Restorative justice as a framework for art
May 9th, 2009 by Howard Zehr
I was honored and inspired recently to be part of a “Visual Restoration” opening at the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia. This was a culmination of a two-year restorative justice arts program. Two large outside murals resulted and a new book about the project, entitled Visual Representation, was released at this opening. I was fortunate to have been part of this project.
The Mural Arts program is a unique effort that uses the creation of murals as a way to revitalize and re-engage communities. Artists work with community members to identify issues of concern to them, then to decide how they should be represented in a mural. The artists design the mural and its placement in consultation with the community, then lay it out in a way that community members can participate in painting it. Hundreds of murals dot the city and many new murals are created each year.
One recent project called the “Healing Walls” involved prisoners, victims and victim advocates in painting several murals. A new documentary film, Concrete, Steel & Paint, about this project will be available soon.
This specific project, entitled the Albert M. Greenfield Restorative Justice Project, attempted to provide restoration through art for a group of young people who were in day detention. It was designed as a kind of reparative action for the community from which they came and also as a way of connecting them more holistically with the various cultural groups in their community. Adult prisoners, youth in the juvenile justice system and community members were engaged in various ways in the project. Below is one of the resulting murals. (Restoration – Copyright 2009 Mural Arts Program)
I’ve enjoyed being part of several Mural Arts projects with a restorative focus. What I hadn’t fully realized until talking with Jane Golden, the dynamo who keeps this operation running, and reading the book, was the extent to which restorative justice has come to provide the overall framework for their socially-engaged approach to art. In Jane’s words, restorative justice provides a “continuity to the work that the Mural Arts Program does.” (See, for example, the restorative justice page on their site.) She goes on to say this:
“By introducing the notion of beauty as a catalyst, these neighborhoods could shift their sense of identity and consciousness towards their potential, towards the future. Ultimately what we want is a more peaceful neighborhood, a more peaceful society.”
Restorative justice is about building, maintaining and mending relationships. It is based on values such as respect, responsibility and relationships. It aims at engaging people, repairing harm, meeting needs, creating connections, giving voice, empowering people and communities. All of these are consistent with the methods and goals of socially-engaged art.
This brings me to the way I ended Doing Life: Reflections of Men and Women Serving Life Sentences:
“We have been conditioned to believe that art is the supreme expression of our individual selves, that in our creativity we display our utter uniqueness. I am coming to believe that our art may be more powerful and serve us better if it were to draw us together, to bring us to greater mutual understanding.”
“I am committed to doing photography that speaks to the power of connectedness, that calls us into relationship – relationship with other people, with the environment, with our Creator.”