Kindness. Contemplation. Creation. Connection.
Soon a year will have passed since the Stanley Cup riot. The City is still healing. But it seems that people just want to “move on” and not talk about it. If they do talk about it, it’s a quiet and short conversation. Other than the odd news item about long legal delays, it seems to have slipped from the public’s psyche.
Or has it?
I was invited to attend a dinner and dialogue organized by VARJ, the Vancouver Association for Restorative Justice on May 9, with distinguished guest, Dr. Theo Gavrielides, an expert in restorative justice from the UK who gave a talk at the end of the dinner. Jason Smith and my husband, Neil, were my guests. Jason’s attendance was particularly important to me, which I’ll get into later.
Neil, Jason and I didn’t know anything about restorative justice, and didn’t know what to expect. All we knew was that the Kindness Flag Project fulfilled a restorative need following the riots. But what could it have to do with restorative justice?
Wikipedia’s entry on Restorative Justice begins thus:
“Restorative justice (also sometimes called reparative justice) is an approach to justice that focuses on the needs of the victims and the offenders, as well as the involved community, instead of satisfying abstract legal principles or punishing the offender. Victims take an active role in the process, while offenders are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions, “to repair the harm they’ve done—by apologizing, returning stolen money, or community service”. Restorative justice involves both victim and offender and focuses on their personal needs. In addition, it provides help for the offender in order to avoid future offences. It is based on a theory of justice that considers crime and wrongdoing to be an offence against an individual or community, rather than the state. Restorative justice that fosters dialogue between victim and offender shows the highest rates of victim satisfaction and offender accountability.”
Could the KFP play a role in the myriad of ways societal rehabilitation can be accomplished?
At my table, I had the good fortune to sit next to the Executive Director of the Vancouver Downtown Business Improvement Association (BIA), Charles Gauthier. The rest of the table comprised of academics and experts in justice, social services and restorative justice. Listening to Charles reminded me of the raw, emotional impact of the riot that still affects people to this day. People are still talking about it.
He recounted his emotional story of the night of the riot, when he got calls from business owners caught in the mayhem, in the middle of fires roaring, rioting and looting, and scared to death. He spent the entire night and early morning hours liaising with police, and then, of course, came the long, arduous road for the business owners and the BIA to clean up the mess and repair the damage to their businesses.
What was particularly interesting was to hear him talk of the anger business owners directly affected by the riot have over the delays and backlogs in the legal system. Many BIA members would perceive restorative justice to be a soft approach to crime. They’re angry and they want to feel vindicated by having the perpetrators held accountable for their actions under the full force of the law.
If I understand correctly what restorative justice aims to do, it strives to involve the victim in the justice process. It’s not reliant only upon a judge to declare a sentence, and it’s certainly not about retribution. Just wanting to “throw the book” at someone might bring some satisfaction to the victim – but it would likely be short-lived. With restorative justice, the most difficult thing would be for both victim and offender to face each other, and for the offender to make amends directly to the victim, while allowing the victim to have a voice and speak directly to the offender. By doing so, the victim would feel empowered and gain closure by being a part of the solution.
When I considered this on a personal level, I imagined some of my more painful experiences where I knew I had done something hurtful to someone, but was too proud to admit it. Admitting to a wrongdoing is a very difficult thing to do.
How do you make amends? Do you simply ask for forgiveness, and hope the whole thing will blow over and eventually be forgotten? Does a person’s forgiveness imply some kind of permission to slip up again because you think you’ll be forgiven the next time? How many times can you get away with it? Do you even think about the consequences of when forgiveness and forgetfulness cease? It’s doubtful.
It’s much harder to sit face to face with someone and admit fault. And it’s even harder to correct the behaviour that caused the wrongdoing. To identify one’s behaviour, it is necessary to really get to know who you are and your motivations. Over the past eight months or so I’ve been trying to get to know myself through meditation, and I’ve been surprised at a) how little I really know me, and b) the extent of my ability to distract myself in order to NOT be more intimately acquainted with myself and my habits.
Others at my table offered expert opinions on what restorative justice has done world-wide. Apparently, in countries that have adopted restorative justice models, the recidivism rates drop and it saves money and resources. Here in Canada, communities are adopting the practice, particularly Aboriginal communities because it so closely resembles traditional forms of justice and healing. Frank Tester was one of the people at my table, and spoke at length about the success restorative justice has had in modern Nunavut. Here’s a good article on Prof. Tester and his work: Redefining Justice
It was all very interesting, but at times I wondered what I was doing at this event, sitting at a table with so many experts in a field I had no knowledge of. But when I told some of the stories from the hundreds of people I met over five days of flag making immediately following the riot, I realized that the Kindness Flag Project filled a necessary role in restoration and healing for the public.
The Project gave people permission to tell their stories, to express themselves in a way they might not have otherwise. We experienced this time and time again.
A few stories…
Standing on the street in front of the businesses hit by the riot, people came up to us and were eager if not desperate to tell us their stories. They wanted to be heard, to have their experiences validated.
In front of The Bay, a woman walked up to me. She looked at me with intensity and said, “I’m so tired. My knees hurt. I’ve been picking up garbage for two days. I was on my hands and knees right there,” she pointed behind me. “For hours, I picked up shards of glass, one piece at a time, and put them into my garbage bag. The pieces were too small to be swept up, so I and other volunteers got down on our hands and knees and picked up the glass, one by one.” I looked behind me, and realized that if it hadn’t been for her efforts and care, the people kneeling on the ground at that moment, making flags, expressing kindness, would not be able to do that. Her actions gave us the opportunity to create art.
The Dalai Lama has written, “Our good fortune is dependent upon the cooperation and contributions of others. Every aspect of our present well-being is due to hard work on the part of others. As we look around us at the buildings we live and work in, the roads we travel, the clothes we wear, or the food we eat, we have to acknowledge that all are provided by others. None of them would exist for us to enjoy and make use of were it not for the kindness of so many people unknown to us.”
So many stories… The Kindness Flag Project and all of its volunteers gave people a reason to tell their stories, to us, to each other, to whomever would listen. It was restorative and healing…
A differently-abled woman who lived in the Downtown East Side in a subsidized housing development made several flags. She told us that during the riot she sat in her room, scared and shaking, lights, sounds, smells assaulting her senses. She was terrified. She was so, so close to the riot’s epicentre. She needed to tell her story. She wanted people to know that there were a lot of people affected who are otherwise invisible to society. She wanted to their voices be heard too.
She came back several times, a warm, sunny smile of encouragement.
A friend of mine who had been working on Wicked on the night of the riot at the QET, told me how it sounded from inside the theatre. He said it sounded like a war zone, with explosions that could be heard through the thick walls of the theatre all the way into the basement. He was grateful for Kindness Flag Project, for its intention to encourage people think and act out of kindness and consideration. He saw how a force can be transformed from a negative to a positive one.
There was the woman who pushed through the crowd and came right up to me. She stopped in front of me, and with tears in her eyes, held my hands in hers and said, “Thank you. Thank you for doing this. I’m from South Africa, and for my 45th birthday I decided to give myself a gift of a lifetime and come to Vancouver. I’ve always wanted to come to Vancouver, and now I’m here. It has always looked so beautiful. Safe and beautiful. I arrived two days ago, and I’m staying at the Sandman Hotel. My room overlooks the parking lot. I saw the game on the giant TV screen. And I saw the whole thing happen: the police cars tipped over and set on fire, the rioting, the yelling, screaming, the smoke, everything. I couldn’t believe I was in Vancouver. I was petrified. ‘What if they come into the hotel and break down my door,’ I thought? I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared.” She was crying as she hugged me. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you doing something so positive. Thank you for doing this.”
I didn’t know what to say. It really wasn’t me who was doing much at all. It was the public’s collective energy, will, thought and desire to express kindness in society through art. As Sharon Salzberg writes, “Kindness is compassion in action. It is a way of taking the vital human emotions of empathy or sympathy and channeling those emotions into a real-life confrontation with ruthlessness, abandonment, thoughtlessness, loneliness – all the myriad ways, every single day, we find ourselves suffering or witnessing suffering in others.”
What we witnessed was much like what had happened during the riot: people got caught up in a flow of energy. In this case it was constructively and positively directed. All I did was initiate it, the rest was up to the collective whole. The experience would linger in the public’s memory for a long time to come. As a leaf releases oxygen, thought transcends matter. Reminders of what is essential to all would be radiated and carried into the future to take root and grow.
And as long as people are dissatisfied with the judicial system, bitterness will also linger.
Which leads me to Jason.
Jason was a student at Douglas College when I worked there. One day I took him and his friend out for lunch as a thank you for their hard work and reliability. I respected them. They were affable, kind, reliable, smart, creative, took direction well and showed promise. Jason told me his story over lunch. It was inspiring then, but even more so now.
This is his story as I remember it…
He hadn’t always been someone to count on. In junior high he had complete disregard for authority, engaged in theft, dabbled in drugs, and was, simply put, a juvenile delinquent. He was kicked out of school numerous times, and his future looked bleak. Some of the things he did was out of love for his mom, believe it or not. He would steal something and bring it home to his mother to give to her as a gift. He wanted her to have nice things. Of course, eventually she would learn that he had stolen the things. It was a very stressful time for his mom. And for Jason. He didn’t know any other way, and his friends encouraged this behaviour.
But then something miraculous happened. An anonymous benefactor from Jason’s mother’s church provided Jason with a chance to get out of his go-nowhere rut by offering to pay for his tuition to a private school.
He went to the school, but continued to behave badly. Things escalated, and then he tried to burn down his school.
That was the tipping point.
Now, at this stage it could be reasonably argued that Jason clearly showed little potential, and he should probably have been sent to a youth detention centre.
But the benefactor had other ideas. Instead of withdrawing his support, he came forward and spoke directly to Jason. I would imagine the conversation went something like this: “Son, I’m giving you one more chance. This is it. I know you can be better than this. Tell me what’s going through you mind. Then, go and be the person you can be.”
Jason did. He seized the opportunity and turned his life around. He stopped associating with friends who were a bad influence. His grades improved. He was always an excellent reader and writer and made friends with a boy who was dyslexic and needed help. Jason’s life got better, he began to feel better. He had purpose and he graduated from high school, was accepted to college after working and saving for a couple of years, and that’s where I met him.
Jason is an example of a form of restorative justice at work, in my opinion. His benefactor was just and discerning. Jason was given an opportunity that would not have been available to him under different circumstances. This young man, who appeared to be on the road to nowhere, turned his life around. Now, he’s just like many other people in their twenties. His struggles are much the same as others. His life as a delinquent is over.
Just before I left for the first day of the Kindness Flag Project, I posted my intentions on Facebook. Jason read the post and brought his friends from college to help. I often pinch myself wondering about my good fortune to know such good, kind, generous and intelligent people.
Jason helped at every flag-making event. He engaged in meaningful conversation with people, showing a deep interest in their stories. He has an innate understanding of the importance of narrative, is a good listener and a good conversationalist because of his sharp mind. A supportive, brotherly relationship developed between him and Kam, a young high school student who appeared out of the blue and threw himself into the project with an enthusiasm that belied his age.
He is a good example of the successes that can be achieved when one takes a chance and comes face to face with difficulties and is a part of the solution.
Attending the VARJ event, Jason had an opportunity to tell his story, to the thinkers, policy makers, and scholars. It is our hope that he will be able to speak to people his age and hopefully inspire them too, one day.
We learned that people haven’t swept the events of the night of June 15, 2011 under the rug. People still talk about it, but quietly. It seems the media has stopped reporting on it because now a more difficult story is slowly unfolding. Coming to terms with unpleasant circumstances and unraveling its causes, and harder yet, figuring out what the consequences should be can’t be summed up in a pithy news item or image.
Thanks to this incredible evening and meeting like-minded people, the Kindness Flag Project has been asked to be a part of an event to bring attention to the restorative efforts immediately following the riot and the continuing work of bringing healing and restoration to Vancouver over the past year.
In partnership with the Downtown Vancouver Business Association, Vancouver Association for Restorative Justice and the Museum of Vancouver, Christ Church Cathedral will be hosting Restore and Reconnect, June 14-17.
The Kindness Flag Project will be there, encouraging people to once again consider what kindness means to them, and what they have to do to create a kind and considerate society.
We will ask people to actively, gently, creatively, practice kindness everyday.
By practicing something, you improve your skill. You become more proficient at it and you can help others learn too. Even kindness is something you need to work at. You can’t take for granted that it will be at your disposal whenever you need it, unless you’ve been practicing how to use it, everyday.
The Haida parable of the hummingbird teaches us that even when faced with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, it is possible to overcome them, with constant attention, a little at a time. But we need to be diligent and set our minds to the task, with love, care and kindness.
Please join us and others who are working to create a kind community at…
Restore and Reconnect
June 14-17, 2012
Christ Church Cathedral
Burrard @ West Georgia
For details, visit: Christ Church Cathedral
Celebration of Community Spirit*
A non-denominational community gathering on Friday, June 15 from 12pm to 12:45pm with music, remarks, dialogue and viewing of the messages of hope.
*Supported by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association.