A conversation with Howard Zehr[l]

BP. Howard, your work has had a major influence in the development of restorative justice, perhaps even more than what you yourself intended it to have. Would it be possible to go back in time to that first moment of encounter with the restorative spirit and ideas and tell us about it? What was your drive, what were your concerns, what were you trying to react to, what were you trying to create?

HZ. Thanks, Bruna. Yes, when I first rolled out the idea of restorative justice, I expected it to be dismissed as a bit crazy.  My main goal was to write something similar to what Nils Christie did in Limits to Pain, which I thought of as a “provocative essay.”

It’s hard to say where the “restorative spirit” came from.  I’m sure much of it initially had to do with the values inherent in my Anabaptist faith tradition.  After my first year in college (university, in European terms) I decided to leave the safety of my community and push myself while hoping to understand justice issues more deeply. So in 1963, in my sophomore year, I entered Morehouse College, an historically Black college. That was a formative experience.

After my graduate studies, between1971-78, I taught at Talladega College, another historically black institution.  There I got involved with the realities of justice by working with prisoners and with defense attorneys who were working on death penalty, prison riot and police brutality cases.  I thought I had a good sense of the injustice of “justice” and wrote an article in a national magazine about it. Like many advocates for defendants, though, I didn’t know much about crime victims, and wasn’t motivated to learn.  I also was deeply skeptical of anyone working in “the system”.

In 1978 I moved to Elkhart, Indiana, where I had lived when starting college. There I was taking some graduate classes while directing a half-way house for formerly incarcerated men, but it soon burnt down. I was then asked to get involved in the new idea of bringing victims and offenders together. I was deeply skeptical, but when I got involved, and saw what happened in these encounters, my whole “lens” on justice changed.

BP. Your background reminded me of Fania Davis’ background as a defense lawyer, what she articulates as having been a justice warrior before she became a justice healer. It is very important for young generations that join the restorative movement to become aware of this heritage. In a way, what you are saying is that the encounter with the “restorative spirit” was in a way not an encounter, but a whole journey of encounters with the reality of injustice. Is that right?

HZ. Absolutely. I would say a circuitous journey with many encounters, many unknowns, and no grand plans. I won’t bore you with many of them, but my studies involved some.

My undergraduate degree was in European history. When I graduated, I had no idea what I wanted to do but received several generous fellowships to pursue this area in graduate school. Along the way, I decided I wanted to learn to use quantitative methods, and came across some 19th century German crime statistics in the basement of the University of Chicago library.  That led to my dissertation research, which involved a statistical analysis of the history of crime in Germany and France in the 19thand early 20th century. I spent 14 months in France and Germany digging statistical records out of archives. An archivist in Berman spent a very long time explaining to me how I would never get a dissertation out of the direction I was pursuing. The dissertation was published in the mid-1970s as Crime and the Development of Modern Society, one of the early efforts to use quantitative methods in history. Interesting, after all these years, it is now being re-issued by Routledge press. That research got me into crime.

It was during this time that I got into photography in another circuitous way. When I visited archives, I needed to record statistical documents for later analysis. Many small archives didn’t have copies in 1969-70, so I rigged up a camera on a tripod, with a lighting system made from tin vegetable cans, and made my own microfilm. Then I got hooked on the camera as a way of seeing and exploring the world. Eventually I found ways to combine my justice and photography passions.

I never could have imagined the way my various lines of study and my various experiences would come together to prepare me for the future.For example, history was the perfect preparation. It emphasized the crafts of writing and of synthesis, and as I noted in Changing Lenses: A new Focus For Crime and Justice, the concept of restorative justice was a work of synthesis rather than invention. I saw myself pulling together a variety of ideas and practices, including my own “indigenous” and religious traditions, into what I hoped was a coherent concept that communicated well to others. During my graduate studies, the history of science was one of my fields. That introduced me to the idea of paradigms, which turned out to be important for my argument about the “lenses” we use for justice.

Based on my experience, I’ve often advised my students not to worry too much about what direction their future will take but rather to pursue their passions and to be open to signs and opportunities along the way. And I’ve often told them not to take grades too seriously. At Morehouse College, it was said that when he was a student, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr – one of the greatest orators in history – once got a C (average) in speech.

BP. And that must have been the time when he chose to stay silent. This is all so fascinating to hear. It resonates also with the way I approach life, in a sense as a craftsman working in a workshop with many different materials, which can be all useful, however poor or hard or irrelevant they might seem, and indeed, learning is often serendipitous. You embody without doubt great rigour in your being, despite the modesty you transmit and most importantly chose to transmit, because without rigour none of the wonderful and many things you have done would have been possible. But also, an attitude that comes across here, and which I heard before, is the attitude of openness, or what you call wonder. Wonder is what children have, the very first time they do things. How could you preserve wonder?

HZ. As I said in my lectures in Italy, David James Duncanin My Story As Told By Water has defined wonder as “unknowing, experienced as pleasure”.  So much of our education as well as many of our faith traditions emphasize that we have to know things, to be sure of things. But an attitude of humility reminds us that we don’t have to, can’t – and that there are wonderful surprises in not knowing sometimes.

I used to teach a class called “contemplative photography”, and based on that, wrote The Little Book of Contemporary Photography. One of the goals of the course, and of the book, is to help us see the world anew, with wonder. Approached in the right attitude, the camera – and the arts in general – can help us stay connected with the sense of wonder.

BP. Arts is another passion we share. You have transposed the metaphor of photography into restorative justice and vice versa. Many of your books, I am thinking of Doing Life: Reflections Of Men And Women Serving Life Sentencesof Transcending: Reflections Of Crime Victims and of What Will Happen To Me bring together a type of photography and narration, which is simple but not simplifying, and as I read them, I constantly think about Nils Christie. He had a dislike for complicated language, for experts, for labels, for anything that created distance, being convinced that it is that distance that fuels in a way our systems of punishment, but also of knowledge. You have been yourself very influenced by Christie, can you tell me how?

HZ. Christie’s Conflicts as Property was important for me as it has been for many others.  The overall character of Limits to Pain was a model for me, as I mentioned earlier, but also his ideas about what it takes to limit the use of pain, and the reality that we won’t be able to get rid of pain, but that we can put in place ways to limit it. His book on the prison-industrial complex was helpful, too.

In the early 1980s, my colleague Dave Worth and I hosted a series of “palavers”. The term was provided by Herman Bianchi. These were small gatherings of up to 25 people for dialogue. We would invite someone to speak, then spend the afternoon and dinner in conversation. Nils was one of those speakers, and I later edited and published his talk as part of the New Perspectives on Crime and Justice:  Occasional Papers series published by Mennonite Central Committee. It was entitled Crime, Pain and Death. As I recall, there were some helpful concepts there, too.

BP. Palavers sounds fantastic, a little bit what we are doing here. I can fully understand the engagement with Christie’s ideas, and share your enthusiasm about them. They had an overall quality of several elements which I would distill into a few Cs to go along with his name: concern, commitment, creativity, and courage. But I would think these features apply fully to your work and your path as well.

And, if I may go back to photography again, David Douglas Duncan, whom we unfortunately lost this year -although I would say the age was ‘appropriate’- in an interview he had given in 2003 to The New York Times, had said that he felt no sense of mission as a combat photographer, but just wanted to photograph the guys the way they are, whether they are running scared, or showing courage, or diving into a hole, or talking and laughing. He was interested in bringing a sense of dignity to the battlefield. I see a parallelism of your photography work, having no other mission perhaps but bringing dignity to lifers, to prisoners’ children, and to victims of crime.

My own children were looking at the book of Doing Life, which you had given me as a present in Padova, and asked me who the people in those pictures were. I told them they were prisoners. Their reaction was “Why, but they look so loveable!”. There is something very appealing in your work in the sense that in a way ‘it tells it like is’, people are themselves in the most human and intimate way, not beautified, not made to feel sympathy with, but to be encountered. In another way, there is a sense of possibility, a hope, people seem to want to transcend what they are, where they are, what they have done, or has been done to them. Don’t they all in a way seem to say that life is a movement, and comes with the wrongs we do to each other, and harms that are done to us. But that this in a way is our life material, the stuff we are made of?

@Joseph Miller, 1992 and 2017, Photo Howard Zehr, Doing Life Revisited

HZ. My goal in Doing Life and in others, such as Transcending, has been to humanize those I interview and photograph, so that we see and listen to them without our stereotypes getting in the way. With the lifers, I deliberately left out those indicators that trigger our stereotypes such as bars and tattoos and to portray them as I would want to be portrayed. All of us are more than the worst things we have done or have experienced!

Before the book, the lifer project was an exhibit. It was shown at a conference held at one of the prisons where many of the men were held. The assistant warden approached me about the exhibit. I expected him to say that I was being naive, or that I didn’t know the whole story. Instead, he said, “I’m glad you did this. You get them just right”.

@Bruce Norris, 1992 and 2017, Photo Howard Zehr, Doing Life Revisited

BP. Beautiful, and that’s exactly what I meant, “you got them just right”. I am curious about another book of yours that no one in the restorative justice field knows, Pickups A love story, what does Howard have to do with truck drivers?

HZ. Pickup trucks are a big thing in America. Years ago my publisher suggested a book about this, but I wasn’t really ready to do it. But after three photo/interview books with tough, traumatic topics, though, I was ready for a change. It was great fun to get these stories and learn to know the people in the pickup book. I tried to treat everyone with the kind of respect that I did in the other books and to let them speak for themselves.

BP. Yes, it is clear to me that there is a thread throughout your work and a praxis, whether you are doing justice, teaching, photography, or pickup stories. On my behalf, I will say that it is a blessing for everyone that you express yourself through photography, and that your books are printed, because your handwriting for example is completely illegible. But if I may go back to Morehouse college for a while, how did it feel to be the only white boy in an all-black college and in what ways was that a “formative experience” for you? You also mention the influence of Martin Luther King but I am sure there are also other Black thinkers in your formation. I would be very interested to hear a bit more about that.

HZ. Early September 1963 was less than a decade after the US Supreme Court decision Brown v. Bd of Education desegregating public schools[ii]. It was right after the March on Washington. It was also a few weeks before the 16th St. Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, would be bombed and four Black girls would die, though of course no one except the Ku Klux Klan perpetrators knew that yet.

Early that month, at age 19, I left my largely white community in northern Indiana and entered my sophomore year at Morehouse College, in Atlanta. Morehouse is an elite historically Black men’s college that has graduated many African American leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As I said before, he was still listed as faculty there and I had the privilege of meeting him once.

I had prepared the best I knew how by reading mostly African American writers, especially James Baldwin, Richard Wright, W.E.B. Dubois, and through conversations with people such as Dr. Vincent Harding. An adviser to Dr. King who visited this campus a short time before he died in 2014, Dr. Harding had visited our home on several occasions, and I remember sitting at the dining room table with him as he tried to help a naïve white high school student understand something about race and justice. Those conversations are part of what prompted me to take this step. At Morehouse, a number of my professors were important, and especially my history prof, Dr. Melvin Kennedy. And Morehouse president Benjamin Mays – a mentor to Dr. King – was a model for me. In fact, it was thanks to him that I received a full scholarship for my senior year at Morehouse as a “minority” student.

These efforts gave me some insight into what was for me a new world, but nothing could fully prepare me for the cultural, personal and identity challenges I would face. And really, nothing but an immersion in an environment where I was a distinct minority could teach me the lessons I needed to learn about myself, my assumptions and the world of my Morehouse brothers.They were lessons that continued to shape my life and work long after I graduated from Morehouse in 1966 as the first white guy. Without them I never would have wandered into this work that we call “restorative justice.”

One invaluable lesson from that experience was the importance of being willing to step into the unknown. I certainly did that in 1963, and when I graduated in 1966 I could never have imagined that the foggy road ahead would lead me into what is called restorative justice. The story of this journey is too long to describe today, but steps into the unknown have led to some of my most important involvements and lessons.

For example, soon after I came to Eastern Mennonite University, I received a call from the attorneys defending Timothy McVeigh, the “Oklahoma City bomber”, asking for help so that their work would be more sensitive to victims. Some of my restorative justice colleagues warned against such an unpopular and dangerous involvement. I’m happy to say, though, that in spite of the dangers, then EMU president Joe Lapp said, “go for it!”. I did answer the call, along Tammy Krause who was then my student. Out of that came – thanks to Tammy, who is considered the pioneer and leader of that field -a field of work that some say is transforming death penalty legal defense, making it much more receptive to the needs and choices of “victims” – that is, surviving families and loved ones. So that’s one bit of wisdom I’d like to offer:  be willing to step into the unknown.

Here is another important lesson I learned through my Morehouse experience:  The way I see the world, much of what I think I know, my worldview in other words, is shaped by who I am and what I have experienced. I am an educated (some might say overeducated) middle-class white male, a European-American Mennonite, a preacher’s kid, an American with certain experiences in my past. All that shapes how I see the world and what I think I know. Other people have different worldviews, shaped by where they grew up, their cultural frameworks, what they have experienced. It is essential to remember this when we engage with others. And interactions with those we think of as “other” are crucial today, in this era. So much of our attention is focused on highlighting our differences, often in a negative way. Analysts sometimes call this “othering”. It is by “othering” that we create enemies, whether domestic or international, whether so-called offenders or newcomers to our country, and justify doing bad things to them. So I believe that we need to be humble about what we think we know. This involves a recognition of the limits of what we “know,” and an acknowledgment that our perspectives, our “truths,” are affected by who we are and what we have experienced. Consequently, it is essential that we engage with those who are different from us, and in an attitude of openness and receptivity.  This is especially important in the current polarized environment.

BP. Howard those lessons are invaluable and precious for all of us. And that brings me to another question. In a way you started doing restorative justice around the year I was born (1979), and I am interested, as another generation, into the transmission of ideas between generations. You mentioned that restorative justice is a work of synthesis and not a work of invention. You make huge efforts into transmitting the passion for this field, you try in your work to make restorative justice digestible, communicable, to make it come across, to transmit it to new generations, and to do that sometimes you have used metaphors, other times you have used art as a medium, and sometimes you try to strip it down to principles, questions, definitions and so on. But restorative justice in a way is embodied in your singularity, is that complex synthesis you spoke about, and to strip it down is like putting the ocean into bottles. How do you see this dilemma of transmitting restorative justice to new generations without risking to simplify it too much, and without giving them the illusion that it is something they can learn without in a way having to live their own lives and to find out their own way.

HZ. I’ve tried to do this in part though my teaching.  I always emphasized that justice is a matter of the heart as well as the head, and tried to teach in an elective, participatory way.  Our pedagogy in our program is based on the idea that, as one of our board members once said, “the education that matters is education that helps learners conceptualize their own experiences.”  My self-concept has been as a “learning facilitator” with the goal of creating situations where we draw from everyone’s wisdom. I’m happy to say that many of our graduates are now leading the way as a new generation of restorative advocates and practitioners.

BP. I think what has come out of this interview is the embodiment of what you have called “living restoratively”. You have articulated this way of living in your blog, in line with your ability to synthesize, as consisting of 10 ways, among which l admit the one that made me the happiest was number 10. Sensitively confront everyday injustices…. When l look back at them after this interview, they really strike me as amazing life lessons, which are not just principles one decides theoretically, but which have all their life and history behind. I want to thank you enormously for sharing this history with me, and with our readers.

But before letting you go, l want to ask a question that l am extremely curious about because l will never be able to know myself what it means, so l need your perspective to understand. How does it feel to be called the “father” of restorative justice? I have heard also “grandfather” but I assume with no bad intention, but in order to acknowledge you even better. Does this please you? Does it put a burden on your shoulders? Do you find it to be a mis-interpellation? How do you relate to it?

HZ. I’ve been called various things, including the “Elvis Presley of Restorative Justice,” but I prefer not to be called the “father”.  Restorative justice has many sources and many people involved. As the wife of one of my African students once said to him, “You came all this way and spent all this money to learn what every African already knows?” As I said earlier, I didn’t invent it, and it’s important that it be articulated by women and men from many traditions and perspectives.

The term “grandfather of restorative justice” came from a book by Dan Van Ness and Karen Strong. I asked them one time how they came up with that term, and they told me that it was a better description of my relationship to the field than a father. A father, they said, tends to give lots of advice and direction. You, they said, stand aside and provide support and guidance when asked, but don’t try to control the movement. Of course, that is somewhat cultural. A friend in India commented that in her tradition, grandfathers can be pretty authoritarian.

BP. Mine were just the way Dan Van Ness and Karen Strong describe grandfathers, so I must say I feel for that term. As we are speaking, my grandmother who is 98 years old, lies in her deathbed, so I would like to dedicate to her this interview, knowing that in a few minutes, hours, or days she will be gone, and it will be as if a whole library burned to the ground.

Thank you Howard!

HZ. Thanks, Bruna, for your thoughtful questions!

[I]Howard Zehr is a criminologist and photojournalist, widely known as “the grandfather of restorative justice”. Howard Zehr began as a practitioner and theorist in restorative justice in the late 1970s at the foundational stage of the field, and his book Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice (1990) has been groundbreaking in articulating the theory of restorative justice. Zehr was an early advocate of making the needs of victims central to the practice of restorative justice. A core theme in his work is respect for the dignity of all peoples.He is currently the Distinguished Professor of Restorative Justice at Eastern Mennonite University’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and Director Emeritus of the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice.This conversation started in Padova, in a conference organized by the University of Padova, where both myself and Howard Zehr were invited speakers. We followed up on it through e-mail for days back and forth, exchanging comments as the day of one became the night of the other, until we had no more to say. For now.

[II]The answer for the question above was adapted for the interview from Howard Zehr’s commencement address at Eastern Mennonite University in 2017.