One day, an old Jewish woman found a swastika spray-painted on the wall of a Baptist church near her home. The family of the old Jewish woman advised her to always keep a suitcase in the front closet so that she can quickly escape wherever and whenever anti-Semitism rears it's ugly head. So when she came across that swastika, she was ready to leave. But she did not know where to go. Most of you here would agree that whoever committed that crime should bear the brunt of the community's righteous anger. In fact, when similar incidences occur on campuses, we quickly try to figure out how we can punish the offenders. But if we keep neglecting the question of how we can help victims, we will live in a community where those victims are momentarily appeased, but their is suffering neither entirely eased, nor is their well-being restored.
For me, in addressing harms, a restorative justice circle is the most effective method to put the needs of victims first and ensure the well-being of communities. I arrived at this conclusion a few weeks ago when I was among a group comprised of faculty, staff, and students who participated in a two-day training on restorative justice. During the training, one of the trainers, Duke Fisher, shared the story of a 14-year-old 9th grader whose pseudonym is Dylan. Dylan's story attests to the transformative power of circles.
On a freezing January night, Dylan and two of his friends spray-painted that swastika on the wall of a Baptist church, a penis on the wall of a brand-new performing arts center, another on the handicap signs of the parking lot of an elementary school, and then set fire to the dugout of a Little League Baseball field. Days later, when she found out, Dylan's mother immediately called the police on him. In the end, the three boys were each handed 18-month probationary sentences. This 14-year-old did those things, not out of spite or hate, but to be mischievous for mischief's sake, and he paid a price for it. His mother withdrew him from all the sports he participated in, even though he was an exceptional varsity athlete. He lost most of his friends, and he went from being a popular, well-liked kid in school to being effectively all but banished from his community.
Without a question, Dylan did something egregious, and his life was left in tatters because of it. But what was done to him did not assuage the distress of the old Jewish woman who now felt that she was unwelcome in her own community or satisfy the needs of other victims which should be the primary concern. Justice, in my view, is not a process of minting out punishments. Justice, for me, is essentially two-fold: to repair and to redeem.
Firstly, we should aim to repair the harm in all its manifestations, redress grievances, and rebuild trust. Secondly, we should seek to redeem offenders, give them a chance to make amends, and be reintegrated back into the community. A restorative justice circle makes this possible. A year later, Dylan's arresting officer tasked Duke Fisher with starting a restorative process for him. Following a series of pre-circle procedures, Duke managed to get most of the stakeholders in a circle. Sitting face-to-face, each of them began to tell a story of the harm from their perspective. When Dylan heard the old Jewish woman's side of the story, he was visibly remorseful. Among the participants was also the sister of a differently-abled person from the elementary school who reminded Dylan that her brother, a remarkable soccer player to have the body he has. Another participant was a fire investigator who told Dylan that he feared that his actions could've sparked an arson epidemic in the city. The custodian of the elementary school revealed that he was called early in the morning to come remove the spray paint in freezing temperatures. Later on, the custodian talked about how he himself used to regularly run into trouble with the law, until one day, a judge asked him to either go to jail or join the military. He then looked at Dylan directly in the eye and said to him, "I want to be in this circle because I want you to have more options than I did."
Through these circle discussions, Dylan came to grasp the gravity of his actions, and fully recognize the moral worth of those he had harmed. And then, he was given an opportunity to make amends by catering to the needs of the victims. Among other things, he agreed to coach the differently-abled person in soccer, attend a holy gathering with the old Jewish woman where he learned more about the traumatic significance of the swastika, and helped the custodian remove the spray paint. In this way, he was able to work his way back into the community, regain the trust of those he had harmed, and reassure them that he would not make the same mistake in the future. Dylan's story demonstrates how a circle enables both victims and offenders to manifest what Duke Fisher refers to as collective effervescence. That is, instead of encouraging victims to redress their pain with the offender's pain, a circle allows them to have difficult but productive conversations, and hear each other's stories in a way that changes their hearts and mindsets from wanting to see retribution to seeking empathy. A circle is a space for moral dare, a space for growth, a space for constructive accountability, and a space for healing. It fundamentally strengthens relationships and communities.
For this reason, I enjoin you, a person in a community like ours, Amherst College, where people are bound to harm each other, either intentionally or unintentionally, to not rush to punitive measures, but to participate in the restorative justice circle initiative organized by the Presidential Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion; learn more about it, so that together we can build a more just campus community. Thank you.