October 2021 Alumni News Spotlight: Reenvisioning Society with A Restorative Justice Approach - An Interview with Mika Dashman '93
Connie Ma, Alumni and Community Outreach Officer

Mika Dashman ’93 had been practicing law in New York City for seven years when she read about restorative justice and changed her career path. Now as the Founding Director of Restorative Justice Initiative, Mika devotes her professional life to advocating for the revolutionary idea of restorative justice that reshapes the way that we think about justice, conflict, and harm and prioritizes human relationships at its core. In this interview, Mika reflects on what brought her to her current work and how it has the potential to change the criminal justice system and educational systems in the United States and other areas. 

What was your TAS experience like? When did you arrive in Taipei? 

My story was pretty different from my peers at TAS in some ways. My parents were Peace Corps volunteers in the 1960s, and they met in Nigeria. They both had a love of travel, living overseas, and immersing themselves in different cultures. In the late 1960s, they took a position in Pakistan, and both worked at the Karachi American School. That was a very formative experience in their lives,  something that my mother always said she would like to do again. In high school, I started looking at that idea of living abroad. The plan was to live out of the country my junior year and then come back for my senior year for high school, but we ended up arriving in Taipei in November of my senior year of high school. By the time I showed up at TAS, most of my classmates had one foot out the door and were so excited to move back to the US. On the other hand, I was like, "I’m here in Taiwan and I want to immerse myself in this culture." I had a lot of fun doing drama at TAS. My drama teacher was Mr. Robert Carelli, and I remember traveling to Bangkok for theIASAS Cultural Convention. We performed “Fools,” which was a Neil Simon play set in a fictional Russian village, which we rehearsed in Taipei and then performed in Bangkok! I also took a photography class at TAS. I remember enlisting various classmates to model for me, and we would run around and scout locations around the city to do photo shoots.

Mika Dashman '93

What was your focus in college? How did you come to attend law school and become a lawyer?

I left Taipei in the summer of 1993 and returned to New York to start college. I studied theater and dance at Sarah Lawrence College. I knew I didn’t want to go to a conservatory because I wanted to take academic classes, but I also wanted an excellent theater and dance program. I was so certain Sarah Lawrence was the college for me that I didn’t apply anywhere else. In addition to the performing arts, I also studied political science, history, and other social sciences. I spent my junior year abroad in London in a theater immersive program. It had never occurred to me to be a lawyer until I was in my mid-twenties. When I graduated from college and moved to NYC, I started auditioning as a performer. But I became disillusioned with that life because no one was paying me to perform. I had to do other types of work to support myself while I was trying to get my theater career off the ground, and that work was not glamorous and often it was exploitative. I started looking for a job that felt meaningful and allowed me to do good in the world but also to pay the rent. That led me to think about going to graduate school. I was interested in law and public policy, and someone told me about the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law. It’s the only dedicated public interest law school in the country, and only after I learned about CUNY Law did I think I should apply to law school; not because I wanted to be a lawyer, but because I thought it would set me on a path to find that fulfilling job.

What did you practice law in? How did your legal career lead you to restorative justice? 

I practiced law for seven and a half years. Law is a very varied profession. Some people do transactional work and they never step inside of a courtroom. I spent a lot of time in court because I was a litigator in the civil system. I worked in two different non-profits and then at a small firm. Most of my clients had HIV/AIDS so they lived with chronic illness and many were not able to work. In NYC, most people (including virtually all low-income people) are renters, not homeowners, and the cost of housing is very high. So if you have a disability and can’t work, that’s a recipe for cycling in and out of housing court. I did public benefits advocacy, eviction prevention and housing discrimination litigation for my clients. There’s been a lot of research that shows a direct correlation between health outcomes for people living with chronic illness like HIV/AIDS and homelessness. When I was a litigator, I liked working with people and getting to know my clients, and I found it fulfilling to build relationships with people I might not otherwise have met. When you’re a lawyer, people entrust you with a lot of information about their lives. It was a tremendous privilege to hear and hold those stories and to be able to turn them into effective advocacy. What I didn’t like was the adversarial nature of the justice system. It always felt like I was in a fight with somebody. You even call the other party’s lawyers “opposing counsel.” It was combative language, and in court, there was a lot of posturing and bullying. People were disrespectful of my clients and of me. It didn’t suit my personality and my values to operate within that system where there’s inevitably a winner and a loser. It seemed to me like there had to be a better way of advocating for people, a process through which people could come together and meet in the context of their shared humanity and find common ground. That was the kind of process I wanted to be a part of, not this adversarial system.

Mika at the Citywide Roundtable on Restorative Approaches in the Bronx, January 2020 (Photo by Maurice Pinzon)

What is the definition of restorative justice?

Restorative justice is an umbrella term. It refers to a set of principles and practices that originate in many different Indigenous cultures around the world. The term, “restorative justice” was coined in the 1970s by Mennonites and it describes a set of values that stand out in contrast to our dominant cultural values, the ones that shape our current criminal justice system, which is adversarial and also extremely punitive and retributive. Restorative justice focuses instead on repairing relationships. It generally involves some sort of direct dialogue between someone who was harmed and the person or people who harmed them. Everyone comes together after extensive individual preparation to have a facilitated conversation where they talk about the harm that occurred, the impact of it, and what they can do collectively to make things as right as possible. It’s about repair and addressing harm by putting relationships first. Usually, if people have heard of it at all, it is in the criminal justice system or as an alternative to punitive consequences in schools, but it has many, many other potential applications. I spend a lot of time advocating for a broader, more holistic view of restorative justice.

How did you learn about restorative justice?

In 2013, I read an article about restorative justice in the New York Times. It was such an epiphany for me: I knew right away that this was the thing I had been looking for, the process that I wanted to be a part of. I realized it exists, it has a name, and it’s used in the criminal justice system… which blew my mind. I started looking into who was doing this work in NYC and how I could get involved. As I began to meet people, I started to understand that the work was quite siloed: people were doing it either in the criminal justice system or in schools, and the work didn’t overlap. I was really moved by restorative justice, and thought it had the potential to transform our legal system and our city. But first, more people need to know about it, and the people who are already doing this work have to know each other and work more collaboratively. Restorative Justice Initiative, which I founded in 2015, serves as this connective tissue; we’re a network of practitioners and advocates, but we’re also an information clearinghouse for all kinds of people who want to learn more about restorative justice processes and facilitation. We bring the community together and connect funders to programs that need resources; we connect schools and organizations to trainers. We connect organizations and community groups to facilitators when they want to bring someone in to address conflict or harm in their organization.

What are the big applications of restorative justice in the United States and in particular where you work in New York City? 

In the US, more and more people are recognizing the school to prison pipeline as a concept. Research shows that students who are subjected to exclusionary discipline like expulsion and suspensions are many times more likely to wind up involved in the criminal legal system than students who are not. Unsurprisingly, given the systemic racism in the US, the students who are much more likely subjected to exclusionary discipline are Black students, Latinx students, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities. So there’s been a lot of advocacy and activism around ending the school to prison pipeline and addressing racial disparities in disciplinary practices in schools. The restorative justice approach has caught on in a lot of schools that are under pressure to rethink their disciplinary policies.

When I first got started, there were a handful of restorative justice pilot programs in New York City public schools. Here in NYC, we have the largest public school system in the country; it’s a vast and highly politicized bureaucracy but by the end of 2019, we had won a significant victory because the NYC Department of Education announced a commitment to implementing restorative justice programming citywide throughout all middle and high schools. And then the pandemic came, and everything shut down. It’s not clear how the district-wide implementation plan will play out now that schools have reopened. My organization is a member of a coalition called Dignity in Schools New York. It’s an intergenerational coalition to end the school to prison pipeline and rethink exclusionary discipline. We’ve been involved in a big push for police-free schools, because it is inherently contradictory to say that you support restorative justice in your school but in order to get to their classrooms every morning, students have to pass through metal detectors and be frisked by security guards. This is not the case in wealthier neighborhoods where the students are predominantly white, but it’s a common experience for Black and brown students in low-income areas in NYC. Police in schools exist on a spectrum of racist practices which criminalizes people of color from a very young age. We don’t believe police officers can play a constructive role in schools and that there are more effective ways to ensure safety.  

What are some examples of what you’re doing at Restorative Justice Initiative?

In 2018 we started this participatory action research (PAR) project called On Our Terms. PAR is like a restorative justice approach to research in that the people directly impacted by the research are the researchers. We had NYC public school students, parents, and teachers who we trained to work as researchers interview their peers, distribute surveys, and conduct focus groups. They asked questions about safety, accountability, and restorative justice in schools. We are raising funds to compile a website with this data and advocacy tools which can be used to inform future campaigns around this issue in schools.

New York City recently made a commitment by to allocate several million dollars a year to community restorative justice programming. The Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice hired us to  convene an advisory council of restorative justice practitioners and thought leaders for three months this spring to define community restorative justice and make a series of recommendations for how that funding should be allocated over time. Our work was very well received, and they have asked us to continue convening community stakeholders to put together a detailed longer-term strategic plan for this funding.

Mika (right) with RJI Board members at the Citywide Roundtable on Restorative Approaches in the Bronx, January 2020 (Photo by Maurice Pinzon)

What are some other contexts where restorative justice can be used?

Any organization that experiences conflict or harm can use restorative justice. One clear trend I’ve noticed (particularly after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and widespread protests against police brutality in the US) is the reckoning around institutional racism within organizations, universities, and corporations. There has been a tremendous uptick in the requests we have received for referrals to people who can facilitate restorative justice processes to address specific incidents of harm in organizations. We’ve had requests from international NGOs, private schools, universities, community-based organizations, and mutual aid groups.

We’re also developing a pilot program to address sexual harassment in the workplace. Post the Me Too movement, many people were starting to tell their stories publicly about sexual harassment, and what struck me about the response was that it was immediately very punitive, which didn’t necessarily lead to meaningful individual or institutional accountability.

This is an important point about restorative justice conceptually; accountability is not synonymous with punishment, yet we use the terms interchangeably in the US. When people talk about holding someone accountable for wrongdoing, they’re usually talking about punishment if not criminalization. The thing is that punishment is so rarely a deterrent. What you often see is it has the opposite of the intended effect. Because the harder you come down on someone in an effort to teach them that what they did was wrong, the more they feel victimized by the system that is coming down on them, and the less time they’re reckoning with the harm that they caused. In the Me Too movement, these high-profile powerful men started filing defamation lawsuits. They lawyered up and started writing op-eds about how they were being victimized and not getting due process. So suddenly the whole conversation gets diverted, and we’re not actually talking about the pervasive problem of sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace. We need a different process and response. Punishment is passive. You don’t have to change, you just have to endure the punishment. Accountability is a proactive multi-step process. You have to acknowledge what you’ve done, take responsibility for your role in it, and take proactive steps to change your behavior, and change the underlying assumptions that led to the behavior.

What is an example of how people really have to take accountability for their actions through restorative justice?

I think often about the Grosmaires who were featured in the New  York Times article where I first learned about restorative justice. They are the parents of a young woman who was murdered by her boyfriend in Florida, and they decided they didn’t want what the criminal justice system had to offer. They reached out to the young man who killed their daughter and said (I’m paraphrasing her), “You committed a terrible wrong, but spending the rest of your life in jail is not going to bring our daughter back.” They brought in a facilitator for a restorative plea conference, and it resulted in the young man serving less prison time than would normally be recommended for the crime. But as a condition of his sentence, he has to meet with local groups to talk about teen dating violence and to tell his story with the parents of the woman he killed. It’s a part of how he’s giving back to the community and making something positive out of a terrible wrong. With incredible grace and generosity, her parents told him, because our daughter would have done a lot of good in the world, and you took her life and future, you now have the responsibility to do the good work of two people for the rest of your life. And they gave him an opportunity to start right away.

Restorative justice asks questions like: What was the harm? Who was impacted? How can we come together to make things as right as possible? In restorative justice, the process and resolution is always going to start with the needs of the survivors or the people who were harmed. In contrast, the criminal justice system is focused on the law that was broken, not the needs of the people who were harmed. This approach represents a different paradigm of justice and comes out of a different cultural context, where there’s a high value placed on the common good as opposed to simply individual rights.

What resources can you share with people who want to learn more about restorative justice?

My organization’s website contains a lot of great resources for those who want to learn more about restorative justice. I recommend starting off with this short, animated video about why restorative justice is needed in the US criminal justice system and this TED talk on the neuroscience behind restorative justice. There are also examples of how restorative justice is being used in homicide  cases, in schools in Oakland, CA, in sexual assault cases, in the New Zealand juvenile justice system, and even in wrongful convictions. My organization mostly works in New York City, but there are people practicing restorative justice all over the world.