Journey into Restorative Justice

Elaine has been working in the field of restorative justice since 1989. For the first 15 years of her career, she was part of the pioneering generation of contemporary restorative justice practitioners whose focus was on the Criminal Justice System. For the past decade, Elaine has focused on how restorative justice applies to historical violations, including issues of intergenerational trauma and healing. In 2015, she completed a Doctor of Ministry thesis, entitled “Facing History with Courage: Toward a Restorative Solidarity,” which focused on historical responsibility, communal narratives and intergenerational trauma among Canadian Prairie Settler Mennonites and its impacts on their relationships with Indigenous neighbors.

Elaine describes her work in Restorative Justice over the last thirty years in the online journal Rock! Paper! Scissors! Tools for anarchist + Christian thought and action, Vol 1. No 3, published 3/6/2019 (

All Elaine's publications can be seen in her bibliography.

This essay overviews my thirty years of work in restorative justice as a personal and political vocation. I open with three vignettes that put me on my path, each involving a thirteen-year-old girl. I then trace how I’ve endeavored to broaden and deepen my engagement with restorative justice over three decades and how truth, trust, and power have shaped my journey.

Exactly one hundred years ago as I write, during Christmas 1918, in the community of Osterwick, Ukraine, my maternal grandmother Margreta survived a two-week home invasion -- one episode in what one historian called “a continuous climate of violence, plundering, rape, mass killing and extensive bloodbaths” endured by Mennonites (and others) during the Russian Civil War from 1917-1921. The men of the house had fled into the forest while thirteen-year-old Margreta and her older sister and girl cousins had been hidden in the attic. My great-grandmother Anna (right) fed and bandaged the wounds of rough, demanding peasant soldiers in the rooms below, trying to respond to violence with courage and hospitality. It is difficult to believe that she escaped sexual violation, as claimed by family stories passed down; my studies with descendants of other Mennonite women who experienced similar depredations suggests their stories were lost, silenced, or suppressed. Still, Anna’s non-violent actions may have warded off the worst. Some months later, for example, her sister and three relatives were brutally murdered in their basement, and Margreta would lose more family members and friends in the following years. So my grandmother experienced severe trauma yet also witnessed her mother’s profound trust in God and in her religious tradition of nonresistance.

As a child, I knew something horrible had happened to my grandparents, each of whom went to Canada as refugees of the Russian Revolution, and I wanted to understand more. At age thirteen I interviewed Margreta. She told of the beauty and abundance her family had enjoyed growing up but as her story approached her teenage years she began to cry and could not continue. She was a joyful person, full of laughter, so seeing her cry left an indelible impression, planting seeds of both curiosity and trepidation. Only later would I learn how many women of these generations suffered from PTSD and how the silence around their experiences of violation negatively impacted our community. Yet the power of my grandmother’s testimony and survival inspired my teenaged heart to keep asking questions.

In my final year of college I volunteered with the Big Sisters/Little Sisters program in Winnipeg, MB. My little sister was a thirteen-year-old Cree girl who had been released from lock-up after three years. She was living in a group home and pregnant for the second time. Her “crimes” were sniffing glue, stealing food and clothes, and beating people up (which I now understand as reactions to a colonial system that didn’t meet her basic human needs). Though I had no race or social analysis at the time, she helped me see that the criminal justice system (CJS) was unable to address her issues or provide healing. She described the pain of being forced to give up her first child and of not knowing where he was. She vowed she would never give up her twins; she wanted them raised on her reserve by an Indian family. On the cusp of adulthood myself, this encounter raised a new set of questions about how her ancestors had been displaced by my immigrant ancestors on the Canadian prairies. Her story was my first tutorial in the hard truth of colonization, and planted in me seeds of disillusionment with my comfortable middle-class white world.

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.  

Shortly after beginning with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in 1999, I had the great privilege of meeting Nelson and Joyce Johnson of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, NC (left, in 2017). Survivors of a 1979 white supremacist killing of five labor organizers, the Johnsons led the effort to bring the Truth and Reconciliation Process to U.S. soil for the first time. They invited me to speak about how restorative justice principles apply to unresolved historic injustice, which was a turning point for me toward a more fundamentally systemic understanding of RJ. I was deeply moved by their bravery, such as when Nelson, in a spirit of reconciliation, went to visit the home of a KKK member in the woods of North Carolina. (“It was one of several times,” Joyce told me, “that I kissed Nelson goodbye wondering if I would ever see him again.”) I co-facilitated a healing circle with Joyce made up of survivors from the 1979 massacre as well as victims of more recent police brutality. The Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project was a powerful experiment in public restorative justice.

Trips to Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand offered more opportunities to learn from Indigenous communities. Māori leaders have been on the forefront of adopting traditional practices of relational justice in their juvenile system. I also was inspired by Cheyenne Peace Chief and Mennonite Pastor Lawrence Hart, whose pioneering efforts to repatriate Native American remains is a compelling and creative expression of healing historic wrongs. In 2005, Lawrence founded the “Return to the Earth” project, whose mission is to “support Native Americans in burying unidentifiable ancestral remains now scattered across the United States and enable a process of education and reconciliation between Native and Non-Native peoples.”

During this decade I was also mentored by faithful women like Catholic Elizabeth McAlister and Presbyterian Murphy Davis, who are on the forefront of naming the violence and duplicity of war and the death penalty. These revered mothers of the radical discipleship movement (and their embodiments of prophetic mandates to speak truth to power) have showed us how and why to resist systems of death. Such collaborations, and learning social movement history, helped me wrestle with intersectionality. This phase of my journey culminated with writing and publishing Ambassadors of Reconciliation with my partner Ched, in which we developed a theological framework for restorative justice that places systemic power analysis at the center of theory and practice.1

My third decade in this work began with a long awaited pilgrimage to southern Ukraine with my sister to explore the complex history of our Russian Mennonite ancestors. On the auspicious date of 10/10/10 we arrived at Margreta’s home, where the aforementioned invasion had occurred. We made our way into the house, now abandoned and in disrepair. As I lay on my stomach on rickety stairs, viewing the remains of what had once been the heart of a Mennonite manor, I imagined my teenage grandmother listening through the attic floor boards as her mother met the demands of soldiers. I felt the weight of that story in my bones.

In preparation for this trip I had studied family and academic books, stirring up queries I am still working on. For example, the profound wealth disparity between some Mennonite gentry and Ukrainian peasants at the end of the 19th century made social upheaval inevitable, the violence of which must be understood in the context of that political history. That story was rooted in Catherine the Great’s forcible removal of Nogai and Cossack peoples, traditional inhabitants of the Ukrainian steppes, in order to make way for “colonists,” including my ancestors arriving from Prussia in the 1780s. A century and a half later, Russian Mennonites coming as refugees to the Canadian prairies were given or bought land that had recently been expropriated from Cree tribes by the Canadian government. In Ukraine I uncovered complicated layers of my grandmother’s story. In subsequent doctoral studies, I interviewed over thirty Settler Canadian Mennonite women, exploring questions about intergenerational trauma. 

A trip to Palestine had further impact on my understanding. I spent a memorable afternoon at the Wi’am Center in Bethlehem with Founder-Director Zoughbi Alzoughbi (left), learning about specific cultural ways in which Palestinians practice restorative justice. And I began tracking Indigenous leaders’ work on the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) documentation of the history and lasting impacts of the Indian Residential School system. The TRC provided school survivors and their descendants an opportunity to process, publicly and privately, their experiences. Attending hearings in Halifax and Saskatoon, I was deeply impressed with the pastoral and prophetic leadership of the commission and the wisdom of rituals that created space for painful testimony and healing.2 Many churches in Canada are now working to respond to specific Calls to Action directed to religious communities—something to which Christian leaders in the U.S. should pay close attention, since we have our own native residential schools legacy to confront. 

My studies convinced me that part of my Mennonite community’s reluctance to work alongside Indigenous neighbors for justice lies in our untransacted intergenerational trauma. Another factor is a phenomenon called “egoism of victimization,” in which a group is unable to see others’ pain because of their own wounds. So I am thinking about how to overcome these barriers and recognize and redress past (and continuing) injustices through “restorative solidarity.”3 Harry Lafond, Cree elder and Executive Director of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner (right), has supported my development of an interactive model that works to uncover the stories we Settlers carry (personal, communal, and societal), in order to understand our identity formation and transform those narratives with the power of moral imagination, spiritual resilience, and political courage.

I encourage Settlers to explore “landlines” by understanding their immigrant family histories (whether voluntary or forced) through larger patterns of colonial “push and pull” and by examining the impacts their settlement patterns had on Indigenous communities. Then we can look at “bloodlines”: what we have inherited from our familial, racial, ethnic, gender, and cultural formation—including trauma. Finally we look at “songlines”: those traditions of faith that help us transcend the constraints of the first two and which motivate us to work for justice and healing. This approach seeks to deconstruct the devised and dismembered narratives of white superiority that Settlers still carry and re-visions an identity shaped by commitments to solidarity and healing.

This has been a decade of “doing my own work,” as Audre Lorde put it, trying to uncover both historical and physic roots of dysfunction and white supremacy. I have been exploring this model in workshops around North America with a wide variety of faith-based groups. Participants have reported that it helps them wrestle with historical silences, heal from delusions of superiority, and embody “response-ability.

My journey has been deeply personal and political. Early on our conviction as restorative justice practioners was that restorative justice was a way of life—and so it has been! I have aspired to broaden and deepen the field to address historical and systemic oppression, despite being criticized by some colleagues for pushing the paradigm too far. Today more than ever restorative justice should push boundaries, name injustices, and seek both individual and collective healing. As I begin to lose some of my mentors and elders in this movement, I desire to become a more faithful “re-mem-bearer” of these experiments in trust, truth, and power.


1. To learn more about the Johnsons, Hart, McAlister and Davis, see Ambassadors of Reconciliation, Vol II (Orbis Books, 2009).

2. See my “A Shameful Legacy,” Sojourners, Dec 2012, p. 8-9.

3. See my “Trauma and Memory: Challenges to Settler Solidarity,” Consensus (37:1, Article 5), 2016; and “Facing History with Courage,” Canadian Mennonite (10:5), March 2015, pp.4-9