5 Takeaways from the National Restorative Justice Symposium in Toronto

Last week I returned from the National Restorative Justice Symposium in Toronto, where I led a workshop on some preliminary findings from my thesis research on applying restorative and transformative justice to cases of sexual violence — specifically in the context of leftist, anti-authoritarian groups whose members view what many consider to be the proper authorities (i.e. the police) as an absolute last resort.

Although Niagara Falls beckoned me away from attending the entire two days, I learned much that will stick with me as I continue my research and practice, which is beginning to warrant the label of ‘career,’ and I must say that I am happy to report this as someone who sneered at the word three years ago and would routinely dodge the question: ‘what do you do?’ at parties and other social situations. This brings me to the first takeaway:

1) You can actually make a career out of restorative justice, even though most people (including the unfriendly security officer who interrogated me while crossing the border back into the States) still do not know what it is.

Based on the quality of presenters, the depth of the informal interactions, and the sheer number of attendees (at least 300), I have no doubt that even if I stumble professionally in the States, there will be opportunities for me in Ontario, Nova Scotia, or elsewhere in the under-appreciated nation of Canada — which, despite having one tenth the population of the States, likely has just as many people who know what restorative justice is (and more kindness than a Naomi Shihab Nye poem).

I am already beginning to learn French in case I end up in Quebec. If I need to visit home, I can just take Megabus from Toronto for only $80 round-trip. I am no corporate shill…but thanks, Megabus!

2) You learn more from your detractors than from your defenders…as long as they are informed.

This was the first time I remember hearing any direct criticism of the subject of my thesis from an informed perspective. While I immediately recognized the value of it, this experience resulted in considerable thought and reflection. Of course, this would not have been a source of anxiety at all if I were in a field that was strictly objective, such as history, rather than normative. As Marx said (paraphrasing here): the point is to change the world and not to merely understand it. But I digress.

You just don’t get that when you present something relatively esoteric to your friends and family who care more about their relationship with you than their actual thoughts toward your subject matter. You also don’t get that when you present to strangers who haven’t been doing the work as much or as long as you have. The best thing is to present to people with as much or more experience in that area. You might get torn apart, but you learn valuable lessons.

3) Something is terrible wrong with the way we treat our youth.

One of the keynotes, Dr. Martin Brokenleg, a psychologist, youth worker, and inspiring speaker of the Lakota people, taught me that our failure to treat youngsters as equal human beings in society borders on criminal. He did not focus on the obvious forms of child abuse and neglect, but those that are so routine and entrenched that no one would label them as such. For example, most schools in North America start their day somewhere between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. despite research demonstrating that children function biologically on a much different schedule than the dictates of capitalism (i.e. their parents’ work schedule). In short, if we want our children to perform better in school, we should start the day much later and allow them to sleep in.

We should also allow them to relate to more people starting at a very young age. This is something lost on the West but standard in all collectivist cultures. The nuclear family model was designed to maximize consumerism during a period of unprecedented economic growth. It was not designed to meet the emotional, intellectual, or social needs of children.

4) New-Agey shit kills credibility and should be challenged.

With all due respect to well meaning folks who are looking to drop real knowledge, I am tired of made-up terms and pseudo-scientific ideas and practices that get mixed in with careful research. This is not to say that I have no appreciation for the arcane or occult, but they should not be presented in an everyday context without a disclaimer.

Any newcomer who comes into a conference dedicated to a relatively marginal topic like restorative justice is likely to judge the whole field based on the craziest idea or person he or she comes in contact with. I want to be judged based on the best the field has to offer. This is why I will continue to (politely) challenge less-than-convincing postulations on the nature of the soul or on where love comes from or on how our body responds to certain stimuli. Why more people do not do this — even when I can see the doubt in their eyes — is an open question.

5) Humanity is worth helping.

Just as Maslow considered altruism to be even higher than self-actualization (but died before he could make it an official part of his ‘Hierarchy of Needs’), helping others to me is essential to my own well-being, and I find myself faced with an identity crisis when I feel that I am not doing enough in that regard.

More importantly, though, people are worth my help. They are worth yours as well. What inspired me most of all from the conference was a family that spoke publicly for the first time about their experiences with victim-offender dialogue, which is generally provided many years after a major crime while the offender is behind bars and is offered in most of the United States as well as Canada. It was a mother/grandmother and her two grandchildren/children, whom she had adopted after her daughter/their mother was tragically murdered by her husband/the father of the children. After 18 years of anger, pain, and confusion, she allowed the young man and woman (now 19 and 20) to meet their father in prison for the first time. She said that most of her friends criticized her decision, asking ‘how could she reconcile with such a monster?’ Her reply was that it wasn’t about her or the s0-called monster but what was best for the children — who wanted to know their father and make sense of their orphan-hood.

The courage of the young man was particularly inspiring to me. Far from holding onto the shame that would likely come from being the son of a murderer, he took pride in his relationship with his father and the difficult journey he took to achieve it. I told him that he and his family’s story was the perfect reminder of why I do the work I do and that, on a personal level, I would use his example to be more forgiving to those who have wronged me and my loved ones.

I had to leave before I started crying.