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Peace Takes Practice

Story by Adam Overland, University of Minnesota Relations
June 20, 2011

Most people turn away from conflict. Mark Umbreit has dedicated his life’s work to facing it head on.

From conflicts in some of the most war-torn countries in the world, to crimes in American communities, Umbreit has pioneered an end to conflict using nothing more novel, and more powerful, than conversations—conversations which may seem incomprehensible to many of us. It’s a social movement that you’ve probably never heard of and that may never directly affect you.

Umbreit is a professor in the U’s School of Social Work and the founding director of the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking at the University of Minnesota. He is an internationally recognized scholar with more than 40 years of experience as a mediator, facilitator, trainer, and researcher; and the author of eight books and hundreds of articles in the fields of restorative justice, mediation, and peacemaking. But more than this, Umbreit is a practitioner. His research, engagement, lectures, and training have involved participants from more than 25 countries. Beyond rhetoric and politics, peace is not just being imagined. It’s happening.

Courses and Teaching

Part of it is happening through his courses at the U—courses like Mediation and Conflict Resolution through the School of Social Work, but also courses like Forgiveness and Healing: A Journey Toward Wholeness; and Peacemaking and Spirituality: A Journey Toward Healing and Strength; and Peacebuilding Through Mindfulness Practice, offered through the U’s unique Center for Spirituality and Healing in the Academic Health Center, where Umbreit also serves as faculty.

The courses are highly experiential, and students engage in a dialogue with guest speakers from diverse spiritual and cultural traditions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

Course descriptions, too, are quite different from, say, a chemistry course. Required outcomes include, “knowledge of the difference between resolving disputes and making peace between individuals in conflict or within one’s self,” and “knowledge of the difference between shallow and authentic forgiveness.”

In the School of Social Work, Umbreit’s students are obtaining a master’s degree. His students in the Center for Spirituality and Healing come from all parts of the U, he says. “Most seem to be hungering for gaining practical skills in working with and growing from the endless conflicts that are a part of our personal and professional lives.”

Beginnings

After coming to the University of Minnesota in 1990, Umbreit established the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking in 1994 to serve as a resource nationally and internationally for restorative dialogue practice, research, and training. The center was the first of its kind in the country. In fact, Umbreit is a pioneer in the field of restorative justice. Some might call him a father of the movement, but at this point in his life, Umbreit says that perhaps being one of the grandfathers of this social movement (he’s 61) might be a more appropriate term.

Like so many, his passion was piqued by the conflict and upheaval of a powerful social justice movement going on in this country—the Civil Rights Movement. Umbreit was first involved with social justice through voter registration of students in the south. Later in Indiana, he became active in what has come to be known more broadly as restorative justice, where he was drawn toward community organizing by ex-convicts and people in the community who were concerned about getting prisoners help as they reenter society

In 1975 he and an ex-convict cofounded an organization in Northwest Indiana called PACT, or Prisoner And Community Together, which still provides services to victims and offenders in numerous communities. He also set up the first halfway house in Indiana that same year.

“It was a very humble effort in those early years, and it had a very modest impact,” says Umbreit.

“Restorative justice views crime not just as a violation of technical laws…it’s a wound within the community,” says Umbreit. “Justice fosters true accountability and healing, not just expensive punishment, through face-to-face dialogue whenever possible. It provides the opportunity for those most affected by crime—victims, communities, and offenders—to be directly involved in the process of accountability and healing. I would argue many restorative justice programs are tougher than a lot of what we currently do, which costs taxpayers lots of money and oftentimes involves little real accountability for the offender and even less assistance to victims and communities that have been harmed.”

That concept was initially highly controversial among some, and there was much resistance in a system that leaned heavily on pure punishment. Today, there are hundreds of victim/offender mediation and community conferencing programs, and thousands of restorative justice programs all over the country. More than 90 empirical studies that have consistently shown positive affects of the programs, including reducing criminal behavior, says Umbreit.

“Victims overwhelmingly feel better about the criminal justice system process and are satisfied with the outcome,” says Umbreit. His book, Facing Violence, reports on the first multi-site study of victim offender mediation and dialogue in crimes of severe violence, primarily homicide

From individual crime to national healing

Prior to 1975, much of the work that might be called restorative justice had been reserved for the juvenile criminal justice system—for kids, who, for better or worse, have less stigma and the luxury of a societal second chance. But today, says Umbreit, in Minnesota, nationally, and internationally, it is going way beyond just juvenile criminal justice.

Earlier this spring, Umbreit returned from 10 days in the Middle East where he conducted workshops and worked with colleagues in the occupied territories who are involved in peace-building initiatives. That work with Israel and Palestine informs his work here, not only among those in the local Jewish and Palestinian communities, but others as well.

“The conflict in the Middle East cannot help but be part of these communities’ lives and conflicts here in Minnesota,” says Umbreit. “Gaining a greater human understanding of what is really going on can contribute, however modestly, to better relations among [these populations] in Minnesota.”

Minnesota, too, is home to one of the largest Liberian populations in the United States. Thousands fled that country in the wake of violent inter-tribal conflict that killed more than 200,000 when civil war erupted there in the 1980s. In Liberia, Umbreit and the Center are partnering with a colleague in Monrovia to build a Center for Counseling and Restorative Dialogue, as well as initiating a Muslim-Christian Youth Dialogue Project to foster community-wide healing.

Umbreit says that true peace is not simply the absence of hostilities or agreements to end violence. While political diplomacy is necessary, says Umbreit, true peace occurs through person-to-person dialogue. “Politicians can end the violence through peace agreements and disarmament. Only former enemies and combatants can build peace within their communities through human encounter, dialogue, and tolerance.”

The efforts at home fall into a larger initiative, the Community Peacemaking Project, which Umbreit and colleagues founded to promote sustained dialogue among diverse communities in response to hate crimes, intolerance, and political violence. The project has involved partnerships with Native Americans in the Pine Ridge/Rapid City area of South Dakota, the Arab-Jewish Peace Alliance in Albuquerque, Somali-Muslim leaders in Minneapolis, and Palestinian and Jewish leaders in Minneapolis and Milwaukee. Umbreit initiated and facilitated one of the first Palestinian-Jewish dialogue efforts in the Minneapolis/St. Paul community, as well as a Muslim Restorative Justice Engagement project in the Twin Cities and beyond.

Umbreit’s work also takes him around the world, and in many cases, brings the world to the U. Only recently he received a request from a group in Pakistan that has expressed strong interest in him providing training in restorative justice and dialogue. He’s also been asked to return to Northern Ireland to conduct seminars on Restorative Dialogue and Pathways to Spirituality and Healing. And during spring break, he conducted a five-day workshop on Peacebuilding Through Restorative Dialogue in the Global Community, with participants from 19 primarily Muslim, non-Western countries. Over the past two years, participants in this workshop have included the speaker of the Kurdish parliament in Iraq, supreme court justices, school principals, and community leaders from Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine (the West Bank), Malaysia, Liberia, and numerous other countries. All are Hubert Humphrey Fellows at universities throughout the U.S. Umbreit is literally all over the map.

Hope for the future

This may sound like a lot of work, and it is. Umbreit is a busy man.

If he’s not teaching, he’s traveling; if he’s not traveling, he’s writing or conducting a workshop; and if he’s not being paid—and to be sure, he is not getting rich—he’s volunteering. Peace, evidently, does not allow much time for rest.

Umbreit and the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking are not likely to be getting million-dollar research grants anytime soon to develop concepts like “deep listening” and “mindfulness” as methods of building peace, resolving conflict, and healing pain. And peace will not soon be entering the marketplace with an initial public offering on the stock exchanges of the world. But Umbreit isn’t going to let that stop him, his students, and the thousands they’ve helped from recognizing its value.

“I never thought I’d be alive to witness not only what I’m seeing in America, but in the global community,” says Umbreit. “I’m not saying restorative justice is mainstream, but it’s way beyond the margins.” 

Hope for the future: A case study in forgiveness

One example Umbreit writes of involves Sarah, a young mother whose father was brutally murdered more than 20 years ago, and Jeff, the man imprisoned for the murder

Jeff became eligible for parole, and Sarah and her family became consumed with intense feelings of vulnerability, anger, and uncertainty. They spoke at the parole hearing and the offender was denied release.

Sarah contacted Umbreit shortly after and expressed a strong need to meet the man who killed her father. She wanted to find peace within herself and her immediate family. Jeff felt tremendous remorse for what he had done and was willing to meet with Sarah.

When they finally met, wrote Umbreit, Sarah sobbed and tried to find her voice to tell her story. After nearly four minutes, she found her voice and her story of trauma, loss, and yearning for healing was heard. Jeff offered his story of what happened, how it affected his life, and the enormous shame he felt.

Five hours later, Sarah looked directly at Jeff and told him she forgave him for killing her father. She made it clear that the forgiveness was about freeing herself from the pain she had carried with her for more than 20 years.

In post interviews with Sarah and Jeff, they both indicated the enormous effect the encounter had on their lives. Sarah spoke of how meeting Jeff was like going through a fire that burned away her pain.