Michael J. Gilbert, Ph.D., is dedicated to changing society by bringing together professionals in the fields of restorative and community justice who seek to repair harm and relationships and restore the safety of communities.
He has been executive director of the National Association of Community and Restorative Justice (NACRJ) since its founding in 2013 and a professor of criminal justice for nearly 50 years. Now associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Dr. Gilbert has collaborated for more than 10 years to help build NACRJ, a national nonprofit membership association for those working to cultivate a more humane and effective alternative to the dominant, punitive paradigm in criminal justice and related fields. He will present on the NACRJ’s vision, “Toward a Safe, Just, and Equitable Society,” at the 21st IIRP World Conference in October.
Initially, Dr. Gilbert was dubious about restorative practices. That all changed on September 11, 2001, when he happened to be attending a federal government training session on restorative practices in upstate New York.
“There we were, talking about restorative practices, and we’re faced with one of the most massive, large-scale victimizations in U.S. history,” says Dr. Gilbert. Three people in the session had lost family in New York City and left. But everyone who had flown in from around the country was trapped. “We debated what to do,” continues Dr. Gilbert. “We decided to continue the class and keep learning. It was profoundly life changing.”
Dr. Gilbert says that during the session he finally began to connect the dots between how relational or restorative justice, which addresses harms between people, could connect with the ideas of community justice, which aim to establish safe and livable communities. “Both are about relationships. Both require dialogue, respect and dignity. Both are focused on problem-solving,” he explains.
“What we’re trying to do at NACRJ is set up a big tent for people who have been marginalized and isolated in these fields,” explains Dr. Gilbert. The organization envisions itself as similar to the American Bar Association or National Sheriffs’ Association, serving professionals across sectors working to advance community and restorative justice. “Most of the people who work in these fields don’t know each other, but there are tens of thousands of us working around the country,” he adds.
Last year NACRJ held its fifth bi-annual National Conference on Community and Restorative Justice, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. More than 500 people attended from the fields of criminal justice, academia, counseling, social work, education and more. Keynote speakers included Dr. Cornell West, professor at Union Theological Seminary, professor emeritus at Princeton University and a prominent intellectual and activist.
IIRP Director of Continuing Education Keith Hickman attended the 2015 conference and presented on the IIRP’s SaferSanerSchools Whole School Change program. “I was very impressed with the spirit, tone and tenor of the conference,” he says. “There was a willingness and openness to collaborate that was very special.”
In addition to membership support activities, such as the conference and maintenance of a website with public and member-only resources, NACRJ is also an advocacy organization that lobbies for legislation.
Since its founding in 2013, the organization has issued policy statements:
- to revise U.S. sentencing guidelines to include restorative justice and other victim-centered alternatives to sentencing.
- to allow facilitated meetings between victims and offenders at state correctional facilities.
- to support the use of restorative principles and processes in schools (in development).
Dr. Gilbert emphasizes that NACRJ’s organizational structure is restorative in nature. “Everything we’d like to do as an organization goes through an advisory council before being presented to the board of directors. We usually reach a consensus before putting anything to a vote,” he explains.
Each NACRJ national conference is headed up by a local organization that sets up a team and develops its own format, in consultation with the national organization. The 2017 conference will be hosted by Restorative Justice Oakland Youth (RJOY), in Oakland, California.
While critical of our current systems of justice and power, Dr. Gilbert is upbeat and optimistic. “The future for me is one that is very bright,” he concludes. “Over the next 30, 40, 50 years, traditional concepts of justice will fade and relational forms of justice — restorative and community justice — will come forward. They will be the dominant options of first resort. Traditional forms that we rely on today will be the last option.”
Dr. Gilbert will offer a 50-minute Share session titled “Toward a Safe, Just, and Equitable Society: The NACRJ Vision” at Restoring Community: 21st IIRP World Conference.