Changing the Narrative

By Dave Kelly, C.PP.S.


Last week PBMR was invited to participate in a conference of Illinois judges and court personnel.  They asked if we could present on the topic of restorative justice (RJ) and the practice of peacemaking circles.  That, in itself, is not out of the ordinary.  We are often asked to present on RJ.  However to a group of judges is a little different, but not out of our experience. 

Something that a little out of the ordinary, was that many of the keepers of the circles were some of our own staff persons who had spent decades in prison.  Since there were approximately150 judges and court personnel, we opened with a brief explanation of restorative justice and then broke into 10 different circles.

It is ironic that those condemned as a threat to society are now looked upon as keepers of a new way of repairing harm and building community.  Years ago, they stood in front of a judge and were sent to prison; they were each seen as a menace to society.  A number of them were given life without the possibility of parole – unredeemable.  But this day, they were seen differently; they were the keepers of the circle in order to help judges and court personnel understand and experience the power of relationships and ensuring accountability – true accountability. 

Orlando, who himself spent 20 years in prison, tells of his circle and how powerful it was.  Court personnel are often trained in keeping their feelings and their emotions well under control.  If there is expression from judges in the courtroom, it is often frustration and contempt.  Today, in circle, emotions were shared and stories were told, but they were stories and emotions that brought people together.  There was trust among those who sat in that circle and it was truly healing.  As they concluded and readied themselves to go back to the larger conference room, one of the judges came over to Orlando and gave him a hug.  He smiled as he tells the story – “I’ve never been hugged by a judge before”, he says.  “Amazing!”

We have just celebrated Pentecost, where the many different people with different languages and cultures were amazed because they understood one another.  Egyptians and Romans, those from Asia and Persia – all understood one another.  The power of the spirit opened the hearts and minds and they saw themselves, not as strangers or aliens, but as one community, one people. 

Circles, while maybe not a Pentecost experience, are spaces where we intentionally step out of our titles and hierarchical statuses and work to see one another as a brother or sister – a fellow human being on a journey. 

Tito (named changed), a young kid who we know very well and who has been a part of the Center for a couple years, was caught taking some money out of one of the staff’s purses.  When confronted, he admitted he did it and gave the money back.  Because there is more to it than the money – there was the violation of trust on a number of levels. 

Tito and the staff person, from whom the money was taken, chose to sit in circle. That staff person was able to talk about how she felt that he, who she has supported in so many ways, would steal from her.  She shared her disappointed and hurt.  Tito had the opportunity to apologize.  He spoke about what happened and why.  He was able to share about how he was dealing with many issues – the illness of his mom and so many other things – not as an excuse, but as part of the story. 

He was asked to write a “repair of harm agreement”.  Here is what he wrote to the staff person: “I am sorry for the harm I caused you and PBMR. I accept the consequences and this will never happen again.  I know now it was wrong; let me know if there is any more you need from me.” 

And because the theft harm to PBMR as well, he was asked to write as statement to PBMR that would be shared at staff meeting.  Here is what he wrote to us: “Sorry for the harm to PBMR.  This will never happen again and I accept my consequences.  He went on to say, “the Center means a lot to me.  I would not want to do anything to be put out.  I will work at being respectful to everyone here.” 

Restorative Justice allows us to repair harm done by focusing on the harmed relationships.  It allows us to see beyond the crime/issue and recognize the persons involved.  In order to recognize someone, you have to listen to their story, understand where they are coming from, and, maybe, begin to understand some of what they are experiencing as well. 

This is our mission: changing narratives – to move beyond the superficial and embracing the stories, relationships and experiences that make up our lives.