Kindred Spirits . . . and Starfish

Kindred Spirits . . . and Starfish

An evening of meeting and talking with kindred spirits here in New Mexico has re-energized me and renewed my hope that restorative justice can and will take hold.

Rev. Daniel Erdman, Coordinator of Congregational & Community Outreach for the New Mexico Conference of Churches , and Jeanette Martinez, Director of Conflict Resolution and Mediation Services at Outcomes, Inc co-hosted me to speak to a group in Albuquerque on Monday evening.

What a rich dialogue we had!

I shared a few stories from Marie’s work in the PA prisons, and talked about the findings from the Pew Center on the States reports, 1 in 100: Behind Bars in America, and One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections.

We had a long discussion about the many and complex issues involved in working for change in the criminal justice system. Then various members of the audience shared stories from their own involvement in restorative justice, circle processes, prison outreach, and Non-Violent Communication.

Jeanette Martinez and her colleagues at Outcomes run a restorative justice reintegration program with juvenile offenders in the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center. Incarcerated youth participate in Circles of Understanding with family members and others, and work on developing more effective skills for relating to others as they prepare to reintegrate into the community. Jeanette also directs a victim offender mediation program that serves four counties in this region of New Mexico. The Albuquerque VOMP participated in the first large cross-site evaluation of VOM services and is listed as one of the “Model Programs” on the Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) website. They also offer Healing Circles and Restorative Circles for victims and offenders in cases of violent crime. They’ve partnered with the Children Youth and Family Department, Juvenile Probation and Parole, Juvenile Justice Advisory Committees and the county juvenile detention centers on all of these initiatives and seem to have good support for their programs (though never enough FUNDING for them!)

Another woman in the audience teaches a college level restorative justice course at area high schools, through a dual enrollment program where the high school students can get both college credits and credit toward their high school graduation for completing the course. The college pays her to teach the course, but the high school students get to take the course for free. She also leads various discussion groups and courses for youth on conflict and non-violence, and she often invites youth who have been incarcerated to help lead these discussions, giving them an opportunity to share their experience and to “give back” by helping other youth understand the dangers of following the path of violence.

Several women in the audience have received training in Non-Violent Communication, as taught by Marshall Rosenberg , and one of them teaches NVC courses in a nearby women’s prison.

Finally, one gentleman shared the story of how he’d gotten involved with the Angel Tree program, purchasing Christmas gifts for one little five year old girl whose mother is in federal prison. When he saw how much that simple act of compassion meant to both the little girl and her mother, “I was hooked,” he said. He’s now trying to form a support network for the mother and rally a group of people to help her when she gets out of federal prison later this year. We talked about the many needs she and her daughter may have, and how he might partner with a variety of social service organizations who can offer help to both the mother and her little girl.

“I know it’s a huge, complex system and this is only one mother and daughter I’m helping,” the gentleman explained. “But I try to remember the story of the little boy who walked along the beach picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the ocean one by one, so they wouldn’t die. When a man walked by, saw what the boy was doing and said, ‘Little boy, there are thousands of miles of beaches and millions of starfish – you can’t possibly make a difference,’ the little boy just smiled, picked up one more starfish, threw it into the ocean and said, ‘Well, I made a difference for THAT ONE.’

The gentleman who was telling this story paused for a moment, then concluded, “So while I can’t fix this whole prison mess we’ve gotten into, maybe I can make a difference for one mom and one little girl.”

How richly blessed that mom and that little girl are to have a gentleman with such a heart caring about them and willing to reach out and help.
How richly blessed the people of New Mexico are to have such dedicated restorative justice professionals working to make a difference here.
And how richly blessed I am to have met all of these “kindred spirits.”

QUESTIONS OF THE DAY: What “starfish” are lying at your feet right now? How can you make a difference for just one?

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: restorative justice grace goes to prison book tour criminal justice

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