The summer before to my freshman year, a burglar ransacked my house while I was home alone. It was a lazy morning. I was reading in bed when I heard the first knock. I continued reading without pause, noting that my mother—the only other resident of our home—was not due home until lunchtime. The second knock resounded with a greater sense of urgency, but as a Memphis resident I’d always harbored a distrust of unexpected visitors.
The third and final knock was followed by silence. Without warning, the quiet was pierced by the shrill activation of our security alarm. In those initial moments, I was thrust into an immobilizing terror. Fear began coiling itself around my neck as the seconds rolled past. At some point, instinct pulled my stupefied body out of bed and into my closet. From inside, I listened as a faceless stranger hurriedly transformed my safe haven into a crime scene. The intruder swiped peace from my bedside table and removed rest and trust from my jewelry boxes. By Grace, I was not discovered. The intruder fled, but the loss of these three elements kept me in figurative hiding. When the police arrived, I exited my closet—but I remained in hiding for years.
My source of healing came as a shock. The summer after my junior year, I found myself facilitating a restorative justice course within South Africa’s notorious Drakenstein Correctional Centre. In essence, restorative justice is a community-based approach to conflict resolution. Rather than treating crime as an offense against an institution, restorative justice responds not to the offense itself, but to the offense’s impact on individuals and relationships. By shifting the conversation from retribution to reclamation, this practice lies in radical contrast to the dehumanization that characterizes traditional corrective tactics. Within this particular prison, restorative efforts manifested in the mentorship of inmates, followed by facilitated victim-offender dialogues.
I was assigned to mentor a group of five juvenile inmates. As fate would have it, one of the inmates is currently serving time for two charges: home burglary and the assault of the female resident. This latter charge is the potential alternate ending—the “what if —that I had envisioned countless times over the years. Consequently, when this inmate first recounted his crime, I immediately brimmed with contempt. Fortunately, an inverse relationship developed between my hidden ire and the progression of the course, leading me to eventually divulge my own experience as a victim.
Over the weeks, I watched as he realized that his loot likely consisted not only of his victim’s cash and electronics, but also of her peace, rest and trust. I sat with him as he gradually began to sympathize with his victim for the first time. I listened as he made connections between his crimes and his childhood traumas. As this man’s heart softened towards his victim, family and community, a love towards both him and my own burglar arose as well. Bitterness and malice gradually vacated my heart, making room for the return of peace, rest and trust. Restorative justice’s ability to overflow and fortuitously bring healing to a mere bystander is a testament to its potency. Restorative justice continually proves an effective means of conflict resolution; as a result, many prisons, schools and workplaces have begun to implement such practices. Fortunately, Bowdoin appears ready to hop on-board.
Last September, Dean Tim Foster sent a campus-wide email announcing Residential Life’s curation of a set of restorative tools to be employed as a means of conflict resolution. According to Foster, these tools include “conflicting coaching, facilitated dialogue, and mediation.” So far, so good. Foster then notes that the administration currently applies restorative principles in response to multiple situations—including bias incidents. This claim is worrisome, given the reality of the administration’s response to the controversies of the 2015-2016 year.
I recently discussed these misguided responses with a student who was implicated in one of the more infamous bias incidents of that year. Under the tangerine glow of Senior Night bar lights, we dove into a full-blown, mostly-coherent analysis. We’d never spoken before that night, yet we both believed we knew exactly who the other was. Within the collective memory of what happened that year, I was a sensitive person of color; she, an ignorant and unconcerned white person. We laughed at our own short-sightedness, as well as that of the campus at-large. After further discussion, we realized that we were both fully-versed in the principles of restorative justice. It quickly became clear that our conversation—and the relationship it built—was itself a function of restorative justice. This encounter brought far more healing than any official sanction, probation or College-sponsored venting session.
This conversation was a blessing and the conclusions I eventually drew from it, even moreso. First, it is most evident that the administration’s past responses to bias incidents are far from restorative. Whereas restorative approaches aim to examine and rectify rifts, the College’s punitive measures served merely to exacerbate. Frankly, the tenets upon which restorative justice was founded—restitution, encouragement and the pursuit of mutual understanding—were wholly absent from the administration’s response. In addition, contrary to the administration’s past actions, restorative practices do not place the burden of restoration into the hands of the affected. The administration’s past measures were critiqued for many of the same reasons that many punitive systems are: their efforts polarized the community, shamed the offenders to no avail and provided a false sense of justice for the hurt.
I remain optimistic about the College’s burgeoning attention to restorative philosophies. My love for this place, in conjunction with my personal encounter with restorative justice, fuels this charge. I urge the College to closely examine its responses in relation to the tenets that underlie restorative principles. Our approach to conflict resolution is in dire need of a reconfiguration, and I am confident that what restorative justice did for me, it can do for our community.