Karenna Gore interviewed Tanya Williams, Union’s Deputy Vice President of Institutional Diversity and Community Engagement. Tanya helped to facilitate November 2013’s Consultation on Restorative Justice at Fordham University.
Q: What does “restorative justice” mean?
A: From my perspective, people who practice restorative justice are talking about a process we don’t currently practice in our society, one where we listen to each other and are in relationship together, particularly in ways that are healing, rather than just being punitive. Part of why restorative justice hasn’t caught on more is that is takes time and is a process.
Q: Given your experience working with issues of diversity, how do you see restorative justice engaging those issues differently than the current system?
A: It is about listening and healing so race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, multi-faith and belief identity can show up with a fullness that is not currently allowed. Restorative justice allows us to look at the life experience of a person and not just the thing they did or the crime that they committed. Also, the system makes moral judgments that are connected from identity. If those moral judgments have been built in the context of a certain cultural experience being normalized, then groups outside of that cultural norm are left out or not seen as fully whole or respected. When judgment and justice are connected to othering, we’ve got a problem.
Q: What does restorative justice have to offer crime victims?
A: It goes back to the human connection. People who experience harm or have crimes committed against them sometimes want that – sometimes families of murder victims do not want the death penalty – they want those who commit the crimes to have a chance to experience their wholeness by living and continuing to learn and heal themselves. Sometimes that’s the justice that is needed, rather than “an eye for an eye.” Through restorative justice, crime victims or survivors can also reclaim their humanity and wholeness by engaging in a process that helps us understand that we are all connected. It is worth us looking at what our current system has taught us about how justice is done. We have been taught that is normative to cut ourselves off from each other as humans. In actuality we are cutting ourselves off from ourselves when we do that. Dr. King’s quote explains it best, “ We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects on directly, affects all indirectly.”
Q: What contributions did the international guests at the conference make to the understanding we have of our own system?
A: Just looking at the faces of our international guests when they heard what the United States justice system does to young people – those whose brains are not fully formed – and how we treated the young people helped me understand that our system is quite barbaric. .And I think that the session helped them understand how large the justice problem is in the United States. We have such a huge country and culturally, the way we have handled social ills has gotten us where we are. They offered an image of hope, but also helped us understand the complexities of our current problem and history. I don’t believe they had thought about the way that race impacts our system before.
Q: What does this have to do with theology?
A: If we have a theology that is based on punishment, then the current system makes sense. If a punishing God was our foundation [in building this system], we have to ask if it might be best that we destroy that foundation before we build something else. Also, theologically, if we believe in a loving and just God but have systems were we don’t act in loving and just ways, we need to question that theology. Love and justice are not oxymoronic words. I believe restorative justice can be a practice of love and justice and we must begin to have integrity to our theology and have it line up with our practice.