Sheryl Wilson believes in the power of restorative justice.
Sheryl Wilson (B.S. ’03, M.L.S. ’07) is now in her sixth year as executive director of the Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (KIPCOR), a restorative justice center located in North Newton, Kansas.
Rather than seeing crime or wrongdoing only as lawbreaking, restorative justice views it as a violation of people and relationships, needing both accountability and repair. “Restorative justice is not a panacea,” Wilson says. “It’s not a cure for everything. But we have processes that can help repair harm. At its core, [restorative justice is] about community-building.”
Wilson’s path started when she earned her undergraduate degree in mediation and communication studies via the U of M’s late Program for Individualized Learning. She later built her master’s degree around restorative justice through the College of Continuing and Professional Studies.
At KIPCOR, which is affiliated with Bethel College in North Newton, Wilson helps facilitate mediation and conflict resolution for organizations, congregations, and government entities; provides training to groups and individuals; and organizes lectures, film series, and other events for students and the public. She’s also active in a philanthropic organization, Life Comes From It, which is a grant-making and movement-building circle working to strengthen and broaden the restorative justice movement throughout North America.
Restorative justice practices can reduce recidivism and are linked to higher victim satisfaction rates, according to research by the Justice Research and Statistics Association and by the U of M’s Professor Emeritus Mark Umbreit, a pioneer in the field who teaches in the School of Social Work and the Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing.
“‘Restore’ does not mean put something back the way it was before the harm occurred, because maybe it was flawed in the first place,” Wilson explains. “It’s about, let’s [go forward] in a better way.”
Wilson credits Umbreit—her friend, mentor, and former teacher—with helping launch her career. After “gigging” in consulting and substitute teaching in Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina, she began questioning whether she could make a living doing what she loves. Short-term, grant-funded roles were exhausting, and unsustainable for a family with kids in—and heading to—college. “I thought, ‘this isn’t working. This field doesn’t love me back,’” she says.
But in 2013, Umbreit tapped Wilson to serve as treasurer of the fledgling National Association of Restorative and Community Justice, a group he helped found. In 2017, as Umbreit’s presidency of the association was ending, he urged Wilson to run for the leadership post. “I think he asked me three times,” Wilson recalls. “And finally, he’s like, ‘I am nominating you.’” The NARCJ, and the relationships she built through it, proved invaluable.
Navigating ‘worst of people’s pain’
Among Wilson’s most challenging vocational experiences is working as a victim outreach coordinator in capital cases, which she began doing in Georgia and still does as a consultant. The role gives her firsthand exposure to the prevalence of substance abuse and mental illness in those who commit violent crime. “It’s that cocktail of drugs [or alcohol], mental illness, and a weapon,” she says. “It’s a recipe for something horrible to happen.”
Wilson believes the criminal justice system—how long it takes to play out; the constant revisiting of horror and grief; the lack of sustained, meaningful support—often retraumatizes survivors. “You’re doing a small part to humanize a very horrific process. Families are never prepared,” Wilson says. She says she tries to focus on “’What is my task in this moment?’” For instance, “The family might say, ‘[the deceased] is being referred to as this name. Well, we prefer that you call him this name.’ [It’s] giving someone whose voice hasn’t been honored as much agency as you can in a situation that typically overlooks them.”
Racial disparities in criminal justice have always been front of mind for Wilson; her master’s thesis, From Jim Crow Toward Justice, traced the roots of restorative justice from the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. She sees the field as key in the struggle for racial equity. But that doesn’t make restorative justice antiracist in and of itself, she says. “Practicing restorative justice, on its own, does not make us antiracist. But if we’re going to live in restorative communities, we have to be antiracist. And anti-oppression.”
In a chapter she wrote for a book called Colorizing Restorative Justice: Voicing Our Realities, Wilson says the work will continue to grow as it becomes less eurocentric. “For restorative justice as a practice and as a social movement to continue to evolve, the lens that we use to define it must become intersectional,” Wilson writes. That way, “[P]roblem-solving draws on a wider pool of knowledge, experience, creativity, and networks.”
Wilson is grateful to her U of M teachers and mentors for supporting her career journey even after graduation. When she was working on her master’s, restorative justice conversations were often held in a circle around a stone sculpture of people with linked arms, symbolizing the importance of community. Fast-forward a decade to her first week as executive director at KIPCOR.
“One day my office manager said, ‘I’ve got this box for you.’ When I opened it, I just wept.” Mark Umbreit’s assistant Vicki Griffin—to whom the statue belonged—had sent it to her to celebrate Wilson’s new role. “She said, ‘I was waiting until you got the job. Not a job, but the job.’”
Bob Milliman (B.A. ‘82) is Wilson’s boss and the vice president of academic affairs and dean of faculty at Bethel College. (Coincidentally, he earned his undergraduate at the U of M. The day of Wilson’s final interview, the two discovered they’d lived blocks apart in North Minneapolis.) Milliman says Wilson has helped make Bethel “the first campus center in Kansas for the Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Initiative of the American Association of Colleges and Universities. That has helped us get on the road to bringing about racial reconciliation,” he says. “I just think the world of her. She has done a fabulous job.”
Susan Maas is a freelance writer and the copyeditor for Minnesota Alumni.