Each of these stories propelled me to seek work that addresses injustices. This journey began in 1989, when I left Saskatoon, SK, for a Mennonite Voluntary Service assignment with the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) in Fresno, CA. There I learned to facilitate victim-offender dialogues (more on this shortly) with juveniles involved in property crimes, often youth of color. When I saw five Latino boys plead guilty to a crime they did not commit, I began to see cracks and contradictions in the CJS. A drunk driving homicide case in 1992 led me to work with lifers in prison. I have a visceral memory of talking with men privately in a small janitor’s closet—the only private space! I recall one man weeping in bitter remorse as he described the woman he had raped and murdered—“She was about your size and had your hair.” I learned about his childhood and wounds he carried from race and class oppression. Every lifer I encountered had a story of significant victimization.
Victim-offender dialogues invite all of those impacted by an offense (victims and perpetrators, their families, communities, and other stakeholders) to identify harms, needs, and responsibilities. They then collectively seek how to make things as right as possible, which can include covenants of accountability, restitution, reparations, and (ideally) reconciliation. In one incident, a 17 year-old had physically threatened his teacher, but only the boy’s grandmother understood that the roots of his frustration stemmed from his inability to read—something neither his parents nor teachers were aware of! Grandma revealed that she taught herself to read at age 50; his mother added she was also illiterate. The group came up with an agreement that the boy would read to his younger siblings every night, his teacher choosing a book appropriate to his improving reading level; he was very proud of this plan. I saw the efficacy of methodologies that focus on listening people into speech rather than determining punishment.
But while the original intent of the restorative justice movement was to offer an alternative to the retributive CJS, I felt we, restorative justice practitioners, were succumbing to pressures to adapt to how the system adjudicates crime. Too often social context and dynamics were ignored by VORP facilitators, who dealt only with the presenting individual violation. In one case, a white boy had gotten into a fight with a Black youth. In the course of the dialogue, the facilitator noticed that the white boy’s baseball cap had racial epithets written under the bill. However, lacking anti-racism training, he didn’t know how to address the issue so the Black youth was re-victimized during the meeting by the very racial taunting that had led to the first altercation.
In 1998, while I was teaching at The University of Winnipeg, Indigenous leaders opened my eyes further to realities of systemic racism and blind spots in the contemporary restorative justice movement. In fact, I learned that practices of relational justice predate colonization. Indigenous people have long understood that all things are connected in a web of life; that misbehavior is a sign of sickness or disconnection; and that offenders need to be reminded of who they are in their community. Bringing victims, offenders, and their communities together for restorative dialogue is powerful work, but I learned that some techniques in which I trusted fell short. In my second decade in this work, therefore, I sought a different set of mentors: those who had experienced systemic injustice and made the arduous journey from victim to survivor to healer.