Random Thoughts On Kindness


Des Moines, Iowa

Holy Week always takes me to a place having little to do with my present belief system. Despite the break so many years ago from early tradition, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem thrusts me back to a time before the onset of skepticism and teenage logic. The world slows down and I find myself serving Mass again at St. John’s. For the three years before high school I was an altar boy. Wearing a black cassock with a white surplice over it, I entered a realm beyond the drab and the mundane. Latin was the language there and mystery was its waters.

I’m reminded of the nuns who also wore black and white. They lived in community, across the street from the church and less than a block from the school. Occasionally I was given an errand to deliver something there, or to retrieve something that one of the sisters needed for the day’s instruction. Every time I entered their home I was greeted by one of the retired nuns who treated me like a guest and always gave me a cookie or a piece of candy. I was never rushed out the door or told I had to get right back to school. But I was always treated with kindness. And in the classroom, I frequently had two recurrent thoughts: “how do they go to the bathroom under all of that?” and “there really are people in this world who do things out of kindness and not for personal gain.”

Early on the drive home from St. Paul this morning I asked Sarah and Mary if they wanted to stop for breakfast. Sarah said she wasn’t hungry, that she’d been up in the middle of the night and had eaten a slice of pizza. I asked her if it was a leftover. She said it was, from a pizza she purchased the day before for herself and a homeless man. I asked her how that came about. She says she doesn’t have time to volunteer at a shelter so she oftentimes looks for an opportunity on her walk to or from class to purchase a meal for a street person. She will see someone and ask if they are hungry. The initial response is usually “no, but thank you.” Sarah is persistent, though, and will reply that she is going to buy herself something and would like to share it. Almost always she has a companion for lunch.

This evening at Good Friday service Mr. Sheaff sat in front of us. For years he’s been the theater director at the local Catholic high school. He has seven kids, at least. One of them is Bridget, a long time classmate of Mary’s. I coached Bridget in basketball, beginning in the second grade. That entire season Bridget never made a basket, either in a practice or in a game. The same was true the next season. As a fourth grader she started to understand layups and made a few in practice. She went scoreless, though, for the season. At the beginning of fifth grade Bridget told me it would be her last season; that she wasn’t cut out for basketball. I said if she came early to practice we could work on her game. She oftentimes did and her layups improved.

The last game arrived. Bridget had yet to score that season. It was a back and forth game but with a minute to go we held a four-point lead. But Bridget had yet to score. With fifteen seconds left I called a time out. We all agreed that Bridget had to score. I drew up a play. Rose would set a screen. Bridget would be free in the middle of the lane, ten feet from the basket. Mary would inbound, fake to Emmy, and feed Bridget. The play worked to perfection. Bridget swished it from eight feet. The girls went wild and hugged Bridget until she cried for help.

After the game, as Mary and I walked through the parking lot, we saw Bridget and her father in their car and approached them. Mr. Sheaff had never spoken a word to me in four seasons. We congratulated Bridget on her game. Her father stuck out his hand and shook both Mary’s and mine. He said “thank you.” I said Bridget had a great game. His eyes welled up with tears. He said, “I really mean it. Thank you.” Mary has never forgotten that, nor have I.

There is a story about a Buddhist monk who was meeting with a famous old lama for the last time. The master beckoned the student to approach. He did, believing he would receive the master’s most secret instruction. The master whispered his final teaching: “Be kind.”

- Fred Van Liew

To Plan, Or Not – A Theory


Boston, Massachusetts

Sometimes it’s good to have a plan. Probably most of the time. Like this week when twenty some Restorative Justice advocates and professionals gathered at a farm near Hallowell to learn how to take what we know best and teach it more effectively to others. It was one of those “Train the Trainers” trainings. But this one was different.

Two very talented men from Vermont engaged us for four days, ultimately convincing us that what we do intuitively isn’t always best. This is particularly true when working with adults. Peter and Jon, with Global Learning Partners, aren’t so much teachers of content as they are of method and process. Through subtlety and humor, and some cajoling when necessary, they help you discover that a “learner centered” approach is much more effective than a “teacher centered” one and that to get there a methodology must be utilized, one that requires patience and planning. This is difficult for me. Like most lawyers, flying by the seat of my pants has been the quickest way to get somewhere. But I’m a convert now, a true believer. I get it that “dialogue education” works and that you have to follow a plan to get there.

Most of the time it’s good to have a plan. But not always.

I was reminded of that this week too. A couple of days ago I received an email from Janelle Myers-Benner. Janelle is at Eastern Mennonite University and coordinates the Graduate Program in Conflict housed in the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding. She wanted to know if I’d written my “graduation paragraph”. I didn’t want to admit it but I had spaced it off. I’m in the middle of my last course and have been given an extension until December 1 to finish it. They must trust me because they said I could still graduate this May.

Not wanting to disappoint Janelle – she’s been really good to me – I sat down last night to remember how I got to where I am.

Five years ago I was a prosecutor, a little more than a year from retirement and wondering what I would do with my life. I was one of those “soon to be retired and without a plan” people. While sitting in a lecture with a hundred other prosecutors at a conference that had nothing to do with what my heart wanted, the question came: “Am I too old to go back to school?”

A friend had told me about Eastern Mennonite University and the incredible experience she had at something call “SPI” – the Summer Peacebuilding Institute. During a break at the conference I got on line, read about EMU, the people who come from all over the world, the course offerings that open doors to work that is more than work, the stories of newly discovered meaning, the transformation that is possible no matter who you are and what conflict you are in. During the lunch hour I dialed the number for the Center and spoke to Janelle for the first time. I think she answered yes to every question I asked.

The following January I arrived in Harrisonburg for the STAR course, an intense one week training on trauma awareness and resilience. By the end of the week my life had changed. My practice as a mediator would change as well. Other courses followed – one on Circle Keeping. Two weeks after completing it I facilitated a Peacemaking Circle at a maximum security prison. Another on Conflict Analysis which allowed me to work over a six month period with a Catholic Worker Community in conflict. A third on Advanced Issues in Restorative Justice which introduced me to blogging, RJ practitioners from around the world, and the possibility that Restorative Justice might someday become a social movement.

While I still didn’t have a plan in retirement, the courses and the people at EMU nudged me in a particular direction. I worked for a year and a half as the Director of Mediation Services at a local non profit. That led to starting a small Restorative Justice Center of my own which led to becoming a community organizer for several local churches which led to taking a position in Maine with an Institute whose mission it is to make Maine a Restorative Justice state.

Five years ago I don’t think I could have come up with a plan that would have got me to where I am today. There are times when our limited consciousness is incapable of such things. But sitting here at Logan, waiting for my flight to Minneapolis, I am reminded of the psychologist James Hillman and his “acorn theory.” Hillman suggests that our psyche contains a superior factor which aids us in the discovery of our individual nature and our life’s calling. I think that means there is a planner in each of us that oftentimes doesn’t care a whole lot about what we think we want. Interesting stuff.

- Fred Van Liew

The Restorative Process As Container


St. Paul, Minnesota

I’ve spent most of the week in the Twin Cities. Three of my daughters attend the University of Minnesota. If I don’t make the trip I rarely see them. I give them rides, take them to lunch, and watch “Alias” with them. After the fourth or fifth day they begin to inquire about my flight plans.

When I’m here I like to walk along the Mississippi and hang out at the nearby coffee shops. And if she’s available, I meet with a friend who is a practicing analyst.

Mary Ann is a Jungian. She’s explained to me that the aim of Jungian psychology is not the cure of a disease, in a medical sense, but to assist the “analysand” toward a more meaningful life. In doing this, she says, she doesn’t give advice. Instead, she helps those who come to her ask questions about what the deepest part of the self really wants. Because the primary focus of her practice is personality development during the second half of life I find our conversations helpful.

Over coffee on Friday we talked about the analytic process. Mary Ann said she thinks of the process as a vessel or a container. It’s a safe place where all kinds of “stuff” is put into it. The analysand brings the stuff and the analyst is witness to it without judgment. Mary Ann says it’s critical that the analyst not bring to the process his or her own agenda. She says when there is a witnessing without an attempt to fix, the analysand is “seen” in a way rarely, if ever, experienced in other relationships. Mary Ann says this being seen makes all the difference.

It struck me, as Mary Ann spoke, that a restorative process has similar elements. While it is not analysis, if facilitated properly it does provide a place of safety to which all manner of “stuff” can be brought. The skilled facilitator does not have an agenda or pass judgment on what the parties bring, either to the table or to the Circle. There is no rush to apology or to agreement. The facilitator is the keeper of a process and has faith that the process can be a locus of healing.

Like the analyst, the facilitator does not offer advice. Any answers or solutions are provided by the real parties to the dialogue. Wisdom is not offered by the facilitator. Instead, it is discovered from within by those in conflict with each other or by the victim and offender who have come into relationship as the result of a wrong doing.

I shared all of this with Mary Ann. She acknowledged knowing little about Restorative Justice but immediately saw the similarities between her analytic practice and the best of what restorative practitioners have to offer.

We continued our conversation. I told her of my experience with Peacemaking Circles. I asked her what the next stage of her life looks like. She has taken the first steps to winding down her practice. She wants to move from the privacy of her office and out into the community. She would like to learn more about victim-offender dialogue. She can see how it might be a vessel for healing. And she can imagine herself as a Circle Keeper, holding a talking piece and passing it on.

I imagine the transition for Mary Ann will be an easy one.

- Fred Van Liew

The Road Less Traveled


Minneapolis, Minnesota

I tell people that my kids raised me. Each one of them has taught me lessons over the years I could have learned from no one else.

My daughter Sarah texted the other day. She is finishing her first year of medical school. Generally she wants me to know how a test has gone. Or a lecture. Sometimes she says she wants to talk about an ethics question that came up in a small group discussion. She is beginning to look deeper into the system that may soon define her life.

Our text exchange the other day was about the big picture:

Sarah: “Hey dad, I think I’m getting to be more like you.”

Me: “Really, how so?”

Sarah: “I just feel more and more that I’m supposed to do something different and important with me life. And that I’m not meant to have the life of a normal doctor.”

Me: “How could you. You have a soul that is different from most others.”

Sarah: “I feel like it will get me into a lot of trouble.”

Me: “But it will be a great journey. You always liked amusement park rides.”

Sarah: “Haha indeed. It’s just weird because I have always been well liked and I can already tell that a lot of people will dislike me if I speak out and stand up for myself.”

Me: “You know, when I was a prosecutor and tried to change the juvenile justice system I was vilified by some.”

Sarah: “I remember you telling me that. It’s hard for me to get past caring about what my superiors think of me because it could impact my career.”

Sarah gave a presentation a couple of weeks ago at a Sexual Assault conference. She spoke for nearly an hour to students, physicians, other health care professionals, and to victims. She spoke openly about being a survivor and the challenges of being a medical student dealing with post traumatic stress.

Sarah stood before two hundred people and told about the night last June. About the five men who broke down the door of her room at the hostel in remote Nicaragua. How they each had a weapon, either a gun or a machete. How she was raped and how she fought, knowing she might not survive.

Sarah lives in a different world now. For months she was convinced she had AIDS. And for months she had nightmares. She still does from time to time. But she is a survivor. She continues to have difficulty sitting in large lecture halls with students who can pay attention. She panics because her attention span isn’t what it used to be. But she has figured it out. She goes back to her apartment and watches the lectures on line. She doubles the speed, forcing herself to pay attention.

We finished out text conversation:

Sarah: “I can’t buy into the system anymore.”

Me: “Do you remember what Robert Frost said?”:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Sarah: “That is awesome. I love that. I find it to be very soothing.”

Sarah has already started down the road less traveled. She has decided she also wants to get a masters degree in public health. She wants to work with those with AIDS and with victims of sexual assault. She wants to help victims become survivors.

Joseph Campbell taught us that, while our lives and the stories of our lives are personal, they contain elements of the universal. I think of those in this country, and around the world, who have come to Restorative Justice for many reasons, most of them personal. They have chosen a road less traveled, having diverged from what, at one time, they thought was the only road. They are learning from victims and from offenders. They are teaching each other. They are gaining in number and in strength because they can’t buy into the system any longer.

They have chosen the road less traveled and it is making all the difference.

- Fred Van Liew

The Winds Of Change


Des Moines, Iowa

I had a conversation with an astrologer recently. I’ve never been an adherent of what many consider a “pseudoscience”, having generally supported the Carl Sagan position that astrology is “unscientific”. Recently, however, I’ve shifted a bit and have come to realize, thanks to the late psychologist Rollo May, that astrology has an entirely different basis. May taught that astrology is a myth, that it requires the language of myth and, like all myth, it contains within it a truth.

Anyway, this astrologist told me that what we are now witnessing has not been seen since the ‘60’s. That our traditional institutions and systems are weakening and those who are servants to those institutions are holding fast to the old way of doing things.

Fear of change is human and those who have the most to lose are the most fearful. According to the astrologist, change is in the air and the winds of change are at the backs of the change makers. But, he warned, the door will not be open long. It may be open less than a decade, as those who cling most to the old ways will do their best to slam the door shut.

I had breakfast yesterday with a friend, the CEO of a large non-profit which serves children and families that have more than their share of challenges. We talked about the local justice system and its apparent blindness to the reality that we all live in the same community. My friend spoke passionately about Restorative Justice and how its approach of balancing the interests of victims, offenders and the community offers her hope.

I saw my friend again this morning at Plymouth Church. We sat together with several others to continue discussions about a fall conference. It is to be modeled after the “TED Talks” and will introduce to many for the first time the Restorative Justice paradigm. It will also attempt to educate professionals and community members on the realities of the “developing brain” of juveniles and the growing body of research which demonstrates that the traditional punitive model of accountability is counter-productive and can actually increase the risk factors for future problematic behavior.

Those at the table – health care and business executives, county officials, non profit leaders like my friend, and justice advocates – believe it’s time to have a community conversation about the implications of our present approach to juvenile accountability. As the head of a major hospital foundation put it “our community is ready to dive in deeper.” A business leader said “we are not inventing something new here, the information is out there.” She said our challenge is to “create a story, create a reason for change.”

Those who met this morning were not just the usual suspects; not just the liberals who decry the “tough on crime” approach, particularly when applied to juveniles. There are a growing number of new voices that are demanding to be heard. They believe in the efficacy of the Restorative Justice approach. They also believe that the findings of scientists and economists must be included in the conversation. They know that the Restorative Justice message resonates with many but that traditionalists need more if they are to be convinced of the need for re-imagining the way we do justice.

The winds of change are behind the change makers. The number of change makers calling for justice reform is increasing. The question, which can’t be answered yet, is will the door remain open long enough?

- Fred Van Liew

Gaining A Competency About Justice


Des Moines, Iowa

When I was a young prosecutor Dusty Rhoades was a frequent visitor to the courthouse. I don’t know if Dusty was his real name but it suited him well. He was in his seventies when I first met him but he still had the look of a cowpoke. Short, wiry, with a quiet intensity, I imagined his early years were spent in a saddle in Oklahoma or Texas although he never admitted it. What brought him to the courthouse and made him a celebrity of sorts was his interest in justice. Dusty loved to sit in on trials. He had a keen mind and his observations were sought after by even veteran lawyers.

At the time, I thought there was no one quite like Dusty. I still think of him with admiration but he is no longer alone. There are many more court watchers now. Most of them are retired, like Dusty. But there are some differences. Today’s court watchers have completed a training. They’ve learned how a case gets into the system and how it works its way through it. They’ve learned the lexicon of the juvenile justice system as well as the roles of the various system players. They’ve learned something about the research around delinquency, detention and the unintended and adverse consequences of putting a young person deep into the system when they don’t belong there. And they’ve learned that children of color are disproportionately represented among all children who appear before our juvenile judges.

Like Dusty, today’s court watchers are interested in justice. Most often, they observe it with a partner while sitting in the back of the courtroom. They use a court watch form to record the specifics of each hearing as well as their observations and opinions about the fairness of the proceeding or its absence. They also record the race and gender of everyone involved in the hearing, including the young person before the court. Everything they record is entered at a later date into a database.

In the last fifteen months, six training sessions have been held and over a hundred have earned a “Court Watcher” badge. Last July a dozen African American ministers completed the training. A few months earlier twenty-five undergraduate honor students did as well. Everyone I have talked with who has completed the training and spent time in one of the six juvenile courtrooms has said they are much better off for the experience. Their eyes have been opened to a system that works well at times but oftentimes appears to be broken. They wonder why they see black and brown juveniles more than white ones. They wonder why young people are brought into courtrooms wearing handcuffs and shackles having been accused of relatively minor offenses. They wonder why these same young people enter guilty pleas fifteen to twenty minutes after having met their court appointed attorneys for the first time.

This afternoon I had coffee with Jeanne, recently retired and wanting to court watch. Jeanne has worked in schools and in the office of the local prosecutor and she has concerns. She wants to gain a competency about justice and form her own opinions about what justice should look like for juveniles in her community.

Jeanne, like many others, is concerned that if we don’t figure out how better to respond to wrong doing by juveniles we will one day regret it. Jeanne doesn’t expect to accomplish much on her own. But she believes there is value in sitting quietly in courtrooms with other trained observers. And she is hopeful that those who run the system will come to see that the community is interested in justice too.

- Fred Van Liew

With A Fire In Her Belly


Des Moines, Iowa

Since 2004, the New York Police Department has stopped more than four million individuals. Eighty percent have been black or Hispanic. Stops of whites amounted to less than three percent of the white population. Stops of blacks exceeded twenty percent of the black population.

Jeffrey Fagan, a statistician at Columbia Law School, says blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be targeted than similarly situated whites, even after adjusting for precinct crime rates, racial demographics and other social and economic factors.

According to Fagan, for too many police officers, male + black = reasonable suspicion.

The constitutionality of the NYPD “stop and frisk” practice is being challenged in federal court in Floyd v. New York City Police Department. But even if the NYPD practices are found to be constitutional they are still a bad idea.

The numbers bear this out. For every 100 individuals stopped and frisked in NYC, about 6 are arrested, generally for minor offenses. A gun is found in about 1 of every 1,000 stops.

Not captured by the numbers is the reality that aggressive stop-and-frisks sow distrust of the police in the targeted communities and inhibit crime control, creating a generation of disaffected minority youths who believe that cops are racists.

New York City is not unique. Over the years, the U.S. Department of Justice has entered into many agreements – consent decrees – with local law enforcement agencies over excesses like racial profiling and the over use of force.

The challenge communities face in attempting to correct law enforcement excesses is convincing police, local officials and legislators that the excesses exist.

Here in Des Moines police say that racial profiling by law enforcement does not exist. And yet in private conversations with African Americans we are finding that it is a reality of their everyday life. It doesn’t matter if you talk with a teenager or an octogenarian the story is the same. The only difference is the older the victim of racial profiling the more resigned he is to it.

Yesterday four of us met at the Unitarian Church to continue an effort started last August to document racial profiling. In reading the literature and talking with experts around the country, we have learned that you must collect stories and you must collect data. The stories are compelling. We know that. But officials and policy makers won’t make changes without empirical findings.

The four of us strategized for nearly two hours on next steps. Russ Lovell – white, seventy, and a civil rights professor; Harvey Harrison – white, nearly seventy, and a trial attorney for over forty years; me – white and closer to seventy than fifty; and Dionna Langford – black, early twenties, well educated, and a community organizer with fire in her belly.

Three of us who can recall the past and speak to the present. One who can speak to the present and who will determine the future.

Russ said the research shows that other cities have employed methods to reduce crime without violating civil liberties. Methods such as “focused deterrence” which works with communities to go after the few individuals who are typically responsible for driving up crime rates.

Harvey reviewed with us the interviews held so far. Most conducted at three clinics held at the law school. Harvey suggested, and the rest of us agreed, that it’s time to broaden our reach, go into neighborhoods, and speak to people in their homes.

Dionna said it’s rare for her to be at a gathering or party and the subject of racial profiling does not come up. She said we need to reach out to young people, to her generation – both for their support and for their stories. She said the data is there, but it needs to be collected by those who can be trusted. She said she wants to help. There’s so much at stake.

On August 3, 1857, Frederick Douglas delivered his now famous “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York. He exhorted those in attendance to remember that:

“Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters. This struggle may be a moral one. Or it may be both moral and physical. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

More than a century later, James Baldwin wrote in “The Fire Next Time”:

“If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

Valerie Kaur spoke two years ago this month at a local interfaith gathering. Sikh, a Yale Law School graduate, a filmmaker and civil rights advocate, and the founder of Groundswell at the Auburn Theological Seminary, Valerie said what she has discovered is that story telling + advocacy = social change.

Dionna Langford will follow in the footsteps of Frederick Douglas, James Baldwin, and Valerie Kaur, as well as the others who have fought to change the history of the world. She will learn the tools of organizing, record the stories, collect the data, and advocate for change with a fire in her belly.

- Fred Van Liew

A Prosecutor Who Gets It


Minneapolis, Minnesota

Twenty-three years ago this June I opened a letter from Bob Cook, a Presbyterian minister. A few years earlier Bob and I had worked together. I was a Legal Aid attorney spending much of my time in court representing clients threatened with eviction. Bob was part of a small but vocal group advocating for the rights of the homeless. We joined forces and some good things happened, including the creation of Anawim Housing that, over the years, created hundreds of housing units for families in need of transitional shelter. Anawim continues to provide housing for those moving from shelter to permanency.

But when Bob wrote in 1991 it wasn’t to talk about housing. It was to talk about justice. Bob was a passionate man. He still is. When he “retired” at the age of sixty he moved to El Salvador and worked with the poor for several years. Now, if my dates are correct, Bob is on a walk across the country with several others to raise awareness about global warming.

Bob isn’t one for introductions or formalities. Blunt and to the point, with white hair and white beard, he speaks with the voice of a prophet. In his letter he stated simply:

“Fred, you’ve got to find out about this thing called Restorative Justice!”

Enclosed was an article from a Canadian justice official sent to him by a friend.

I was a prosecutor and had never heard of such a thing. But I started reading what I could find about RJ and was soon convinced that it offered both a promise and a process desperately needed by a justice system indifferent to the real needs of victims and offenders.

Des Moines was fortunate at the time to have a Neighborhood Mediation Center. Within months training in “victim-offender mediation” was provided to about twenty of the mediators. The rest is history.

Slow going at first but within a few years the capacity was built to provide facilitated dialogues to every victim with the need to sit across the table from the person who had caused them harm. Elected officials recognized the importance of the process to their constituency. Taxpayer dollars paid for the staff necessary to integrate Restorative Justice into the existing system. Money was allocated to compensate mediators on a case by case basis.

Few offenses were off limits. The primary question was “are the parties ready?” The range of offenses reflected the Criminal Code – from theft, property damage, and assault to burglary, robbery and rape. Even family members of loved ones who had been murdered found healing in a process that recognizes as sacred the telling of story in the aftermath of wrong doing, no matter how serious.

Victim-offender dialogues continue to take place in Des Moines. Hundreds of meetings are held annually. For a victim, to meet with an offender is recognized as a right, just as important as the right of a defendant to remain silent and to have the assistance of counsel.

Fast forward to Maine in 2014. A meeting was held in Augusta on Wednesday, convened by Maeghan Maloney, the District Attorney for Kennebec and Somerset counties. Maeghan gets it. She understands the needs of victims. And she has an intuitive sense that when an offender hears how his or her conduct has effected the lives of others a transformation is possible. Maeghan was accompanied by Carie James, her chief juvenile prosecutor. Carie gets it too. She says that Restorative Justice is needed in her jurisdiction. Also at the table were five juvenile probation officers. The ones who work in the trenches. They understand that victims oftentimes would like to meet with an offender and get an answer to the simple question “why”?

There was a spirited conversation for nearly two hours. By the time we finished, May 29 was selected for the first victim – offender dialogues. Sufficient time was allocated for as many as three meetings. A shared calendar will be created with set days and times of the week. The juvenile probation officers accepted responsibility for reserving a room, scheduling the meetings, and inviting victims and offenders to the table. The Restorative Justice Institute of Maine will provide the facilitators.

It will be slow going at first. But if history is a predictor of the future, Maeghan Maloney, her staff, and the Juvenile Court in Kennebec County will create a model for other prosecutors and courts to follow.

These are exciting times in Maine. People are waking to the challenge of defining justice for their communities. Other innovative models are being envisioned. It will be interesting to observe the collaborative efforts that emerge. No longer can there be an “us” and a “them”. Communities and those in the System are recognizing the need to partner. Neither can go it alone.

- Fred Van Liew

Three Questions


New Gloucester, Maine

The towns are becoming familiar. Their names and the sounds of them. Biddeford, Alfred, Old Orchard Beach, Westbrook, Gray, Falmouth, Cumberland, Freeport, Brunswick, Topsham, Auburn, Lewiston, Oxford, South Paris, Augusta, Waterville, Newcastle, Waldoboro, Thomaston, St. George, Tenants Harbor.

Last week there was the drive up to Boothbay Harbor. Actually, as much “out” as “up”. You follow the coast line from Portland, southwest to northeast, skirting Casco Bay. Boothbay Harbor is “out there”. Its name is cumbersome at first. Two words but it sounds like three. But there is a poetry to it. The alliteration.

I’m not quite sure how we got there, Chris and I. Chris who wears two hats, three or four if you count being husband and father. He is a facilitator with the Midcoast Restorative Justice Project and a community coordinator for the RJ Institute of Maine. A week earlier he asked me to accompany him to a meeting at the high school.

I wished I’d had a map. Chris didn’t need one. I met up with him at Bath in Sagahahoc County. A port city with a harbor on the Kennebec River. Home of the giant cranes and Bath Iron Works. With Chris at the wheel we passed through Wiscasset, North Edgecomb and then Edgecomb, dropping due south to Boothbay Harbor, midpoint to Newagen at the tip of the peninsula.

We were greeted at the front door of the school by a Boothbay police officer. Younger than me, he carried himself with a wisdom that comes with having responded to thousands of calls. He’s the peace officer you want when there’s a problem at home with a teenager and what you need is advice and not an arrest.

We met in a small conference room, a dozen of us around an oval table. The police officer started with introductions but the actual conversation had started several months earlier, shortly after a local student was arrested for a serious offense. Everyone agreed at the time that he was a good kid who had made a bad mistake. But what do you do when tradition and practice allow for only one response? At least one person, perhaps more, said “slow down, stop the train.” There were more questions. What will the consequences be if we go froward with this in the usual way? Can we do something different? What would that look like? Who do we call?

That’s when Chris got involved – Chris the facilitator. He helped those most concerned craft a restorative response which included the convening of a Circle. The result was expected by those familiar with Restorative Justice. For those not familiar it was life changing. The young man, his family, and the community are on the mend. And now people in Boothbay Harbor want to know how RJ can be the customary response for many, if not most young people who make a bad mistake.

It was fascinating, and an honor, to sit at that table and be present to a birthing process. To witness a police officer, a lawyer, a coach, a counselor, committed volunteers, local business people, and the young offender turned committee member, talk about the kind of justice they want in their community and begin to articulate steps necessary to get there.

There will be more meetings. The oval table won’t be large enough. Others will be recruited to contribute, including more young people. There is little doubt that Boothbay Harbor has within its town limits the right problem solvers and process makers. And it’s likely that something else will be added to the mix – compassion. The man to my left, a big bear of a guy and a long time worker with at risk kids, said it loud and clear: “I believe in a strict correctional attitude. But sometimes these kids just need a big hug.”

Afterward I spoke with Doug, owner of the local bait shop and a man the police officer said really knows kids. Doug talked about how he raised his own. He told me that whenever one of them did something wrong, hurt someone, he always asked three questions:

- What were you thinking at the time?
- How did your actions impact others?
- What are you going to do about it?

Sounds like Restorative Justice to me.

Fred Van Liew

The Circle As Building Block


New Gloucester, Maine

Seven of us met last evening at First Parish in downtown Portland to talk about justice. It was the third such meeting in as many weeks. A different group each time. We met in Circle as is the practice. After introductions we each provided a brief background – youth, work, family – and then talked about what had moved us to come together for an evening of conversation and story telling. There was a veteran disability lawyer, a political science professor, an RJ volunteer from the church, a lawyer with a long history of working with at risk kids, a social worker turned RJ organizer. And there was John, a native of the Congo.

John is new to Maine. He’s an asylum seeker. He lived in Rwanda for many years where he facilitated healing and reconciliation workshops for Tutsi genocide victims. He also facilitated victim – offender dialogues for truth telling and apology.

I first met John yesterday afternoon outside his apartment near the waterfront. John spoke of his history and his long journey through the war and its aftermath. We talked about our mutual interest in Restorative Justice. His favorite book is Howard Zehr’s “Little Book of Restorative Justice”. His second favorite is Howard’s “Changing Lenses”. John’s dream is to meet Howard one day and study Conflict Transformation at Eastern Mennonite University. He wants to improve his skills as a peacemaker so he can empower the people of the Great Lakes region of Africa who, he says, are hungry for peace.

John told me that all of his work has been informed by Restorative Justice principles. It’s been his experience that the punishment of offenders doesn’t contribute to the long term task of rebuilding community. John says RJ is an essential tool for real peace and security in Africa.

When John held the talking piece, he spoke passionately about the healing and transformation possible when victims and offenders come together. He’s witnessed crimes most of us don’t even want to imagine. And yet he is optimistic. John has seen first hand the capacity of humans to heal one another, and themselves, when coming together in restorative processes that he considers sacred.

Others in the Circle spoke about injustices they have witnessed. Some while growing up and finding out for the first time that there are “haves” and “have nots”. Some spoke of their college years and being awakened to injustice by the Viet Nam war or the struggles of migrant laborers. And some spoke of their professional work, the inequities of wealth and power, and of systems that grind people down.

When the talking piece was passed for the final round each reflected on whether or not there is hope for the future. To a person there was optimism. Not so much for a leveling of the inequalities, or for the evolution of a justice system that ceases to harm those caught in its net. Instead, the shared optimism was similar to John’s. After two hours of sitting in Circle, there was a heightened sense of the value of relationship and community and that by coming together for conversation and story telling anything is possible.

Peter Block writes:

“The social fabric of community is formed from an expanding shared sense of belonging. It is shaped by the idea that only when we are connected and care for the well-being of the whole that a civil and democratic society is created.”

There can be little doubt that processes such as peacemaking circles are essential building blocks for such a society.

- Fred Van Liew