Julia Steiny: sujatha baliga’s Grueling Journey from Vengeance to Restorative Justice


By Julia Steiny

Hardly anyone discovers Restorative Justice and clicks immediately into its mindset.  Most restorative practitioners have some odd story about how they stumbled, slid, or arrived kicking and screaming to do the work of Restoration.  sujatha baliga’s epic tale of sound and fury is among the most dramatic.  It’s even star-studded.  (She does not capitalize her name.)

Currently, which is to say at the happier end of the story, baliga is the Director of the Restorative Justice Project at the Impact Justice in Oakland, California.  She came to national attention in 2013 when the New York Times published a piece about her work with the two families of two teenagers — murder victim Ann Grosmaire and the killer, her boyfriend.  baliga has since become a familiar public speaker advocating for Restorative Justice.

Her story begins when she was growing up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania where she was “the only minority,” or felt like it.  Horribly, her father abused her sexually over the course of years.  So by the time she was entering adulthood, she’d become a furiously angry young woman.  Her life dream was to become a prosecuting attorney with the power to punish the daylights out of bad guys like her father.  She told her story to at least 500 people at the most recent National Association of Community and Restorative Justice conference.  She’s not private about what happened, probably because it drove her journey to a more tranquil justice.

After graduating from Harvard she became an advocate for victims.  She says, “I was very angry at my father, all men and all “isms” [belief systems].  I left a lot of broken people and things in my wake.  About the time I graduated from college I was fixing other people and not paying much attention to myself.”  She also suffered fierce, debilitating migraines, resenting her doctors for failing to diagnose the cause and suggesting they had a psychological source.

baliga meets with the Dalai Lama

Shrugging as if it makes no sense to her even now, baliga tells us she decided to follow a then-boyfriend to India.  He was setting up a school for the children of HIV-positive sex workers.  These moms, traumatized victims of poverty and the sex trade, got upset as they told baliga about the atrocities they’d endured.  But somehow they hadn’t been broken.  baliga, feeling irreparably damaged by her abuse, asked how this was possible.  The women explained that they practice forgiveness.  “What?!  How did you learn that?”  It seemed out of the question.

baliga then had “a full-on breakdown.”  She didn’t give details.  But the people around her, including the sex workers, suggested she talk to the Dalai Lama.  Huh?  You can’t just go talk to the Dalai Lama.  They recommended that she send him a note.  Getting the attention of a world leader with a note was beyond far-fetched, but baliga did write one.  She explained that she was consumed with anger and asked how she could do her work when she was so impaired.

A week later she went to his monastery to see if the note had arrived.  Well, yes it had, and apparently he’d had a cancellation.  Could she see him then?  They talked for an hour.

“How do you forgive?”

On the one hand, her fury seemed entirely justified.  But she also knew that “trying to remove my father was like cutting out my own DNA.”  It can’t be done.  The Dalai Lama listened patiently.

He offered two suggestions:  First, that while she had a very bright mind, it had run amuck with rage.  Before anything else, she needed to learn how to master her own mind.  The technique for that, as you might guess, was to meditate.

But secondly, he recommended that she align herself with her enemies, walk in their shoes, have empathy.  baliga laughed in his face.  Her plan was to enter law school with the specific goal of “locking up the bastards.”  She lived for vengeance.  She was out for blood.

He patted her knee and said, “Okay, just meditate.”

And she did.  She entered an ashram and for 10 days did nothing but meditate.  The rage began to melt away.  She said softly, “And in time, it was gone.”  It is still her habit to go on meditation retreats a couple times a year and to meditate an hour a day, though she wishes it could be two.

For her, she says, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.  It’s relinquishing anger and retribution and the desire for vengeance.”  Please bear in mind that no restorative practitioner believes forgiveness is easy.  It’s often a long, hard, painful slog.  baliga was one of those who came to RJ kicking and screaming.  But she got there.  “Restorative Justice is about the transformative stories that come about when we hear one another.  Forgiveness comes up with or without [using] the word.”

If you get a chance, go hear her speak.  She’s fascinating.

Julia Steiny
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist writing about kids and schools through the lens of Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. Currently she is Project Manager for a National Institute of Justice grant to study the effectiveness of restorative conferencing programs now being implemented in six Rhode Island Schools. Steiny is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, the design partner in the grant. After serving a term on the Providence School Board, for 16 years she wrote the Providence Journal's weekly education column. Since 1998, she has consulted with The Providence Plan on data analysis and communications, helping to develop Information Works! for the RI Department of Education and the RIDataHUB. For more, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@youthrestorationproject.org. The Youth Restoration Project has a Facebook page with news and resources on the Restoration movement in the US and internationally.
Julia Steiny