There’s No Substitute For Experience


New Gloucester, Maine

Eight of us met last evening in an upstairs room at First Parish Church. It was the third such meeting in a month. The Director of the Portland Center for Restorative Justice and I engaged the six “newcomers” in a lengthy role play. Each volunteer had a part – as the adult victim of a burglary, the teenage offender, or as the mediator. Lecture all you want, talk about philosophy and principles, but it takes role playing to get people to a point where they actually feel the process. I’m always fascinated by the transition from problem solver and fixer to listener and mediator. A few take to it quickly. For many it is a struggle. And for some, try as they might, it never happens. Fortunately, the Restorative Justice movement requires all kinds and there is work for everyone no matter their skills, interests or aptitude.

One of the “naturals” arrived a little late. During a break she apologized. She had been at her son’s baseball game. I asked how it went. She said he is a senior and he had a hit, his first in four years. After the game he was ecstatic and declared that by the end of the season he would be hitting home runs. Then she told me that despite his modest success, he plays for the love of the game.

I’m reminded of a case I prosecuted a few years ago. It involved another high school senior. School had let out and on his walk home he was jumped. Three boys took him to the ground. He was hit and kicked and somewhere in the struggle a knife came out. A single thrust lacerated his spleen and he was left in a pool of blood. An elderly woman walking her dog saw everything and called the police. An eight hour surgery followed. The parents of the boy were told afterward that the width of a quarter was the difference between life and death.

It didn’t take long for the three boys to be identified, arrested and charged. Kids talk. All three were nearly sixteen. Had they been a few months older they would have been treated immediately as adults. Even at fifteen that was still a possibility as the juvenile court judge had the authority to give up his jurisdiction and turn the boys over to the adult system. If convicted, a lengthy prison sentence would follow. Early on in the case, that is what the parents of the injured boy wanted.

They had nearly lost their son and, as punishment, they wanted the perpetrators to lose their youth. But an attorney for one of the boys called to see if there might be a different way to hold the boys accountable. The attorney was a long time advocate for juveniles caught up in the system. As an attorney he had seen on many occasions how Restorative Justice could help make sense out of a senseless act.

We talked at length about the need for the victim and his parents to be included in the discussions. Meetings were held and the pros and cons were explored. The parents finally agreed that they and their son needed to meet the three boys and tell them how their lives had been changed by their acts of brutality.

I will never forget that evening when everyone came together. The parents were nervous as was their son. The three boys feared for their own lives. One of our best mediators had been called in to facilitate the dialogue. He was skilled in managing the complexities of anger, fear and shame. The boy’s mother spoke first and then his father. They told of receiving the call, of rushing to the hospital, of waiting helplessly throughout the night. They described the tense days that followed when survival was not assured. And they told of their concern for their other son, the identical twin, and how they kept both boys home for fear of retaliation.

The young offenders sat motionless throughout. Not one of them appeared moved by what had been said. And then the young victim spoke. He told of his love for baseball. How every year he looked forward to the coming of spring. How this was to be his last season and having grown three inches and twenty pounds over the winter he hoped to hit his first home run. And then he described what it was like to sit on the bench the entire season, keeping score while his teammates went on to win the championship. He looked at the boys across from him. He started to cry when he told them what it was like to have something so precious as baseball stolen from him.

The three started to cry as well. Nothing was said for several minutes. And then the boy looked at the three again and told them he forgave them.

It is a challenge sometimes to explain to the uninitiated what Restorative Justice offers that our retributive system can’t. Like love and compassion, it must be experienced.

– Fred Van Liew

Fighting For Survival


New Gloucester, Maine

I spent Friday evening and most of Saturday at a church in western Iowa. In thirty minute intervals I met individually with members of the congregation who wanted to talk.

These were not your fair weather church goers. Most are long time members. Some have attended service nearly every Sunday for forty years or more. All are deeply committed to the health of the church. They have tithed faithfully and substantially. They’ve served on numerous committees, participated in the liturgy and choir, assisted with the youth ministry and led youth outings, and they’ve seen the church through major capital campaigns. They consider the church their primary community. And when I met with them it was clear that they all are hurting.

What had once been a thriving congregation is now struggling with conflict. Long time members, individuals and families, have left the church. Others are close to leaving. Revenues have declined considerably. Staff are hired but few stay long. The energy that served as a magnet, attracting new members, has dissipated to the point of non-existence. All agree that something has to be done, and soon. But there is no agreement on a course of action.

Common to every conversation was sadness. While there is a widening rift between those who lay blame on the pastor and those who see a problem with deeper roots, there is no denying that the pain is shared by all and is in direct proportion to the degree of caring and concern.

As an outsider called in to assess the situation, and hopefully assist the church through a healing process, I find that I am conflicted in my own belief as to what might be the outcome. On the one hand, this is a church that is nearing a critical point in its existence. There is a shared grief for the loss of something very dear and a recognition that recovery might not be possible. But there is also a shared sense of urgency, and with urgency comes the possibility of dramatic change.

In a couple of weeks, on three consecutive evenings, members of the congregation will come together in small Healing Circles – twelve to fifteen in each one. A week later a much larger Circle will be convened with up to forty participants, the pastor included. The final Circle will be held in the sanctuary. There will be candles and a center piece, reflective of the congregation’s history and values. Church members will choose the talking piece to be used, one that is symbolic of the congregation’s need for community.

In addition to the other feelings shared, there is a guarded optimism. Everyone I spoke with will participate in the Circle process. It’s new to them but intuitively they sense that it’s the right thing to do. While they don’t have answers they do have hope, and they have an understanding that if their community is to survive they must come together as a community to make that happen.

It’s easy these days to think that our communities are in decline and to allow resignation to seep in. But when I see an Iowa church fighting for its existence, I am encouraged.

– Fred Van Liew

RJ Musings


Des Moines, Iowa

For years I’ve wondered what a Restorative Justice system would look like. Dating back to the mid-90’s I would attend RJ conferences and attempt to corner experts who had researched and written about program design, best practices, effective processes, and success stories. When I could get one of them alone – I didn’t want to embarrass them in front of an audience – I would ask the question that begged for an answer: “But what would a Restorative Justice system look like?” Without exception, the question would be followed by a pause, silence of varying lengths, and then inevitably, “I don’t really know.”

At first it seems preposterous that the many fine minds that have thought deeply about Restorative Justice for nearly four decades have not come up with the schematic of an RJ system rivaling our present system that so effectively grinds out justice. And even more than a schematic, why hasn’t a team of experts identified the ideal city, descended upon it, and made the commitment to move it in a decade or less from a retributive city to a restorative one?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the present system is so complicated and convoluted that very few people, the experts included, can tell you how it works down to the minute details. Without understanding the machine as it is, how can even the geniuses come up with a machine to replace it?

But where would you start? What would be the ideal incubator or laboratory for a grand restorative justice experiment? We are often told that politics is local. When you consider where most of our justice is meted out, it is probably safe to say that justice is also local. Where most people experience justice, and injustice, is in their own communities. That is where the schools are, the police, the lawyers, and the judges, and the courthouse, if the community is large enough to have a one. And that is where the crime is.

Nearly all of the makings of a justice system can be found in communities of ten thousand or more. In Iowa, there are ninety-nine counties, each with a county courthouse (Lee county has two courthouses). Nearly all of the county seat towns in Iowa have a population between five and fifteen thousand people. And each one of those towns has its own justice system. So why not start there? Why not pull a few good minds together, maybe even an engineer from BMW or Mercedes, and start at square one?

Chances are that square one would be the town square. That is where, on any given day, you’d find the locals. It would seem that you would want to sit them. Maybe invite them one or two at a time to have coffee. Find out what their attitudes are about justice. What experience they’ve had with their justice system and what they think of that system.

My guess is that before those wonderful German engineers start designing and building a new model, they sit down with a lot of folks and find out what they like and don’t like with the cars they are already driving. They ask a lot of questions and make very few assumptions. And when it’s all said and done, they try to come up with a product that works for the people.

These are just musings as the clock nears midnight. But they do keep my up from time to time.

– Fred Van Liew

Communities Of Resistance


Des Moines, Iowa

Thich Nhat Hanh and Daniel Berrigan met in Paris in 1975. U.S. military involvement in Vietnam had ended two years earlier. The two great peace activists, one a Buddhist monk and the other a Jesuit priest, talked about the war, its destruction, the aftermath, and the many levels of casualties. Relevant for today was their conversation about “communities of resistance.”

They didn’t limit their conversation to resistance against war. In fact, they broadened the definition of war beyond that of a military conflict engaged in by combatants. For both men, resistance must extend to all things that are like war. There must be resistance to whatever in modern society makes it difficult for the individual to retain integrity and wholeness.

“Resistance” said Thich Nhat Hanh “means opposition to being invaded, occupied, assaulted and destroyed by the system . . . the purpose of resistance is to seek healing in order to see clearly.”

I have a friend who is a community organizer. The son of a minister, he learned about organizing from his father who didn’t just preach economic and social equality from the pulpit. He fought for it in his rural Nebraska community which was in danger of dying at the hands of big banking. My friend says that community organizing must be about two things. It must be against those forces in a community which diminish people and it must be in favor of community institutions, churches included, which provide a buffer between the people and the dominant culture which deadens.

I thought of Berrigan, Hahn, and my friend earlier this week while facilitating a Circle at a local church. Ministers and staff met for nearly six hours to celebrate the work the church does in the neighborhood and to try to improve relationships within the church so the good work can continue. Despite the best of intentions, time had taken a toll. Slights, even minor ones, had led to withdrawal and distrust. Friendships had been damaged and others suffered as a result.

The first two hours were spent in getting to know one another and learning about the values and joys of each. Only by taking the time to relate in this way was it possible to move on to the issues that threatened the viability of the church’s mission. People began to open up, sharing what brought meaning to their work and what saddened them about the present difficulties. The sharing allowed for a discussion about communication – the lack of it and how it can be improved.

Honesty and vulnerability went hand in hand:

“Triangulation is an issue for me.”
“If I have a problem with someone I should take time with them.”
“I see generational problems here and I need to help bridge the divide.”
“Different levels of communication lead to difficulties.”
“Face to face communication is best.”
“I need to be able to speak with others without getting emotional.”
“It takes effort to learn what others are doing.”
“It takes intention to know who someone is.”
“A lot of grace is needed everywhere.”

The Circle process has its own internal clock. While not every issue was resolved, collectively the group knew when it was time to end for the day. Resolutions were made to continue the conversation. Much of the difficult work had been accomplished. Trust was possible again.

What Daniel Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hahn termed “communities of resistance” might also be called “communities of restoration” or “communities of trust”. Those who would be healers must heal themselves first. And if the world is to be healed the work of healing cannot be accomplished by those working alone. It will take communities working within larger communities.

Trust, as Parker Palmer suggested, is essential:

“A circle of trust is a group of people who know how to sit quietly “in the woods” with each other and wait for the shy soul to show up . . . . In such a space, we are freed to hear our own truth, touch what brings us joy, become self critical about our faults, and take risky steps toward change – knowing that we will be accepted no matter what the outcome.”

– Fred Van Liew

Time To Speak Up


Des Moines, Iowa

I had coffee this afternoon with a woman. We met in Ankeny, about half way between her home and mine. Recently turned sixty, she is a community organizer. Not in the traditional sense. She doesn’t organize around issues. Instead, she organizes around hope. For the past eighteen years she has worked in her community with those without a voice – the poor and the mentally ill. She helps them create and maintain their own community. They meet weekly, in a Circle, and share their struggles. She has found, as they have, that by using a talking piece they are empowered to speak their truth in a way previously denied them.

From time to time they have conflicts. Sometimes just two of them. Other times its several. As a result, she has taken it upon herself to learn how to help them manage conflict. She has trained as a mediator and uses her skills, and her native ability to listen, to help those in conflict find common ground.

As we shared our coffee she shared some of her life with me. Born and raised middle class, she was always the quiet one. She suffered early on with depression although she didn’t know what to call it. It was years before she discovered that she had celiac disease which caused her to have significant mood swings. To be with others made her uneasy so she stayed to herself. She was particularly adverse to conflict and avoided it at all cost. She says it’s ironic that she is now the one who advocates for others who have yet to find their own voice, and mediates with others who have yet to learn the skills of compromise and reconciliation.

She is also a “conflict coach”, meeting privately with individuals to help them discover their own strengths so they can better enter into dialogue with those with whom they have disagreements. She is presently working with an individual with Asperger’s Syndrome. They practice the art of conversation, the give and take of it, so that the awkwardness of social interaction is lessened.

Our conversation turned to Restorative Justice. She says it meets her need for inclusiveness. Having worked with the marginalized for so many years she has come to realize that the extent to which there is community is the extent to which each individual is recognized as indispensable. She is particularly sensitive now to the way the justice system works. How it ostracizes. She sees that the poor, the mentally ill, the people of color, increasingly fill our jails and prisons. She says she is ready now to enlarge the scope of her community organizing efforts. She wants to join with others, those who organize and those who are silent, to engage in dialogue about what justice is and what it could be.

Having been silent for so many years, she says it’s time for her to speak up.

– Fred Van Liew


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.

Jean 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. Jean 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. Jean 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. Jean says this being seen makes all the difference.

It struck me, as Jean 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 Jean. 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 Jean 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