CJP at 25: Celebrate, Reflect, Dream with directors emeriti Ruth Zimmerman and Howard Zehr

During the 2019-20 academic year, as the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding commemorates its 25th anniversary, a series of guest authors will share reflections about CJP’s personal impact. We want to hear your thoughts, too!

Thousands of people have intersected with CJP over the years, and each of you has contributed to the work of making the world more just and more peaceful. Join us for our anniversary celebration June 5-7, 2020. Visit the anniversary website for more details.

Read reflections by Phoebe KilbyMohammad Abu-NimerMaryam Sheikh, Sanjay Pulipaka, and Shyamika Jayasundara-Smits.

Ruth Zimmerman and Howard Zehr served as co-directors from 2002-07. Both brought significant experience in other roles with the organization before that time. Here they collectively share their paths to CJP, their partnering leadership and significant work of their tenure.

In the early 1990s, Ruth had returned from eight years in the Philippines and was searching for a job. One of the positions she applied for was administrative secretary at Eastern Mennonite University’s newly-forming Conflict Analysis and Transformation Program (later shortened to Conflict Transformation Program, or CTP). Though Ruth thought her experience and degree positioned her for something more challenging, then-director Professor Vernon Jantzi convinced her that this program would expand and provide good career advancement possibilities.  As is often the case, his vision was prophetic.

Ruth accepted the offer. Her first day on the job included the task of going through the complete filing system for the new program, all within one cardboard box. The second task was to buy office furniture. But her role soon did become more challenging, and in a few years, she became associate director while Vernon was director.

Howard had been director of the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Office for Criminal Justice since the late 1970s. From that base, he developed restorative justice materials and assisted communities in establishing such programs. By the mid-1990s, he had concluded that he had probably done what he could do for the field. Then Ray Gingerich, professor of sociology at EMU, began urging Howard not to take any other jobs without considering CTP. Both Ray and Vernon felt that conflict transformation needed the restorative justice component. 

Howard first taught an RJ course in a weekend format. In 1996, he joined the faculty. Although he had administrative experience, he had no intentions of ever administrating again. Obviously he failed to keep that commitment, and he also was proven wrong about his involvement in restorative justice: the center and its students proved a base and catalyst for significant expansion of restorative justice. 

In the late 1990s, while Vernon was on sabbatical, Howard served as interim director with Ruth continuing as associate director. The duo worked together well, but Howard felt that Ruth deserved recognition for the key role she was playing. When Vernon later stepped away from his leadership position, Howard reluctantly agreed to take on a part-time director role for a transitional period, but only on the condition that he and Ruth serve as co-directors. 

This was a time of many unknowns within the center, causing some tension amongst various parties. External advice was that a co-directorship is a problematic structure with many possibilities for conflict, and often that is true. However, Howard and Ruth had built up a relationship of trust and respect in the interim year and were convinced the unusual structure would work. Howard focused primarily on academic affairs while continuing his teaching responsibilities while Ruth managed staff, programs and budget.

Ruth:  “A key element I always appreciated in working with Howard, even through some tough stuff, was his ready question:  ‘Are we having fun yet?’ We could always find things to laugh about. This was such a critical glue for the team since many students were coming from dire conflict situations which could create a heaviness in the atmosphere.”

Howard: “Ruth had a proven record as a full-time administrator and had played a key role in keeping the center going and growing. I thought that this contribution and role had to be recognized structurally. We dealt with some heavy stuff during this time, but I appreciated Ruth’s sense of humor and relied heavily on her competence and knowledge.”

With a departmental team of more than 20 employees and 80 or more students, all with rich life experience and different perspectives and personalities, there were bound to be conflicts — even within a peacebuilding program. And indeed there were during these years. There were also many challenges involving budgets and relationships within the EMU structure. As a community, we didn’t always practice what we preached.

On one occasion, Ruth returned from a wilderness bike trip during which she had to ride through a terrifying gauntlet of eight rattlesnakes. She reflected on her return that each of the snakes seemed to be a metaphor for one of the challenges we were facing. One year we reworked “Old MacDonald Had A Farm” to name some of our challenges and frustrations and sang it at the staff/faculty Christmas party. Fortunately that text has been lost.

A significant milestone during these years was the beginning of the program’s relationship to the Fulbright Program. Thanks to Ruth’s initiative and guidance, CJP became the primary venue for Fulbright scholars from South Asia and the Middle East who wanted to study conflict transformation. This resulted in highly diverse groups of students from many countries, religions and professions. They brought tremendous richness and legitimacy to CJP and when they returned to their home countries, built networks and programs that continue to this day.

A number of curriculum developments occurred during these years, including the clarification of concentrations and the establishment of an annual “curriculum camp” that brought faculty together to work on curriculum issues and strengthen relationships. The Practice Institute was formally established and provided with its own director. Several new endowments supported faculty research and student scholarships. We also worked hard to clarify and streamline decision-making processes within the program. During these years, Janelle Myers-Benner moved from student assistant to staff. She is now the longest-employed CJP staff and it would be difficult to overstate the value of the administrative management she has brought to the program.

During this time, we also led a process to rename the program from the Conflict Transformation Program to the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Restorative justice was playing a growing role in the program, and the scope of peacebuilding was expanding to include such fields as trauma healing and organizational development. The program needed a name that was more inclusive than conflict transformation.

We are gratified to see where CJP is today.  Succeeding directors have brought new gifts to the program. Competent staff and hundreds of “students” (John Paul Lederach used to call them “colleagues masquerading as students”) have contributed more than can be spelled out here.  We are grateful to have played a part in this story.


Ruth left CJP to join Mennonite Central Committee as a regional area representative, giving leadership for programs in India, Nepal and Afghanistan. Following those three years, she joined World Vision as a senior program manager and has had responsibility for both Asian and African development programs.

Howard is mostly retired but still employed “very part-time” with the Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice, a program of CJP that began in 2012 and carries on Howard’s emphasis on connecting practitioners in the field to resources, networks and opportunities.

Discussion on “CJP at 25: Celebrate, Reflect, Dream with directors emeriti Ruth Zimmerman and Howard Zehr

  1. Delighted to read this. I was at CJP as a Fulbright research scholar in 2004-5 and benefited immensely from my interactions with Howard and Ruth. I returned enriched as an individual and I can only thank EMU for such a memorable experience. My heartfelt gratitude to Howard, Ruth and every professor who added to my worldview.

  2. Glad to be one of the students of CJP. It’s an honor to study as well as participating in field visits with Professor Howard. Thanks to Ruth for her leadership of CJP during our time.

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