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Peace takes practice

U professor Mark Umbreit teaches peace

By Adam Overland

Peace Project - 170
Mark Umbreit teaching during his Mediation and Conflict Resolution course in the School of Social Work.

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.

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 U of M. 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.

Courses and teaching
Part of it is happening through his courses at the U—courses like Mediation and Conflict Resolution, Forgiveness and Healing, 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.

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.”

Crime and healing

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.

After coming to the U 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.

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," he says.

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. "And 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.”

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.”

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.”

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. But to Umbreit, the effort is worth it.

“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.”