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    Profile of Alumnus, Dr. Howard Zehr

    October 16, 2023

    The Grandfather of Restorative Justice 

    Dr. Howard Zehr, oft referred to as “the grandfather of restorative justice,” is a writer, speaker, theorist, and social justice advocate who transformed justice systems globally to advance the dignity of all peoples. Restorative justice was born of his early work as a grassroots advocate for the rights of incarcerated people and victims. It began with his intention to create frameworks for strategies that would repair relationships between those who had committed crimes and those who were victims of crimes. As his work developed, the framework for restorative justice was extended to a myriad of new applications, such as strategies for student behavior support in K-12 schools and processes for reparative systems for indigenous peoples in places like New Zealand. 

    Dr. Zehr’s restorative justice work is organized in the  Zehr Institute for Restorative Justice (ZIRJ), his eponymous program within the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at the Eastern Mennonite University. At the ZIRJ, thousands of people annually participate in training, research, and ongoing development of the concepts derived from Zehr’s original RJ framework. Dr. Zehr was clear, in our virtual conversation in early September, that it was his experience as a Morehouse Man that led to the restorative justice framework.

    Howard Zehr, Photo from EMU

    Howard Zehr, Morehouse Class of 1966

    I discovered Dr. Howard Zehr’s name in a search for prominent alumni who have transformed the education space as part of my research for the Morehouse Center for Excellence in Education. I didn’t know Dr. Zehr’s name, but I am a benefactor of his legacy. As a former K-12 educator who was a trained Restorative Justice Coach, I have spent decades working in and advocating for Restorative Justice in schools. I teach about Restorative Justice in our Morehouse Educational Psychology course. I was thrilled to learn that “the grandfather of restorative justice,” the social justice leader who created the framework for restorative justice as we know it, is also a Morehouse Man. 

    Dr. Zehr graduated in 1966. He was described in some accounts as “the first white man” to have attended Morehouse. He corrected this misconception, explaining that Mays oversaw an “exchange program” wherein white students from select PWIs attended Morehouse for one semester of coursework. He recalled these students were often disconnected from the college’s culture and community. Zehr’s enrollment as a Morehouse student was holistic and authentic, which required him to set his attendance apart from white students here for a semester.

    Zehr began college at another institution and traveled to Atlanta to participate in the Civil Rights movement, where he spent time with a group of Morehouse men. They encouraged him to “come to Morehouse” to get more engaged in the work. As Anabaptist Mennonites, Zehr’s family had relationships with people like Dr. Vincent Harding, one of King’s advisors, who provided additional encouragement for Zehr’s attendance. 

    Zehr attended Morehouse for one year, then made the difficult decision to leave. He alluded to the challenges of that year: School was expensive, the world outside of Morehouse for a white Morehouse Man was not welcoming (he recalled being roughed up by white men at the gas station where he worked in Bankhead for wearing a Morehouse sweatshirt), there were some aspects of attending Morehouse that were personally challenging. However, Dr. Benjamin Mays, President at the time, was a mentor with whom Zehr had a close relationship, and Mays was a fierce advocate of Zehr’s enrollment. Although Dr. Zehr does not recall his mentor explaining the broader implications of his enrollment at Morehouse to him at that time, Mays believed Zehr’s attendance highlighted an important lesson: academic excellence was not just found behind the gates of PWIs, and it mattered for an accomplished white student to choose an HBCU in 1963. Black academic excellence was an unparalleled standard. As a result, Dr. Mays encouraged Zehr to return and secured financial support for Zehr to finish. Zehr graduated second in his class of 1966.

    Memories of Morehouse
    Dr. Zehr’s memories of Morehouse are powerfully fond. He remembers working at a gas station in Bankhead to make money so he could eat at Paschal’s (“they had THE BEST chicken I’ve ever eaten”). He remembers knowing Paschal’s was the place to be and students rushing to be there in the evenings--even going to grab a soda so they could hang around and listen to the throngs who regularly assembled. He remembers Dr. King being on the faculty at Morehouse but elusive. Although he didn’t meet Dr. King on campus, he remembers being starstruck when meeting him in a stairwell at services at Ebeneezer Baptist. Both men were connected by their close relationship to Dr. Mays.

    Zehr recounted that many professors at that time had distinctive approaches to their lecture styles that kept students on their toes—demanding each student be accountable to the reading, ready to answer questions and take detailed notes. He remembers an English professor who would begin loudly lecturing from the stairwell. Students were expected to wait by the door listening for his arrival, and as they heard the professor’s voice booming from the steps, they scrambled to take the notes--the professor would be well into his lecture by the time he reached the room. His presence was formidable and commanded the most accomplished students to work harder. 

    Zehr remembers students dressing up in ridiculous costumes so they could go off campus to eat, convincing local restauranters they were foreign dignitaries. He remembers late nights of reading and studying, wherein students compared notes. Zehr recalls the rigorous work and the competition to have read more, recorded more, and remembered more to have always been stiff. This balance of rigorous academic competitiveness married with social activism on evenings and weekends and a spirit of brotherhood left a profound impact on him, so much so that Dr. Zehr’s first career after completing his Ph.D. was a seven-year professorship at an HBCU in Alabama: Talladega College. 

    When I asked Dr. Zehr about “the second curriculum” or “hidden curriculum” at Morehouse during his attendance, he noted that it was most intentional at that time because of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling a decade prior. Although he didn’t have a name for it at that time (my reference to a “second curriculum” is unfamiliar to him), he could recall it had always been the expectation at Morehouse to teach all content through the lens of a truth unavailable at PWIs. In this era, he recalls an awareness of intentionality and discussion to include content at Morehouse that would have been assumed to have been offered in a K-12 space prior to the integration of schools. As an educator, this recollection was particularly interesting to me: how faculty across departments at Morehouse must have planned to re-educate their students on content from K-12 spaces that they may not have had to re-educate students on ten years prior. Zehr recalls this approach to “re-education” as providing a level of celebration and revelation for students that built camaraderie and pride—one he felt privileged to access.

    A Living Legend
    Dr. Zehr graduated with a BA in History from Morehouse, an MA in History from the University of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in Modern European History from Rutgers University before teaching at Talladega College for seven years. He left academia to engage in grassroots organizing victim-offender reconciliation and notes that his positioning in predominantly Black spaces as a white man, beginning with Morehouse College, allowed him to see how disproportionately crime and policing impacted Black communities. This compelled him to leverage the social justice foundation in which he was steeped and to be of service. His vision for a framework of restorative justice grew from this calling. 

    He can recall the specific research he read from which the phrase was derived; he can recount the exact rationale he used to narrow down on why “restorative justice” worked as the label for this framework and not another phrase. He is quick to note that the birth of restorative justice was collaborative and ongoing, with many participants. In our conversation, he also stated that as language has continued to evolve, this name has not always been the most appropriate for all applications. He is humble, inquisitive, and open that a whole generation of new leaders in this space is continuing to grow and revolutionize this framework in necessary and important ways. He has the quiet, humble, authentic confidence of a senior Morehouse Man who has birthed such important ideas that he does not need to be in the spotlight. He planted the seed and is now letting the work speak for itself. 

    You can learn more about Dr. Zehr’s life in his book Restorative Justice: Insights and Stories from My Journey.

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