A Seat at the Table

In a world where demonizing and scapegoating are all too common, what role might an emerging process for criminal justice play? In this essay, I explore the overlap of my personal experience with something called Restorative Justice.

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Earlier in my career, in an unfortunate series of events, I experienced going from being respected as a high-performing employee to being isolated like a criminal.

A key client of the company I worked for had become upset about our inadequate level of service and threatened to cut our contract with them. This meant that my employer would have been facing the decision of who to lay-off in order to balance lower income with staff wages. The client didn’t leave, but my company’s leaders were concerned, and understandably so.

A number of private conversations took place seeking to get to the bottom of what had occurred so that it could be prevented in the future. After several meetings with my manager, I learned that I was being put on probation for playing a role in the client’s dissatisfaction. As I understood it, my mistake in the creation of some client materials was spotlighted as the key problem that caused their reaction.

When I was younger, I had this recurring nightmare in which I had to prove my innocence to a cold-hearted judge and jury. The nightmare never revealed to me the outcome of the trial—in other words, I never knew if my impassioned testimony ever made a difference in the jury’s decision. All I had was my experience of being accused by my community—that was enough to qualify as a nightmare for me.

Ironically, this experience at the company brought my nightmare to life. To be honest, there was a certain amount of arrogance and laziness on my part that led to my mistake. But the fear of my nightmare was that I would only be seen through that lens of arrogance and laziness and no other.

I experienced a kind of social death as I fell under the control of orders given to me. I felt cold and unable to fully smile. I grew headaches and my lower back stiffened. While I didn’t actually know who knew and who didn’t know about the client debacle, I was told that I was not to speak with anyone about the incident or my probation.

This left me in complete isolation. I was heart-broken to be treated like I couldn’t be trusted. All I had was the experience of making a mistake and being blamed. And since I was not given the chance to hear what had gone on for my team members leading up to and after the client’s threat, my isolation left me confined to a story of being the scapegoat—in other words, an offender and victim all at once.

At first, my experience hardened me. I hated being silenced. I hated being controlled. And I hated myself for not pushing back. Over time, the experience softened me, but only after I had left the company.

I later realized how this kind of thing happens all the time whether in business, at home, in media reports, or in the criminal justice system. And I felt empathy for others in harsher situations than my own.

What I started to see was how easy it is for a breakdown in a group to lead to the scapegoating of an individual as the problem. And how by isolating the person as the problem and putting them under scrutiny, there is a belief that the problem could not re-occur.

This is essentially how our prevailing criminal justice system operates. As Katie Hutchison says in her TEDx talk, after an incident occurs we typically only ask:

  1. What law was broken?
  2. Who broke it?
  3. What is the punishment?

And that’s similarly how things played out in my company towards me. The truth is, even if I felt the actions and limitations imposed on me were unfair, I didn’t know what the alternative pathways might be. I wanted to stand up for myself, to say with integrity what a better course might be for all involved—but I didn’t know where to point to. All I had were my own complaints, with no solutions and nobody to brainstorm with.

Later in that same talk, Katie explains the role of something called “Restorative Justice” in both her household growing up as well as in response to a family member’s death.

She tells the story of how, as a little girl, she betrayed the trust of her father by using his precious shaving scissors for a craft project. Instead of punishing her, he shared that he felt disappointed and asked her to help him repair them. He proceeded to guide her towards actions that could make things right—he taught her how to re-sharpen his scissors so that he could use them again. And after she had fixed the scissors, he considered the matter resolved.

Then as an adult, a more tragic event occurred in her life. Katie’s husband was killed while going to check out the home of a vacationing neighbor whose son was having a party. Something had gone wrong—a teenager was involved. Katie had to return to her children that night and tell them they no longer had a father.

Given her upbringing, she was not satisfied with the notion that this teen would be locked away and she would be left to deal with her problems on her own. She decided she would make something of her circumstance. This tragedy inspired her to seek a more reconciliatory approach, as her father had showed her. Little did she realize that a system called Restorative Justice already existed that reflected the same principle: moving closer to the person who damaged trust rather than further away.

Deeply impacted by the event of her husband’s murder, she sought out the teen. Katie wanted to know:

  1. What happened? What was going on in his life to make him capable of doing what he did?
  2. Who had been affected?

She also wanted him to know what had been going on in her life. Finally, she wanted to discover:

  1.  How can this be made right?

For her, the teen was not a problem to be discarded or punished—he was an actor in the event as well as the key to her restoring balance, moving on, and creating something out of her loss.

The paradigm shift in criminal justice being described here is inviting the offender into a conversation to seek understanding and make things right. If there is a table at which these conversations take place, then the invitation is to keep a seat at the table for the offender. In other words, their voice, their life circumstances, and their solutions are all welcome.

Otherwise, we spend all sorts of resources on locking them up, instead of seeing them as one of the most potent resource available. In the more common system of today, we make the table and have the conversation about them, but without their involvement. When trust is lost, this is an understandable reaction: they broke my trust, so why would I trust them to help make things right?

Of course, the teen could not bring back Katie’s husband, and in my situation I could not undo the mistake I had made. But in a reconciliation process like Restorative Justice, it’s not only about the past, it’s about the future and the well-being of the community.

For her, she ended up getting to know the teen, Ryan. Later they would end up doing talks together to share their story with thousands of kids. They took a horrible situation and turned it into something that could heal themselves and the community.

“Sometimes in the process of cleaning up a mess, we’re going to realize we’re standing right beside the person that caused it. And it’s in that moment that I think there exists an enormous amount of power and possibility.” – Katy Hutchison

In another TED talk, Daniel Reisel shows the brain science behind the process of Restorative Justice. After someone is involved in such a reconciliation where they come face to face in a space of curiosity, his research showed that their brain actually changes. Specifically, the part of the brain that allows them to feel and comprehend their impact on others. In other words, they become more empathic.

This increase in empathy reduces the chance they will commit another harmful act because they’re better able to see the consequences of their actions. In this way, Restorative Justice is not only future-oriented, but transformative.

Unfortunately, the average criminal justice system is more likely to create repeat offenders rather than allow offenders to change for the better. For example, solitary confinement is a punishment that robs an inmate of the ability to grow in empathy if they’ve done something to another they regret.

In my past company experience, I wish I knew that Restorative Justice existed. I could have made a case for myself and the community at the same time. What I mean is: when the mistake I made cast a seed of doubt and fear among those who knew the details, we all became victims.

We all held this fear of losing a large client and the fallout that would bring. But my team and I were not allowed to process the experience together and make it right. The course of action was decided by the leaders in the company—we were not given a seat at the table. And I believe even they suffered like victims.

I can’t know what it must have been like to be in their shoes. I imagine they must have been scared and angry. But I wish they could have told me themselves what was true for them. And I wish I could have shared directly how things happened for me. I wanted to look them in the eye and hear their truth as well as share mine, including to apologize for how my actions impacted them—human being to human being.

It’s the barriers, like not speaking directly, and not knowing what it’s like for each other that allows distrust to fester, putting us on guard for the next shoe to drop. And living in fear of others is no way to live.

After a charged event, once a seed of distrust and fear is planted, it can develop in one of two directions:

  1. It can be fed with control and anxiety until it flowers into an even bigger, similar event whose roots stem from the original problem that the fear imagines (like never-ending wars).
  2. Or it can be processed and digested in order to become a seed for a different kind of future to emerge—one that aligns with a deeper desire for reconnection (as Katie co-created with the teen that murdered her husband).

Problems always return when the root is not addressed. The tendency is to only address the symptom (i.e. people acting out) because it is less complex and provides a feeling of immediate relief.

No matter what mistake we make, perhaps all any of us need is a chance to be heard by the people we hurt. And to have a seat at the table in order to be a part of the solution.

The danger of our current age is that it has become common for all of us to react to events with a search for who to blame. And then once we find a target, the character assassination begins. We join in the game of playing judge, jury and executioner.

Once the ‘other’ has been labeled as a criminal, a racist, a dictator, a cheater, an elite, a terrorist, or a bigot, then they are effectively being told their perspective is not valid (rather than naming their actions as racist or criminal, for example). That only the rest of us are up to the task of fairly deciding their fate and dealing with the mess they created. That there is no seat at the table for them.

And in doing so, we miss the opportunity to understand (not necessarily condone) the complexity behind their motivations and actions or the chance to process the event as a community. We remove their voice, and thereby their dignity, out of fear and distrust.

Why do we do this?

According to Michael Nagler of the Metta Center, the option of scapegoating is deeply ingrained into our culture through our choice of stories. These shared vehicles reinforce the idea that problems only exist because there are bad people. And once the bad people are identified, the problems can be properly handled.

As my friend Cara Jones, founder of Storytellers for Good, says, “a culture is defined by the types of stories it chooses to tell.”

Think about this for a moment:

  • What does the evening news usually tell us about the relationship between problems and people?
  • And what do most Hollywood movies similarly imply?

Typically we hear over and over the narrative of good guys vs bad guys so that every problem is personified. In other words, if there’s a problem, there’s a person at the root of it to blame, right?

Not always.

Imagine the mother who steals food to feed her family because her son contracted a disease that ran up healthcare bills and left them broke. There is no one person to blame. Instead, there is a system that left a vulnerable family to fend for themselves. And in so doing, they chose to break the law in order to survive. Aren’t the mother’s actions more reasonable once you know the backstory?

Or what about the young man looking for a way to fit into the world and do something bigger than himself who sees all his friends joining gangs and making easy money selling drugs? His options for “belonging” (a need we all have) are limited as are his options for making a respectable wage. So can we fault him for doing what he sees as his best option for helping himself and his family get by?

Or the Wall Street trader that has made such a game of making money that he now hoards his wealth and lobbies for laws that reduce his taxes, just so he can have more. His love of money is an addiction that never quite satisfies his need for feeling valuable. His greed is an attempt to gain a love that he has been unable to find elsewhere. We don’t need to condone his actions to appreciate the motivation that got him to where he is now.

Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication says, “All violence is the result of people tricking themselves into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished.” And remember violence is not just physical, it is also financial, psychological, emotional, cultural, etc.

This narrative of good guys vs bad guys, us vs them, those in the right vs those in the wrong has so permeated our thinking that to imagine an alternative frame requires a strong will and commitment to something greater than our fears. However, once you know there’s an alternative, you open the door for yourself and others to see beyond every problem being identified through the lens of a human face to blame.

Alternative ways of responding to injustice include retaining dignity for people that would normally receive the brunt of our enemy objectification. According to a British historian, Mahatma Gandhi modeled this in the way he appealed to British imperialists as fellow human beings…

“(Gandhi) made it impossible for (the British) to go on ruling India. But he made it possible for us to withdraw without rancor and without humiliation.” – Arthur Toynbee

I recently learned that Restorative Justice is being taught in Portland-area (Oregon) high schools by a group called Resolutions Northwest. Students called ‘Peacemakers’ are trained to create peer-to-peer circles that resolve issues between themselves. This approach enables the students to be accountable to one another and frees up the disciplinarians from having to impose punishments like suspensions, which often only lead those punished onto a path of more serious unlawful behavior.

I believe these students are practicing what will become a more mainstream option in juvenile, state, and federal criminal justice systems as well as when trust has been broken in companies and homes. I’m currently seeing if I can sit in on one of these circles as a community witness to learn firsthand from what transpires there.

I’m reminded of Ultimate Frisbee—the sport I used to play in college and for years afterwards—because the players self-referee based on a set of guidelines and principles called the Spirit of the Game. We could disagree as players about a foul, but then we were also left responsible for choosing how to resolve the disagreement and get the game underway again. This meant I was unable to defer my conflict resolution to a neutral bystander and less likely to try to get away with something since I would be representing myself. As a player in the game, I was always guaranteed a seat at the table and I played differently because of that.

To close, I leave you with something I’m practicing myself…

When I feel wronged by another, either directly or indirectly, may I have the courage to consider the gift of seeking a more restorative kind of solution where they have a seat at the table. Not just for the offender or the community, but for the sake of my own process of moving on with the freedom to continue trusting in others.

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PS: Check out my YouTube playlist for Restorative Justice videos I’ve enjoyed.

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