Professor Howard Zehr, distinguished professor of restorative justice, will be Eastern Mennonite University's commencement speaker for the ceremony on Sunday, April 30. Zehr is a world-renowned expert in restorative justice and has been with EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding since 1996. (EMU file photo)

Restorative justice pioneer Howard Zehr to speak at 99th Commencement

Howard Zehr, distinguished professor of restorative justice, will speak at Eastern Mennonite University’s 2017 Commencement. Beginning at 1 p.m., Sunday, April 30, on the front lawn, the ceremony awards undergraduate and graduate degrees, and includes students from the Harrisonburg campus and Lancaster (Pa.) site.

For Zehr, the experience will be especially gratifying. EMU’s first degree in the MA in Restorative Justice program, offered through the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, will be conferred on a student who brings years of professional experience working in the field that Zehr played a large role in establishing.

Commencement Weekend festivities begin on Friday, April 28, with Eastern Mennonite Seminary Baccalaureate, followed by the seminary’s commencement ceremony on Saturday in Lehman Auditorium at 2:30 p.m. Professor Erin Dufault-Hunter, of Fuller Theological Seminary, offers the commencement address.

On Saturday evening, the Cords of Distinction ceremony for selected exemplary undergraduate students is at 4:30 p.m. in Martin Chapel, followed by Baccalaureate at 7 p.m. with speaker Professor Deanna Durham. A concert and president’s reception conclude the evening.

Sunday brings a host of departmental activities, including nurses’ pinning ceremonies and special receptions in the morning and evening.

The main ceremony, which will be livestreamed for those who cannot attend, begins at 1 p.m. on Sunday. To view a livestream, visit

Howard Zehr: working from harms to healing

Widely known as “the grandfather of restorative justice,” Zehr began as a practitioner and theorist in the late 1970s, when he became director of the first U.S. victim-offender reconciliation program, Elkhart County Prisoners and Community Together (PACT). Zehr moved the program from probation into the community, a transition which pre-figured the concept’s development from the criminal justice arena into its current wide application across many areas, notably education.

By Zehr’s definition, restorative justice is “an approach to achieving justice that involves, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense or harm to collectively identify and address harms, needs and obligations in order to heal and put things as right as possible.”

Restorative justice has wide roots in indigenous practices: two examples of this are peacemaking processes in Navajo courts in the southwestern United States, and the jirga system used in Pukhtoon population of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Since the ‘70s, Zehr has led hundreds of events in more than 25 countries and 35 states, including trainings and consultations on restorative justice, victim-offender conferencing, judicial reform and other criminal justice matters.

Zehr holds a bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was the first white student to graduate from the historically black college. He went on to earn an MA in European history from University of Chicago and a PhD in modern European history from Rutgers University.

He joined EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding in 1996. Zehr serves as co-director of the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice, established in 2013. He retired from teaching in May 2015, when he was celebrated at a retirement “roast” attended by about 300 former students, colleagues and friends from around the world.

His groundbreaking book Changing Lenses: A New Focus for Crime and Justice, was recently issued in its 25th anniversary edition.

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