In the month of April, each weekend is taken up by a conference or workshop of some kind. That amount of travel, networking, and frankly, smiling, can be exceptionally draining, especially when approached with a negative frame of mind. But when eagerly anticipated, like I did for this weekend in South Bend, Indiana, they can be exciting opportunities for personal growth, connection expansion, and academic learning.
One of the amazing but also difficult aspects of peacebuilding is that you always have a team. When you think you’ve found a particular niche, you can bet that across the country and the world there are others who are working on that issue as well in programming, education, or system building. For the past year, I’ve put all my focus into restorative justice systems and frameworks as an alternative to the correctional system and criminal justice framework we’ve had, inspired by the project I’m working on with two local women in Green Bay. Very few people in De Pere and Green Bay know about restorative justice, and so it can sometimes feel like I’m one of the few researchers in the world looking into it—which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
From what I can tell, there are over a thousand restorative justice centers and programs in the United States. There are systems put in place across the world to deal with mass traumas like Apartheid in South Africa and the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. Before Howard Zehr (the “grandfather of restorative justice”) named the system, Native populations and indigenous peoples around the world were using restorative circles and group conferencing to solve their issues and harms.
And just at this conference, the Kroc Institute’s Student Peace Conference: Toward Justpeace, there are about five of us speaking on restorative justice practices. I went yesterday, talking about the Green Bay program Challenges and Possibilities and how a specific group made real change in the lives of men incarcerated there—some for the rest of their lives. Immediately after my presentation was a workshop that created an actual restorative circle—something I have never before gotten to be a part of. Later today, another student will lead a talk on alternative justice systems in the Great Lakes regions of Africa. Another will explain how restorative justice works for Oakland youth. And lastly, a student will lead a roundtable discussion in reforming juvenile justice for positive peace.
A part of me, the part that’s still stuck in a fixed mindset wherein others are encroaching on “my territory,” is disappointed I’m not the one bringing new ideas. But then I remember that these alternative frameworks, however new and innovative we find them to be, were appropriated and reformed from Native populations—generally without much credit going to the peoples who made them. And in the spirit of interconnectedness and openness that I not only want to cultivate in my own life, but in my classrooms, my restorative circles, and my home, I pushed those thoughts aside and re-awakened the excitement to learn that I have when I open a new book. We’re all trying to help one another, after all, and in the end, all we want is for restorative justice to take off around the world. We can’t do that alone (I certainly can’t), so we need each other to bring each’s different experiences and world[-views. I’m so grateful to my other presenters for helping to build my experience and knowledge.
Last weekend I presented the same paper at the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, but what makes the Kroc Institute special is the excitement of the students who are here. Many are here simply to learn and participate, and they seek out the presenters to ask follow up questions. That was something I hope WIPCS can work to cultivate a bit more. Next weekend, I will envelope myself with other writers at Green Bay’s second literary conference: Untitled Town. I’m so excited to learn more about marketing myself as a writer, building my tools in creative nonfiction, and hearing writers like Roxanne Gay speak. And the following weekend, the last in April, I will participate in JOSHUA’s Race to Justice event, linked here. I highly encourage you to attend either!