Michelle Harris is a graduate student at Portland State University (PSU) studying Conflict Resolution and Restorative Justice. She is also a Peer Connection Network Navigator for the Transfer & Returning Student Resource Center (TRSRC) and a Leadership Fellow for the Student Sustainability Center at PSU. She serves on the PJSA Board of Directors as Mini-Grant Program Co-Coordinator.
JS: Could you tell us a little bit about your background and what set you on your current path?
MH: I’ve come back into higher education after raising my daughter. We’re actually both in master’s programs at the same school—per her prodding, not mine! I came to Portland to finish my undergrad after I’d been out of school for about twenty years. I now have two terms left in my master’s in conflict resolution at Portland State University before pursuing an Ed.D. My ultimate goal is to write and teach curriculum to teachers-in-training around restorative practices in classrooms. I’ve worked with our College of Education to guest lecture on this topic, including in some of my daughter’s courses.
JS: What drew you to studying conflict resolution and restorative justice in the first place?
MH: My undergraduate degree is in psychology, and I honestly thought that I’d go into counseling or something like that. During the last year of my undergraduate studies, though, I began feeling disconnected from that process and the way that most therapies work. I just didn’t feel like the one-on-one was enough for what I wanted to do in life. I had an amazing professor who teaches conflict resolution. More than that, she works in the field of restorative justice. She helps build bridges that allow for healing and restoration between people who’ve been convicted of something and families on the other side of an issue. Even if someone’s prison sentence doesn’t change, the ability to heal from it changes. She was a huge inspiration for me.
I was having a very difficult time. My stepfather was really ill in the hospital, and I was trying to apply for grad school. I just really felt lost. I sat down with her one day and had tea, and we talked for about three hours. She introduced me to the fact that we even had a conflict resolution program on campus. The thing that drew me to this program is that everyone I’ve found here is not just teaching it; they are also out in the field doing work. They’re working at the UN. They’re working at NATO. They’re doing peace talks. They’re working in all of these fields.
JS: What’s something that everyone should know about restorative justice work?
MH: When doing work in restorative justice and restorative practices, I think it’s important to remember that this is based on indigenous culture. I’m working with a huge network of wonderful people who have taught me so much about that history. Being in Oregon, we’re really close to a lot of communities that have been practicing restoration for thousands of years. So this isn’t something new; it’s already been done. It’s just that our modern society is coming around to where, hopefully, we can alter our systems to be better.
A second thing everyone should know is that restorative practices start at home. My partner has four kids—so I actually have five kids total. One is an adult, but the others range in age from eleven to seventeen. I find myself forever preaching restorative practices to them. This is something for all of us doing peacework to remember: to pass things on to the next generation. We’re laying foundations for those who are going to do this work in the future.
JS: Why did you decide to specialize in peace education and restorative practices in the classroom?
MH: Education has been key for myself, for my daughter, for really changing how our lives work. Coming to Portland and going back to school has altered everything about my life. I think it’s important that everyone has the ability to access that. Over the years, as I’ve dived into the research and worked in the community, I’ve seen the barriers. I feel like there’s a better way, and it starts in the community and goes up through our school systems. It’s important to break those systems that are set up to prevent students from reaching higher education, or education in general. That’s what drew me to it.
JS: What drew you to join PJSA, and then to join the Board of Directors as Mini-Grant Program Co-Coordinator?
MH: I do a lot of things in the peace and justice space. What drew me to PJSA, in particular, was one of my professors, Harry Anastasiou. The work that he’s done in his lifetime and his emphasis on the necessity of peace work was really inspiring. We were talking one day, and he said, “You should really check out this organization.” That’s how I found out about PJSA. So I became a member and followed along with everything that was going on. I felt like I needed to consume all of it.
Right before the annual conference, an email went out looking for new board members. I emailed Harry and asked him if he thought I should do this. After all, I was still a student. Was PJSA looking for people who already had their master’s degrees? He told me that given how active I already was in the field, I should just apply. So I did. It’s been really great, so far. Everybody has been so kind and helpful, and I love my co-coordinator, Doles Jadotte. I feel like I’m always learning. No matter what I’ve done or what experiences I’ve had, there’s nothing I love more than learning stuff from other people who are doing things.
JS: What are your plans for the future of the Mini-Grant Program?
MH: This is only the third year of the mini-grants, so I’m excited to be involved so early on. We’re looking to coordinate the program more tightly with the PJSA conference in the future. Conference Co-Chair Nicole Johnson had done such an amazing job. She sat down and went through everything that happened: reviewing all of the old applications, reviewing how things have been processed. It’s been so helpful. I feel like I’m going in with a huge team. We did a little fundraiser at the end of last year and managed to add fifty percent more to the fund, so that was great. There’s a little bit more money this year to be given out.