Spreading Transformative Justice like Peanut Butter

written by Paul Wartman

Remember how our parents would (still) tell us not to lick that left over peanut butter from the knife, hopefully preventing a reenactment of Nightmare on Elm St.? Doing it anyways, because how can you resist, we would feel the consequences. If and when I choose to have children I am going to teach them to lick off knives carefully.

A wonderful example and practical symbol for how Transformative Justice, as I understand it, can have a beneficial impact on society.


This weekend I was at the Do So Much Conference in Guelph hosted by Student Volunteer Connections. It was a fantastic taste of what local positive “actioneers”, such as Dave Meslin, Heather Jarvis, and Brigette Depape, have to offer youth leaders of today. In the afternoon sessions I partook in a couple of workshops, one of which I was dubbed moderator. I moderated with all my heart trying to extract the secrets of how Ayanda Dube, a refugee from Zimbabwe now schooling in Montreal, made his story into a captivating and educational video. We were also joined by the talented Truth Is… an artist helping youth in Guelph to express themselves using the shoulder-lightening, heart-pounding, mind-tingling technique of spoken word. Simply inspirational. The next workshop focused on Resilient Communities and we talked about Transformative Justice.

I’m not talking about Transformers ripping through the streets and buckling down on the bad guys. Quite the opposite, actually.

Many scold our “justice” system because it’s created a positive feedback loop, which isn’t so positive. Current criminal and law systems fail at addressing the underlying cause of “crime” and many “criminals” are expected to re-offend. The current system is entrenched in racism, sexism, and other biases. Then there are the costs, which have so many branches in our society that it might be impossible to measure in their entirety.  The practice of Transformative Justice originates in communities of colour, indigenous background, women, lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, and transgendered (LBGQT), and it works to transform the system that creates the scenarios that breed “crime” or should I say harm. It is a mindset that shifts language and shame, breaking stereotypes and encouraging empathy. An important step: “Recognizing that we have all caused and received harm. These are common experiences of humanity.”

I’ve fought with my brother, back and forth with increasing force, trading roles between the hurtful victim and the revengeful survivor, until one of us got hurt or ran away.

How does our system make use of minimization, “boys will be boys” and “it wasn’t my intention”, and encourage retaliation, “an eye for an eye” or “teach that boy a lesson”, to form environments inductive of harm? Where does accountability, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to harm you and if/when you are ready, here is how I hope I can help”, stand in the eyes of society? What risks do we fear, or what fears could we potentially overcome by shifting from minimization and retaliation to accountability?  Our group came up with the inner challenge of reflection, and the awkwardness associated with behavior change. Perhaps failing at being accountable or the results being something we never wanted. If the reasons why we want Transformative Justice include preventing a future of harm and living in a more equitable society, do those fears seem so insurmountable? How can we change our lives so that accountability is just present and normal in our lives?

Perhaps if we walk the talk then it creates the space to have those conversations.

Thanks to Chantelle Gallant and Arti Mehta for the wonderful, eye-opening workshop.
Resources on Transformative Justice:
http://www.communityaccountability.wordpress.com
CARA Principles – http://orgs.tigweb.org/cara

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