“Making It Personal” – that was the name of Marquette Law School’s Restorative Justice 2020 Conference. But this is a time when, like almost everywhere else, no programs are being done in person at the Law School. And making things personal on a computer screen is a challenge.
So how personal were the four sessions of the conference? Very.
At the center of four moving, thoughtful, and intimate sessions, posted in the Law School’s web page during the week of Nov. 9 through 12, was Janine Geske, distinguished professor of law (retired) and long-time head of Marquette Law School’s Restorative Justice Initiative.
She was joined in two sessions by the Rev. Daniel Griffith of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Minneapolis, who is the Wenger Family Fellow of Law, St. Thomas School of Law, and Liaison to Restorative Justice and Healing, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, a leader of restorative efforts in Minnesota and beyond.
In a third session, three past participants in restorative justice conferences described their own paths from being among those who have been harmed or who did harm to being among the helpers and healers for other people who have been harmed.
The focus overall was both the power and the process of restorative justice circles, the sessions that include people who have been harmed, those who have harmed them, and others who have been impacted by harmful episodes. The people in circles share personal experiences and thoughts on how they were impacted by situations in which harm occurred. They listen intently to each other, speaking only when they are holding “a talking piece,” an object that is passed around as a way of maintaining respect for each person.
Geske described how she got involved in restorative justice circles , initially in Wisconsin prisons. “I wanted to do God’s work; I had no agenda,” she said. She found that even among people who had committed major crimes, great healing could occur.
Circles she said, have ripple effects. Victims are one focus. The harm that occurred is a second focus. And then there is the focus on how to go about repairing the harm.
Talking circles are based on native traditions from tribes around the world, she said. “The sense of the circle is that it is a sacred process,” she said. “I have to go in with a still heart because I’m asking people to share and be open.”
“To me, the lack of listening in our culture is the foundation of many of our troubles,” Geske said. “It is only by listening to people’s experiences—not their opinions, but their experiences — that you learn to walk in their shoes.” She added, “It’s such a gift to hear somebody share that experience.”
What kind of impact do circles have? “I’m just in awe how people who I don’t know, who I have not spent time with, suddenly open themselves up and speak from the heart,” Geske said. “It really is the hand of God, and I see the impact that has on others. It is miraculous. It’s the foundation, it’s where I experience faith, it’s where I see God.”
Griffith said restorative justice can lead to transformative justice and to undoing unjust social structures. It can lead to “a more inclusive, a more just and a more humane social order.”
He said that in society broadly, “the challenge is we have not been able to speak to each other. People put each other in categories rather than see their humanity. This is the beauty of restorative justice. It lays bare humanity.” Through stories about harm come healing, he said.
In one of the sessions of the conference, three people who are involved in restorative justice told their stories. Ron Edwards is a member of the Milwaukee Police Department who has lost several family members to violence, including incidents involving police officers. Penny Beernsten is a sexual assault victim who found out years later that the man she identified as her assailant was innocent – and she met with him in a circle to ask to be forgiven. LT Austin served time in prison several times, but he has become an advocate for helping formerly incarcerated people.
In the fourth session, Geske and Griffith answered questions from participants in the conference about different aspects of how restorative justice works. Geske said circles are not the time for preaching or encouraging people to become involved in religion.” It has nothing to do with us evangelizing and everything to do with giving parties an opportunity to share their stories and to find some healing in the process,” she said.
The first session, an interview with Geske, may be viewed by clicking here. The second, with Edwards, Beernsten, and Austin, may be viewed by clicking here. A talk by Griffith may be viewed by clicking here and the final session with the two of them may be viewed by clicking here. Each session is less than an hour.