I went to jail in 2005 to teach writing to inmates, and I got out thinking, there’s got to be a better way.
It turns out, there is. It’s called Restorative Justice and it’s practiced throughout Vermont. I started volunteering at the Brattleboro Community Justice Center in 2007, and I’m still there.
Restorative Justice depends on narrative: both the victim of crime and the person who committed the crime have a chance to tell the story of what happened.
The person who offended lists all the people who were harmed by their behavior, explains how those people were harmed, and thinks of ways they can repair that harm – then do so. Essentially, citizens work together to resolve conflict and to repair the relationships harmed by crime.
At first, I latched on to this process because of its dependence on narrative. Humans are a narrative species, and I was awed by the power of storytelling to remediate harm caused by crime.
The State of Vermont is a nationally recognized leader in the development of community-based restorative justice. I’m proud to live in a place where ordinary citizens volunteer to uphold community standards of behavior and serve on Reparative Boards, which helps alleviate the burden of criminal wrongdoing on the courts, on prisons, on taxpayers, and – ultimately – on communities.
But as a ten-year volunteer at the BCJC, I have to say it is not just the state, nor the community, nor the victims, nor the wrongdoers who benefit from practicing restorative justice. I have benefited greatly from my work as a volunteer.
What I’ve Learned from Volunteering: Let Me Count The Ways
- I have (re)learned the primacy of relationships. Through trainings and practice, I’m learning how to resolve conflict peacefully using restorative practices both at the BCJC, in my professional work, in civil discourse, and at home.
- I’m increasing my capacity for compassion. So many people who commit crimes are plagued by social ills, including a sense of anomie and a lack of belonging.
- Belonging is magic: It’s is a small miracle to see the lights go on when someone who has committed a crime discovers that their actions matter. Similarly, I see that my volunteer efforts at the BCJC make a difference.
- I keep learning. The BCJC offers training above and beyond what is required by the Department of Corrections. I’ve attended trainings on Non-Violent Communication, Active Listening, Motivational Interviewing, to name three.
- I also serve on the BCJC Advisory Board, which has been an education in organizational processes. As a self-employed writer who works alone, this has been like a graduate-level education running a mission-driven business.
- The Board makes decisions by consensus and uses a circle process to deliberate, ensuring that everyone has an equal voice. We also practice shared decision-making, which flies in the face of the Old School model of leadership I learned by default.
- As a solopreneur, I’d never before encountered a 360-degree performance review nor knew the current best practices for hiring an executive director. I’ve learned both of these techniques in the course of my service.
- I’m meeting and working with a lot of people I’d have never otherwise met, and learning about their highly varied backgrounds and talents.
- Together, we work to improve the lives of people affected by crime, people who’ve committed crimes, and our community at large.
- This is the big take-away: While I’m doing some community good by volunteering at the BCJC, I’m also personally and profoundly enriched by the experience.
Do You Volunteer?
I’d love to know the different ways you engage in community service and what you gain by volunteering. Please let me know in the Comments Section below.
As always, thanks for reading.