Restorative Justice conference about creating community

Restorative Justice conference about creating community

If Restorative Justice is about “the community,” then the first RJ conference in Kansas was about creating community.

Bethel College and its peacebuilding institute, the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR), hosted that conference, Restorative Kansas: A Vision for Justice, April 19-20 on the Bethel campus.

At the opening session for Restorative Kansas, Sheryl Wilson, KIPCOR executive director, noted, “On my first day of work, Nov. 6 [2017], I found out that within six months we were putting on the first-ever statewide conference on Restorative Justice.”

Though it was a daunting prospect, “I was thrilled beyond measure,” she continues. “Here was an opportunity to organize and bring together all the people who have an interest in this field – the practitioners, doing your work in places where people don’t know exactly what you do or where to place you. We want to give you a place to find community.”

She then instructed everyone in the audience to “look around and find someone you didn’t come with. You might have seen them before but you really don’t know them. Find your conference buddy. We are a small but mighty community and I want us to behave like one.”

Wilson and Greg Paul, a communication studies professor at Kansas State University, moderated the keynote panel for that opening session.

It was a “dream panel.” Says Wilson, “Almost everyone we wanted for it, we got. But for the most part, they didn’t know each other, and we wondered, how are they going to interact?”

Morris Jenkins is helping the Fort Myers Police Department develop a community engagement project. Joanne Katz, a retired professor of legal studies, recently returned from a Fulbright term in Vietnam. Raj Sethuraju works with community policing. Jasmyn Story focuses on integrating RJ into educational institutions, particularly around sexual violence on college campuses. Edward Valandra leads the Colorizing Restorative Justice project for Living Justice Press.

The interaction was everything conference planners hoped for and more.

“They got along so well,” Wilson says. “[They modeled] how we support each other’s work. One thing we hear all the time from RJ practitioners is ‘We need support.’

“We intentionally and authentically created community [with this conference].”

She says there’s a possibility of recreating the panel in the future, perhaps at a national or regional RJ conference, or even virtually, given that RJ practitioners are often widely scattered.

Much of the day-and-a-half-long conference was given to workshop sessions.

Since Kansas has a fairly active “Restorative Justice in Schools” initiative, of which KIPCOR is also a key part, one workshop track was devoted to that, with a session on restorative practices in Kansas public schools, a session on national trends, and a session on restorative practices in higher education.

Other workshop options included “Restoring Justice in Native American Communities,” RJ in prison programs for victims and offenders, restorative practices in faith communities, juvenile justice reform, RJ and community policing, and trauma-informed restorative practices.

Mark Umbreit, an internationally known expert in the latter, led the session, which Wilson notes was “one of the best-attended workshops of the conference.”

Story and David Karp, a professor at Skidmore College, spoke in Bethel College’s Friday convocation about a project called Campus PRISM (Promoting Restorative Initiatives for Sexual Misconduct), which works at having RJ inform issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence on college campuses.

Story is herself a survivor of sexual assault. “I had gone through the criminal justice process,” she says, “and it didn’t work for me. It was a ‘system of continuous shame’ that impeded me getting the accountability I deserved.

“I needed a space to share my story and flesh out the harm, and also a space for the other people I cared about who were also affected, such as my mother and my partner.”

“The starting place is, ‘What was the harm?’” Karp adds. “And then, ‘What are the needs associated with that harm?’ The way you answer those questions can be a restorative response.

“What we’ve discovered is that for many survivors, one of the primary desires around healing is acknowledgment of the harm that was done.” However, the U.S. criminal justice system has “trained [the accused] to deny or minimize responsibility,” he says.

“So we need to create the conditions for the person who caused the harm to admit it and accept responsibility – because not doing so denies or invalidates the victim’s experience.

“We’re not saying … that Restorative Justice is the only option, but it needs to be one option. We’re discovering that many students are [asking] for restorative options.

“From personal experience, I realized it’s not just me with the need to repair the harm,” Story says. “The perpetrator wanted to, too, but he had no modality, no training, nothing to help him. I didn’t know I needed the apology until I got it, and it changed everything. And he could have done it so much better, but he didn’t know how.”

In addition to Bethel College and KIPCOR, sponsors and planners for Restorative Kansas were the Center for Conflict Resolution, Kansas City, Missouri, Kansas Department of Corrections, Victim Services, Topeka, K-State Department of Communication Studies, Mennonite Central Committee-Central States, based in North Newton, the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice (NACRJ), Offender Victim Ministries of Newton, and the Salina Institute for Restorative Justice.

Michael Gilbert, executive director of NACRJ, gave his summary observations at the close of Restorative Kansas.

“What I saw were deeply substantive, deeply meaningful, intensely important conversations. If you have those conversations with other people in your life, there will be ripples on ripples of good instead of harm.

“Kansas is on the move. You might not be large in number but you will be.”

Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to