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Feature

Mark Umbreit

Professor Mark Umbreit is contributing to the rise of restorative justice principles in practice in communities around the world.

Peacemaking in the time of hostility

U professor applies restorative justice principles to conflicts around the globe

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, Dec. 13, 2006

Long before September 11, 2001, social work professor Mark Umbreit was building expertise in restorative justice. The victim-centered response to crime focuses on holding offenders directly accountable and, to the greatest degree possible, restoring the emotional and material losses of the victims.

"Our current system of justice is offender-driven--what I call a 'trail 'em, nail 'em, jail 'em' method," says Umbreit. "The victims in the families and community are left on the sidelines."

Restorative justice involves the offender and the victim, family members, and community.

Umbreit began working with restorative justice in the 1970s, when he cofounded PACT, or Prisoner And Community Together, in Indiana. PACT provided services to victims and offenders in numerous communities.

When Umbreit came to the University of Minnesota in 1990, he continued to get requests for restorative justice materials and training. It only seemed natural to create the Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking in the School of Social Work on the Twin Cities campus. Established in 1994, the center was the first of its kind in the country, a resource nationally and internationally for restorative dialogue practice, research, and training. Umbreit combined academic work with his personal investment in restorative justice, bringing the University closer to communities.

Shortly after the attacks on September 11, 2001, Umbreit read a column by a Fedwa Wazwaz, a local Palestinian Muslim activist, in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

"I was so impressed by her writing, and her attempt to build bridges between Islam and Christians and others, that I just called her up cold," says Umbreit. "I introduced myself and invited her to speak in my class."

Fedwa Wazwaz with a child on her lap
Muslim activist Fedwa Wazwaz often speaks in Mark Umbreit's restorative justice classes.

Wazwaz, a native of Jerusalem, was raised in Chicago. She attended college at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and finished her degree in computer science in Minnesota. In addition to working as a programmer analyst at the U, Wazwaz is a board member for the Islamic Resource Group. She is dedicated to writing about issues involving Muslims, getting her writing published in local venues, and encouraging others in her community to do the same. "I prefer that they raise their voice in the public mainstream," says Wazwaz. "It's a way to open up a discussion, a way for other Muslims to express their anger, their frustrations, their opinions, publicly. The point is not to get published, but to raise your voice and get engaged."

Wazwaz attended one of Umbreit's restorative justice training sessions and is now an annual visitor to his classes. She has seen the impact that restorative justice and peacemaking can have on the Muslim community.

"I was just looking for a project that would engage Muslims with the greater community," she says. "I wanted dialogue, but I also wanted something that would go beyond dialogue. Restorative justice is able to generate forgiveness, which is very important to me, particularly with what is going on right now."

One result of Wazwaz and Umbreit's connection is the Muslim Restorative Justice Outreach initiative, established in 2005. Initially, with funds from the University's Office for Public Engagement, the project provided 15 scholarships in restorative justice training for members of the local Palestinian and African Muslim communities. The project has continued to grow.

Umbreit recently participated in an online dialogue on Islamonline.net, an online Muslim resource center based in the United Kingdom, in which he made contact with Muslims from Pakistan, Egypt, England, and all over the world, discussing the principles of restorative justice in relation to Islam.

In September, at the invitation of Wazwaz, Umbreit presented a workshop in Chicago on restorative justice and Islam at the 43rd annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America, the largest gathering of Muslims in North America.

Witness to justice

Restorative justice has found its place in the legislation of more than 21 states over the past few decades. Today 19 states, including Minnesota, have formal procedures for victims of severe violence to come into contact with the offender for victim-offender mediation.

"I never thought I'd be alive to witness what I am witnessing, the way restorative justice has expanded all over this country and many others," says Umbreit.

The Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking is partially responsible. In addition to hosting training sessions, the center has created startup packages and programs. Free training videos, books, other written materials, and technical assistance have been distributed around the world to places that include American Indian reservations and developing countries.

Umbreit is devoted to the study and practice of restorative justice--"engaging in and documenting processes of building bridges between different cultures, between people and families and communities that have been affected by crime and violence or hatred."

He says restorative justice is an important example of the role universities can play.

"Having public engagement helps keep universities more grounded at a real human level, more focused on what is of real concern," says Umbreit. "If there isn't public engagement, universities can become irrelevant and have little payback to the community and taxpaying public. On the other hand, with the knowledge and experience that can be gained in academia--which can be tremendous--[the University] can be of enormous service to society at large."

FURTHER READING "Making it right: Restorative justice a learning experience for U students in trouble," Dec. 15, 2004.


Stephanie Wilkes is a junior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail wilk0268@umn.edu.