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Voices / Column

Instilling self-knowledge, empathy, change

Two exhibits — one by victims of violence, the other by offenders — tell the stories behind violent crime in Vermont

For more information about the Brattleboro Community Justice Center, visit www.brattleborocjc.org. The full exhibit is no longer up, but a portion of the exhibit will be on display in the KeyBank Window at 185 Main St. in Brattleboro from Nov. 25 through 29, in celebration of International Restorative Justice Week (Nov. 17 through 24).

Williamsville

The Brattleboro Community Justice Center celebrated its tenth anniversary with two arts exhibits during this month’s Gallery Walk — one by victims of violent crimes and the other by violent offenders.

“Saving a Place at the Table” serves to honor and remember Vermonters who have been victims of violent crime. The exhibit features table-place settings for those killed by criminal violence and those whose lives have been significantly changed by that violence.

These place settings are meant to give a sense of the life that was lost and to mark that person’s absence from the family table. Each place includes a narrative describing who is missing as well as the crime that hurt or killed the person.

Survivors of those killed created the place settings for their missing loved ones. They eloquently articulated how there is never a single victim of violence, even if only one person dies.

This ripple effect is often overlooked in a criminal justice system that focuses on the offender more than the victim and pays even less attention to the indirect victims of violent crimes.

But every victim represented in the place settings was someone’s child.

Most were parents, and a few were wives.

The respective crimes that killed them victimized their parents, children, and spouses, too. These place settings express some of their grief.

Perhaps the most moving place settings, however, were those created by victims themselves — people who survived and were changed by criminal violence. Two, in particular, stand out for me.

The first was a place setting that included a paper collage of a fire and a poem by a woman who survived arson in which she lost everything but her life. Her poem articulated how difficult it was to get on with her life, how emotionally scorched she is, and how angry and fearful she remains.

Another place setting was by a woman who survived her ex-husband’s brutal and disfiguring attack. Hers is a remarkable piece, full of gratitude for surviving, and for all the love and support she’s received since. At her place were handmade wooden bowls turned and sent to her by a craftsman touched by her story.

* * *

“Saving a Place at the Table” is meant to raise victim awareness and is a project of Vermont’s Victim Services Program, which provides information, assistance, and support to victims of crime when the offender is in the custody or under the supervision of the Vermont Department of Corrections.

The second exhibit on display at Brattleboro’s Gallery Walk was artwork created by those offenders.

This exhibit is the result of a semester-long course offered through the Community High School of Vermont at the Northern State Correctional Facility, “Positive Humanities and the Act of Paying it Forward: Expressing Empathy and Compassion through the Arts” — or “Art Empathy” for short.

Art Empathy challenged offenders to learn about empathy, compassion, and accountability. They engaged in conversations about responsibility, altruism, and the benefits of giving back to others while expecting nothing in return. The course stressed the concept of “paying it forward” — how each student had a responsibility to do for others in honor of those they’d criminally harmed.

The course culminated with students creating a piece of art that expressed their understanding of the impact they had on their victims. Six such works were displayed in Brattleboro, accompanied by student narratives.

Students created illustrated scrolls that told their stories — stories whose arc travelled from thoughtless criminal behavior to thoughtful self-knowledge and expression of true empathy.

But in addition to that powerful journey, the work displayed talent. It was visually arresting, skillfully done, and moving.

* * *

Side by side, these two exhibits — one by and about victims and the other by and about offenders — increased their individual impact. Seen together, they provided a good reminder of the human stories behind the sensational news accounts or dry statistical accounting of violent crime in our state.

These exhibits also showed how the criminal justice system alone is insufficient.

Prosecuting a criminal does not revive the murder victim, nor does doing so restore victims’ families to their prior lives. Nor does simply locking up an offender aid in rehabilitation. Punishment alone does not necessitate self-knowledge, empathy, or change.

Restorative justice can’t bring the dead back to life or undo the violent acts that killed or maimed. But it can help repair some of the harm by taking into account and serving the many victims of violence and by aiding those offenders who are willing and able to do what they can to repair the harm they have caused.

The first step that offenders must take to repair the harm they have caused is to take responsibility for their actions. For the past 10 years, the Brattleboro Community Justice Center has served non-violent offenders in our community who are willing to take this first, critical step.

While the BCJC is funded by the Vermont Department of Corrections, most of its programs are staffed by trained volunteers. The BCJC provides several volunteer opportunities, from sitting on a Restorative Justice Reparative Board to serving on a COSA — a Circle of Support and Accountability — which helps offenders newly released from prison succeed on the outside.

Volunteering at the BCJC is rewarding community service. I’ve been serving on one such panel for six years. In addition to helping restore community standards, volunteers at the BCJC help unclog the courts, give victims a voice in the process, and give offenders a chance to repair the harm they have caused.

Restorative Justice is compassionate, non-violent, and local justice. It’s a step down a path through the underlying roots of conflict and crime that leads to a higher quality of life in our community.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #228 (Wednesday, November 6, 2013). This story appeared on page D6.

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