Professor Howard Zehr of EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding has made a habit out of changing peoples’ lives. As a world traveler and renowned theorist and practitioner of restorative justice, Zehr has helped to lead a breadth of relationships to healthier conditions.
All over the world, Zehr is highly sought after as a consultant and a trainer in restorative justice. But while he continues to work in the field, Zehr admits he is getting older.
“I do need some down time,” said Zehr. After even a quick glance at several decades’ worth of accomplishments and successful professional endeavors, it is apparent why.
Zehr’s long career has been marked by intense experiences, dealing with major conflict and its restoration. After many years of work that has been both difficult and rewarding, Zehr is working to “pass on the mantle” to others who are budding leaders in restorative justice.
“I love being able to mentor,” said Zehr. “Some of my students are out there doing amazing things – things I never would have dreamed of.”
As Zehr plans to shift from working two-thirds time to a quarter-time position at the Center for Justice and Peace (CJP) (which means dropping classroom teaching entirely), he hopes to have more time to pursue his interest in photography, as well as to renew his energy for writing. However, he will still be involved in advising the institute as it hopes to expand and develop its programs.
As he begins to step back from some of his positions and involvements, Zehr credits his educational background for building him a solid foundation.
Zehr was the first-ever white graduate at Morehouse College, where living as a minority helped him to develop a completely new perspective. “White Americans need to learn how to be a minority,” said Zehr.
Zehr then attended the University of Chicago to earn his M.A. One paper he wrote offered a deep look into crime in 17th-century Germany after he found some old statistical records. During this time, Peter Stearns, now provost and professor at George Mason University, took an interest in Zehr. When Stearns made a career move to teach at Rutgers University, he essentially dragged Zehr with him, which lead to Zehr receiving his Ph.D. from Rutgers.
As Zehr was finishing his Ph.D. work, he was also teaching at Talladega College in Alabama, where he became interested in local crime cases. Eventually, Zehr was helping lawyers to choose juries in extremely racist communities. This helped Zehr to develop an effective interview style and exposed him to the violence of the judicial system.
This provided the beginning of his inspiration for restorative justice. “When I sat down with the victims, I realized how important a part of the equation they were,” said Zehr. “It totally changed my perspective.”
Zehr then took up writing handbooks explaining how to involve victims in the process of justice. He also left school teaching. “I wanted to learn to communicate with a much broader community,” said Zehr. He saw the possibility of a new field as a way of being an effective communicator.
“My education and experience had come together in a logical way, building a new paradigm for me,” said Zehr. This narrative has led Zehr to a career full of interactions with individuals and communities in deep need of restoration. So what led Zehr back to teaching?
“I never thought I’d come back to teaching,” said Zehr, “but CJP is very practice-oriented. They are preparing [not only] academics, but practitioners.” This approach to restorative justice is one that Zehr embraces fully.
As Zehr prepares to slow down in his professional life, he takes away many rewarding experiences. He cites many people telling him that his books have “changed their lives.” From prosecutors in Iowa and Boston pioneering restorative justice programs and changing the way they prosecute to the many victim-offender relationships that have been salve to painful wounds, Zehr has influenced many lives.
Zehr sees this as a privilege. “The most rewarding thing is seeing all the things I never imagined,” said Zehr. “I receive e-mails and phone calls from people telling me how grateful they are for how their lives have been changed. It really is a privilege.”
-Ryan Eshleman, News Editor