summer, I think I came another week or two and my sister continued to come as well. It was the most amazing experience of my life.

Before my sister, I hadn’t known anybody that had been incarcerated close to me. Meeting those young people, they taught me so much about myself, you know, and why they’re healing and going through their trauma and I’m walking with them. It was like… I was able to walk with them, but I learned a lot. And it was probably one of the best things that happened to me in my entire life. It just continued to teach me the power of this space, and then the power of just, you know, RJ.

After that, [one of the founders] had called me at that time. He was like, “Hey, we’re doing this thing called Envisioning Justice with Illinois Humanities, do you want to be a hub director?” After that, I started working with Circles, and that was 2018, and since then I’ve been here.


(Right) AnnMarie Brown walks just outside the brightly lit community room to reveal a hallway filled with murals, incorporating more values and depictions of Rogers Park — like the Morse CTA red line stop and the pier at Tobey Prinz Beach. (Left) Another whiteboard in the community room holds even more of the group’s collective values.

What is one of Chicago’s challenges?

I hope for and I try to work for more experiences where we’re just all working together, you know? Because we have the same issues and the same… young people we’re dealing with, it’s just that they’re coming from, you know, a different place in the city. Somebody told me that they didn’t know that Black people lived on the north side of Chicago. I was like, “Wait, what do you mean?” But they grew up on the South Side. It’s interesting how we create so much of a difference, but I think, oftentimes, we just create separation. Like, people are like, “I’m from out West,” like, “We do this.” Or we… even like, when you think of chicken, people think of lemon pepper versus mild sauce, you know? So sometimes, I think we just create a lot of separation when, all in all, the city, you know, the city is one, you know? It just looks different depending on where you are.

What comes to mind when you think about your legacy?

So when I think about my legacy, I just want to cultivate space for people to heal, for people to grow into whatever they want, because Circles and Ciphers did that for me. And I want to be a dope fashion designer. You know, I am a dope fashion designer. But I want people to, you know, see my pieces and wear them and feel powerful in them, too. I feel the beauty in just giving someone space. Just the space, the knowledge, the resources to be able to grow into whatever they want to. You know, I’m still growing. I’m still growing.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago — enriching us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Introduction written by George Chiligiris

Interview, transcription and audio production by Ari Mejia

Photography and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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