Howard Zehr shifts to leading role in new Restorative Justice Institute

zehr_howard_bplHoward Zehr, widely known as the “grandfather of restorative justice,” will step aside from his teaching role at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) after the spring 2013 semester and begin co-leading the newly established Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice.

The leaders of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP) announced the founding of the Zehr Institute at the end of the fall 2012 semester, after persuading Zehr to let the institute carry his name. They also asked Zehr to remain a faculty member in a non-teaching role with the title Distinguished Professor of Restorative Justice.

Zehr has taught restorative justice at CJP since 1996. He also served as CJP’s co-director from 2001 to 2007.

Zehr, who shies away from the word “retirement,” says he always planned to stop teaching before he lost his edge, and he wants to make space for others to step in. “Sometimes the only way you can do that,” he says, “is to get out of the way.”

The Zehr Institute will spread knowledge about restorative justice and be a resource to practitioners, while facilitating conversations and cultivating connections through activities like conferences and webinars, according to CJP executive director Lynn Roth. The institute will be co-directed by Zehr and Carl Stauffer, assistant professor of development and justice studies at CJP.

Zehr and Stauffer say they intend for the institute to offer space to explore “frontier” topics, like the intersection of the arts and peacebuilding, and the ways that trauma and restorative justice are connected. They plan for it to tap the expertise of practitioners who aren’t scholars, but have much to offer.

And though the institute will not focus on academia, Stauffer believes it will benefit graduate students by growing a program in which students are not only taught the skills of restorative justice but are trained to see and respond to larger, systemic issues.

“We want to graduate students who’ve studied restorative justice who could run a circle [process] or victim-offender conferencing or a family group conference,” says Stauffer. “At the same time we want them to apply their education to a whole system, so that they could walk into a school and say, ‘What would a restorative justice system look like here?’”

Restorative justice, both Stauffer and Zehr believe, is not a just a social service, but a social movement.

As he moves to quarter-time employment at EMU, Zehr is looking forward to a schedule where he spends less time in meetings and more time with another passion of his, photography.

Alerted by email that Zehr is wrapping up his formal teaching career, former students have responded with appreciative messages.

Fadi El Hajjar, a 2006 master’s graduate of CJP who manages a United Nations project in Lebanon, praised Zehr for his “considerable contribution… to the peacebuilding world through teaching, training and writing.”

Mack Mulbah, a 2009 graduate working for Women Peace and Security Network, Africa, wrote to Zehr, “I am sure you will be missed in the classroom, but glad that your new journey will open more doors for further moving RJ [restorative justice] to another level for us practitioners.”

Article by Lora Steiner and Bonnie Price Lofton. Photo by Bonnie Price Lofton.

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