Restorative justice sparks epiphany
By Diane Luckow, SFU News
Twenty-three years ago, Alana Abramson was a 15-year-old living on the streets and embroiled in drugs, abuse and poverty.
This month, she crosses SFU’s convocation stage to receive her third SFU degree—a PhD in criminology.
Abramson’s story is transformational. After a year on the streets, and run-ins with the criminal justice system, she returned home after both she and her parents received counselling. She finished her high school requirements and enrolled in college, where she became interested in criminology.
But it wasn’t until she transferred to SFU and took a foundational course in restorative justice with the late criminology professor Liz Elliott that she had an epiphany that truly transformed her life, sparking her deep commitment to promoting restorative justice.
“Dr. Elliott brought in a speaker who had committed murder, had spent a long time in prison and had then dedicated his life to helping other long-term offenders re-integrate into society,” says Abramson.
Meeting him, hearing his story, and witnessing his strong commitment to making the community safer suddenly made Abramson realize that one person can make a difference, a revelation she says has since guided her life.
In the midst of her SFU studies she became executive director of a North Vancouver restorative justice agency, and worked part-time at the University teaching restorative justice. She also volunteered—supporting prisoners, promoting suicide awareness in high schools and training restorative justice facilitators.
For her PhD thesis, Abramson wanted to discover whether students who had taken SFU’s foundational restorative justice course had experienced the same transformation that she had, and whether it had affected their behaviour.
She sent a survey to almost 3,000 students who had taken the course in the past 15 years, and received responses from nearly 500.
Many reported the course changed the way they viewed the criminal justice system, moving them from a punitive to a more restorative stance. More interesting, says Abramson, was a profound shift in their thinking. They reported being more compassionate and open-minded, more communicative in their relationships, and more forgiving.
“This course continues to be one they remember, even if it was 10 or more years ago,” she says. “And they’re still trying to find ways to be restorative in their lives.”
Abramson now teaches the topic at Kwantlen College where she is a full-time instructor.
“My plan is to be a role model to my students, to provide them with experiential opportunities and stories, and to help them find what they’re passionate about.”