When I was working out in the world and raising a family, I was automatically connected to other people. I volunteered at the kids’ school, baked brownies, chaperoned field trips, and helped raise the next generation. My work in a medical office connected me not only to my co-workers, but also to the community that we served. But it was my job teaching writing in a state prison that has in some ways proved the most lasting way of keeping me connected to my community, a connection that I find especially essential now that I spend most of my working days alone.
I started my teaching career at an Ivy League college, teaching freshman composition, and I’ve gone on to teach gifted children, curious adults, and wise seniors, but the inmates I taught in jail remain my favorite. For many of them, writing down their thoughts and reading them aloud to their peers was the first time they’d ever both clearly articulated their experiences and been heard. This was powerful stuff, and I loved the community of writers we created together inside an institution that otherwise seemed organized to break a man’s spirit.
Because I didn’t like what I saw, I sought alternatives, which is how I stumbled across Restorative Justice, an alternative to criminal justice, and practiced throughout Vermont with the help of volunteers. So when my work at the prison ended, I volunteered.
For the past five years, I’ve served on a Reparative Parole Board at the Brattleboro Community Justice Center. My commitment is only two hours a month, but they are an incredible two hours, filled with amazing stories where offenders take responsibility for their wrong-doing and where victims explain how they have been affected.
When successful, this process of personal narrative leads to reparation: the offender contracts to repair the harm done in a variety of creative ways, always individualized to fit the crime, and the victim receives satisfaction – not retribution. In the process, the offender is reconnected to the community. Unlike with people who are released from jail, people who go through the reparative process rarely reoffend.
What has this got to do with writing?
Restorative Justice uses narrative, and as a trained literary critic and a writer, I use my skills to assess the story. Restorative Justice teaches me again and again how important storytelling is to our culture, as well as how powerful a tool it can be. When I’m alone, writing a novel that may be years from publication, it is heartening to be reminded that storytelling is important.
It used to be believed that it was the ability to use tools that set humans apart from other species – until it was discovered that chimpanzees use twigs to gather ants. I believe it is storytelling that sets humans apart from other species, that we are a narrative species, and that the stories we tell play a critical role in how we operate in the world, from peace to war. Just look how venerated the world’s holy books are – and how much grief differing interpretations of them continue to cause. So, when I want to despair about the utility spending my productive time writing stories, I attend a Restorative Justice panel, and I’m reminded how powerful – and powerfully good – stories can be.
Restorative Justice is particularly well suited to a writer, since listening to how people tell their stories uses all my literary training, and teaches me so much about how to write. I listen for voice and point-of-view. For every transgression, there is a motivation, and in every successful case, there is a redemptive outcome. I listen to these stories, and I’m moved.
Sitting on a reparative panel is not the only way for a writer to serve her community; it’s the one I’ve found that suits me. It helps mitigate Solitude and Loneliness by connecting me to the world outside my writing studio, and it allows me to participate in community life.
There are other ways for writers to give to their communities: writing opinion pieces for the local papers, offering workshops, volunteering to foster literacy in schools, shelters, senior centers, reading aloud to the visually impaired – and more. These are important services, in addition to the stories we publish.
How do you volunteer your time? How does this work serve the writer in you?
Deborah Lee Luskin is a commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com