Lynette Parker: Listening to stories
May 21, 2009
“You don’t know what it means to have a member of the community listen to my story before making his decision.” One young man summed up his experience in a restorative conference with a community representative. Convicted of armed robbery, he had already served two years in prison and returned to his family when the conference took place. His statement reminded me of how powerful a restorative process can be.
As a facilitator, I rarely show emotion in a conference. Yet, on
this afternoon as the young man sat across from a member of our
community describing his experience both of the crime he committed and
his prison experience I couldn’t stop the tears. Zack had his
entire future ahead of him with plans to go to college when he made a
series of bad decisions that drew him into his friends’ plans to rob a
gas station. Those decisions were what brought him to the court-ordered
During the meeting, Zack* described the evening of the robbery and each step that placed him in to the situation. He talked about the large number of family members who attended his sentencing and the hurt he had caused them. In the two years he served in prison, Zack lost a grandparent. He described making the decision not to attend the funeral so he would not make the event more traumatizing to family by being escorted by corrections officers and wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles. He also missed the wedding of a sibling and several years with a baby sister who had become a teenager in his absence.
In describing his crime, Zack talked about the harm caused to the victims. He stated that he couldn’t imagine how the store owners felt when the young men came in with a gun with the two young grandchildren of the store owner present. At the same time, he expressed remorse that the store owners had considered selling their business because they didn’t want to deal with being robbed again. Throughout the description, Zack owned responsibility for the decision he made.
After listening to Zack, a community representative – Bill – described meeting with the victims in the case and listening to their story of anger, and how the store owner came very close to shooting the young men who robbed his store. Bill went on to explain the anger and distrust that develops in a community at the news of such a crime. He explained his own feeling of anger and distrust when someone entered his barn and took his chainsaws. For him, it was more than someone just taking the property. It was a violation of his space and his life. He felt like he had to start locking things up on his own property.
When Bill asked Zack what he was doing to get his life back under control and walk a different path, he listened to the young man describe his work, plans to go to college and long-term goals. Then, Bill responded, “I think I could trust you if you were to come ask me for a job.” The conference ended with Zack agreeing to write an apology letter to his victims. As he was leaving, he made the statement I referenced above about a community member listening to his story. He said that he was feeling good that day and had hope for his future because this one person took time to respectfully listen to him and share from his heart.
When I later shared this experience and my emotion with a colleague, he asked me why it impacted me so powerfully. At first I didn’t have an answer as I was still processing the emotion. Yet, as I reflect on the conference I think it was the powerful cry to genuinely be heard. I had heard the same cry from a victim earlier. Although she had been adamant that she could only meet for half an hour, the young woman talked for nearly an hour describing the impact of having someone break into her home and take various items.
No matter what situation we find ourselves in – victim or offender – we each have a story to tell. We also have a deep need to be heard and understood. Restorative processes provide an opportunity for telling and listening to stories. When well done, this listening to stories can bring such a response as given by Zack.
*Names have been changed to preserve confidentiality.