Roman Haferd went to a good law school and he works for the Washington, D.C. prosecutor’s office. Yet his work on behalf of justice is not as a lawyer. Rather than writing briefs or taking cases to trial, Roman heads a team of facilitators who seek “restorative justice.” Their work builds connections between perpetrators and victims, facilitating dialogues that aim to find justice in the heart, not in the courtroom. At its core, restorative justice attempts to break the cycle of crime and punishment.

How can we work effectively across our world’s cultural divides? USIP and Burning Man Project travel to that frontier, hearing stories and practical lessons for working in unfamiliar cultures. The Culturally Attuned podcast complements USIP’s online, self-paced course on Cultural Synergy. Both help us cultivate the skills we need to do good work in a diverse world.


Dominic Kiraly

This is Culturally Attuned. Brought to you by the United States Institute of Peace, in partnership with Burning Man Project.

Roman Haferd

In his world, you know, perhaps it's one of the brass tacks, he can understand getting locked up for what he did, or this woman wanting her money back. He could not really believe, after all the hardships he'd been through that Lisa actually cared about what he thought and felt.

Dominic Kiraly

How many of us, if we were victims of a violent crime, would be willing to work with the perpetrator to make restitution? How many of us would invest the time to connect with the person who hurt us, and make efforts to reconcile and heal? It would take a lot of fortitude by both parties.

I’m Dominic Kiraly, and today we’ll hear about the courageous work of our guest, Roman Haferd, who facilitates these types of reconciliation processes.

Roman recounts a powerful story of personal transformation between Lisa, a victim of a crime, and Deon, the perpetrator. As they worked together toward restorative justice, each confronted not just the other person, but all the cultural, ethnic and economic differences that had shaped their lives. To heal, they both had to struggle to understand and communicate with each other across those differences.

Roman Haferd

My name is Roman Haferd. And I am the restorative justice coordinator at the Office of the Attorney General in Washington, DC. And that's the prosecutor's office in Washington, DC. My role is, I help lead a team of facilitators who actually work hand in hand with prosecutors to give victims of crime, the option of doing what's called restorative justice, instead of traditional prosecution, when they've become the victim of a crime. And so what that looks like is, when someone's been victimized by a crime, our office will meet with them, or me or my team will meet with them. And we'll ask them what they need, how they're feeling, what's going on for them. And then we will give them the option if it's appropriate of working toward an in-person meeting with the person who harmed them and their families. So families and supporters and the people directly involved, so that in that conversation, the direct empathizing, the direct question and answer, and a mutual agreement for how to resolve this harm can be reached. And so me and my team of facilitators call that process restorative justice.

Dominic Kiraly

In seeking restorative justice, an important factor is the personal sense of identity of both victims and perpetrators. And culture is a critical factor in shaping our identities. Cultural divides are prominent even in the same country–or the same city. In its way, restorative justice helps bridge these cross-cultural divides.

Roman Haferd

I may have stories that involve people from different countries and stuff like that, but I, I liked it in my work in DC doing restorative justice work between young people who are accused of crimes and those who've been victimized by those harms, it's very local, but the divide between cultures is no less great, I think.

And one example of that we'll call this young man Deon. He had stolen, violently stolen a iPhone from a woman who happened who was white woman, in her maybe 40s. And Deon is, say fifteen at the time, in fact, I think it was younger than I think it was 14 at the time. So he steals the cell phone, kind of roughs her up, and the case comes to our office for restorative justice.

Now, mind you, Deon is a 14 year old, black boy living in poverty in southeast DC, or near poverty, let's put it that way. I remember he had housing insecurity. He had educational insecurity in that he's not regularly attending school. He's transferring different schools based on housing and security and things like that. And his relationship to an adult who has sort of stability and responsibility over him is tenuous, okay.

Now, Lisa on the other hand, is a white woman, her 40s, not originally from DC, like many adults in Washington, DC professional, she's a transplant here, originally from Kansas, I believe it was, you know, and is working in the federal government, or a nonprofit as an executive. So her level of she does not have, you know, educational insecurity, she's part of what makes us one of the most educated and privileged zip code in the on the planet. But right across the river, still inside DC, where Deon lives is a completely different picture.

And so she is agreeing to do restorative justice instead of regular prosecution. So she's feeling good about herself and thinks herself to be progressive and open to resolving this in a non-traditional, sort of heart-based way. And so that's where I come in.

So I'm facilitating between the two between Lisa and Deon to try to resolve this. And Lisa ended up wanting two things. She wanted Deon to work off the amount of money and pay her back for the phone that he stole, which is very reasonable and common, and from a mainstream Midwestern background, that's that's exactly what he should do. And he should be happy to do it.

And the other thing that she wanted was a letter from Deon, explaining why he did what he did and what he's learned from this process. That actually came a little later. But for the sake of the story, she wanted those two things.

And the story goes that we bring these two people together after prepping them for this conversation, and this is over a couple months where I am the intermediary, trying to translate where Lisa's coming from, to Deon and where Deon's coming from to Lisa. And we get to the conference and Deon actually agrees to do what he can to pay back the phone. And he actually gets an internship or had some sort of internship, which is a monumental thing over the summer for a kid his age. And he ends up giving his first paycheck to Lisa for this phone, which is only about a third of what the phone costs. As a restorative justice facilitator I am incredibly proud of Deon for doing this. This is a monumental thing to show accountability and follow through and give all the money he's earned legitimately to this person who he harmed doing something which happens on the daily amongst his peers.

After that first payment, his life took a drastic turn for the worst which we see a lot with high risk youth in a place like Washington DC. His parents assumed to their addictions. He was separated from his parents. He was put into a group home. These are all highly traumatic things for Deon.

And so Lisa is wondering, where's my next check? And I'm trying to explain to Lisa, “Okay, Dan is no longer with his parents. He is extremely traumatized by this. And also by his own adolescence in a violence-ridden city. He's many of his friends are carrying guns. He's under pressure to carry guns around. He's under pressure to commit more robberies. As far as I know, he's not doing that, which is great. But this thing that he agreed to you, even though it might seem extremely important to you, and he does care about it on some level, his psyche is overwhelmed by these other pressures in his life. And so part of my job sometimes is working with victims to help humanize and be realistic about the people who they're seeking accountability from.

A year later, I’m still working with the two of them, and this is the end of the story. We come to a year later and Lisa ends up appreciating, through communicating with Deon through me, that some of the things that are going on in his life, and she does not no longer expects him to repay the full amount of the phone, she's like, that's not really what's important to me. But this letter is still really important. So I say okay, well, I'm going to talk to Deon about that letter. So I go to Deon and now he's living in a shelter home. He's been separated from his parents. This is during COVID. So he's there with one other kid, he's not able to leave. So his days look like playing video games all day, or trying to do school at a shelter home. And he's a completely different kid from when I first met him. But he's still got, you know, he's still got that I see the light in his eyes. But he's been through a lot, he's kind of gained some weight, he doesn't really look me in the eye as much.

And I explained to him, you know, you remember that woman who we've been keeping in touch with, from the restorative justice conference? Yeah, remember, it's like, she, you know, she really wants to complete this, you know, this whole thing. And he's like, why don't you know, she knows, I can't pay, you know. And I'm like, I know that. And she's actually okay with that. But she still really wants to hear from you. You remember that letter that she talked about. And, and this happens a lot.

For Lisa, and this is the cultural competence competency lesson here, that became my job to facilitate. For Lisa, the idea of writing an apology letter is very reasonable, very normal. I mean, we do that all the time as educated adults, or even as kids in school. But for a kid, like Deon, who is does not have necessarily mentors in his life or taking accountability, say, his parents, for the things that have happened to him. The idea of apology is also a very triggering thing. Because who has apologized to him? Number one, number two, writing and expressing yourself through writing in a long form, is probably something he's very self-conscious about. Remember, he's got educational instability, he is not necessarily comfortable with that exercise. And above all, he honestly could not understand why this was important to her. And there's a lot of reasons for that. But one of the reasons is that in his world, you know, perhaps it's one of the brass tacks, he can understand getting locked up for what he did, or this woman wanting her money back. He could not really believe, after all the hardships he'd been through that Lisa actually cared about what he thought and felt.

Again, as privileged, loved, cared for people in society, many of us, hopefully all of us who are listening to this have parents who love us, brothers and sisters who love us. And we experienced that love. We are acculturated to believing that, what we feel, what we think, our expressions matter. But with a lot of young people I work with, who get criminalized in the criminal justice system, don't experience that. In fact, that's one of the main factors leading to their criminalization.

So in this interaction, this crucial dynamic, he couldn't understand that generally, let alone from this educated, wealthy white woman carrying around an iPhone 12, who makes hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, who's completely culturally different from him. And so this was a beautiful opportunity. And I said, I sat down with him. I said, actually, it does matter to her and here's why. Because what you did to her forms a relationship, whether you like it or not, and that's why she's continued to stay in touch with you over the year. And believe it or not, she's asking me every couple of weeks how you're doing, because it matters to her.

And he's listening to this and all this. And he says, Well, well, let me just talk to her. I said, “Okay.” And so I called her up. And I said, Do you want to talk to Deon? And she said, “Okay”, so they're talking. And she's asking him questions about how things are going, and it goes, okay for a couple of minutes. But then she, I think she actually must have asked him about about the letter. And he might have tried to divert or might have shut down. And she asked him to give the phone back to me. And she said this isn't going so well. I said, why not? She said, because he doesn't, he's not really responding to this thing. And this is kind of a simple thing. So then Lisa is getting frustrated again.

And so I said, Okay, that's okay. You've done the important thing here. He's heard from you. So we hang up the phone. And I said, I asked him, I said, Do you see what I mean? Like, it does actually matter to her. And he's still thinking about it. He's thinking about it.

Mind you, I had brought to this meeting three different journals, blank journals for him to choose to write in, to write his letter to her. So I bring out these journals. And I let him choose one, and he chooses one. And he reluctantly starts to write. And he writes a couple of paragraphs. It's about a half an hour, he gives them to me, I give him some feedback, some critique. And now he's getting into it. So now he's writing some more, he gives me back the letter, he's written a few more things, he's scratching some things out, he's rewriting. And I'm telling him, you know what, this is going to be a great thing for you to save. You know, you, you're going to want to keep this for your exit interview at your shelter house, for your reunification interview with your parents, for the next time you're applying to high school. You're going to want to keep this letter because this is a writing sample. Now he's like, really, what's that? Like, it's a writing sample, it shows, it's a part of your body of work. It's like your brand.

And now his eyes are lighting up. He's like, let me see that other journal. He's finishing this letter to her. I'll tell you, it's rarely that I sit with a kid sitting next to a kid without him being on their phone. Without him looking up. Watching him writing that letter was one of the most memorable experiences I've had as a restorative justice facilitator.

So he finishes the letter. And I deliver it to Lisa. And she sends back photos of her new baby, for me to give to Deon. And, and show him and you know that her life has also moved on. She's changing. But I don't think she would have been comfortable doing that if he hadn't been able to do this thing, which seems so simple to her. But I also give Lisa a lot of credit in this story, because Lisa, initially, of course, was extremely frustrated by the fact that the simple request, I mean, for God's sakes, you violently stole my cell phone, you committed a felony, and you can't even write me a letter. By the end of this story. She really understood that, gosh, this kid is going through so much. This kid's been traumatized. He's not the same kid that I met, necessarily. And she recognized how big of a big of an effort it took for him to trust in what she was asking for.

Dominic Kiraly

Restorative justice in this case is not an isolated event, but rather a process of transformation rooted in connection. And for Lisa and Deon this took time, requiring a tremendous amount of patience with each other and trust in Roman’s facilitated process.

We asked Roman how he discovered restorative justice as an alternative method of resolving violations and conflict, a process so different from the traditional criminal justice system.

Roman Haferd

I went to a very well resourced law school. I was part of the criminal defense clinic as a third year, which meant I learned very deeply how to be a trial lawyer within the criminal justice system. And I never once heard the term restorative justice. So when I had become a little bit disillusioned with our adversarial justice system, and I was looking for ways to innovate and allow people to communicate with each other through conflict in a way that wasn't so adversarial. The people in my life directed me toward this thing called restorative justice, which at the time, was still somewhat, more nascent in this country. It certainly wasn't being done in many formal government offices, but I learned about restorative justice, I said, this is great. This is what I've been looking for. This is what allows us to resolve conflict in a non-adversarial, but in a unit of way. We're creating new formats, new platforms for mediating conflict, formerly in society. And informally, because it starts with informal, you know, goes back to indigenous and early, earlier tribal humans the way they resolve conflicts when they couldn't afford to throw people in jail. So we're no jails. They couldn't afford to punish their way out of harm and conflict, they had to recognize that we're all part of the community. And so the harm against one is the harm against the community. And it's up to the community to resolve it.

Martin Luther King Jr. would say that justice is love in action, right? And what we're drawing from when we practice restorative justice, is redrawing from a lens of how to view people in community and how to view conflict. The word justice, if you look at the word justice, there's ways we can be critical of it, but because it's a word that is kind of a creature of the sort of Western liberal, devoid of emotions, practice of mediating conflict. So the justice system is supposed to be emotionless. We're supposed to objectively, you know, adjudicate rights and responsibilities between, you know, reasonable actors in society.

Restorative justice is all about the heart. It's all about empathy. It's all about utilizing our emotional intelligence and, and most importantly, acknowledging emotions, both of people who are harmed and people who have done the harm. Because it's for all sorts of reasons, mainly because we're human beings, but also because it's those things that connect us in community. It is those things that help us perhaps transcend culture.

Our currency as restorative justice facilitators is emotions, is emotional empathy, is care, is “What hurt? Why did this matter? Were you angry? Were you fearful?” Because no matter where you're coming from, whether you're an executive at a nonprofit, or whether you're a young kid struggling through adolescence in DC, those emotions, we all understand, and we can all relate to. You might not necessarily be able to relate to the Fourth Amendment rights and responsibilities in the adversarial system, but you can relate to those feelings that you had when you were doing whatever you were doing.

And actually, the research shows whether you're talking about cognitive behavioral therapy, which we also use in our program, the more that young people are able to reflect on that, and given the space to process those emotions of “Why were you doing what you were doing?” the more likely they are to be able to control that behavior themselves in the future, which from a research perspective, we would call recidivism, you know, reducing recidivism.

Dominic Kiraly

Deon and Lisa shared the same nationality but their cultures are quite different and their life experiences were “foreign” to each other. Roman shares his thoughtful reflections on what creates cultural difference.

Roman Haferd

In my work, what creates cultural difference, which I think we've seen in these stories is, I think, how one has been treated, vis-a-vis their own emotional worth and experience is a big one. People come into a situation like having been harmed or being arrested, and how they might react as they go through that process, and the sort of cultural norms that they embody, that they borrow that they have, express, a lot of that has to do with a lot of it has to do with how have you been treated? What have you learned about how society, how your parents, the police have treated you in terms of how much your experience, your emotional experience, your ideas, your feelings matter, your well being, how much does your well being matter? How much does your safety matter? The answer to those questions for each one of us determines a lot of our cultural norms in, for example, crisis situations or dangerous situations or situations of violence in an urban setting, for example.

If you've been taught that your experience, your safety matters a lot, having a cell phone stolen from you is a huge deal. If you've been taught, and that the world must stop to rectify this harm, or at least someone's life has to stop, in particular, specifically, the prosecutors and the person who harmed me. But if you've been conditioned to believe that violence is all around me, it's happening to me all the time, without accountability and the best way for me to survive is by threatening violence in my own ways, micro or macro, then you might not react the same way to committing violence on someone else, or to being confronted with having committed violence on somewhere else, or it might take some work to bridge that cultural difference. And notice, the thing about this is that we have moral judgments about those two sort of expressions. But each one comes from something that has nothing to do with us. It has everything to do with, how you have been conditioned how you've been treated, what you've learned about how much your experience matters. So that's how I would answer that question.

Dominic Kiraly

Roman shares his thoughts on how restorative justice relates to peacebuilding.

Roman Haferd

I think if I had to put my finger on like, what really is it that we're doing? I would say we are re-learning with communities how to communicate with people with whom we have conflict. How to communicate better, communicate at all, with someone, a traditional adversary. That to me is what I would think is the relationship or one commonality between restorative justice work and practice and mindset. And what I take is will be kind of a peacebuilding mindset, is developing norms around communicating at all, and communicating in ways that are constructive with folks who would be a traditional adversary. Like someone who's harmed me, or like someone from a different tribe.

Dominic Kiraly

Roman’s work with Deon and Lisa demonstrates the power of courageous people committed to healing, reconciliation and peace. Too often, people can’t find a way to connect, assuming that those they face across a divide are completely different. Restorative justice can help bring down the walls between us and create conditions in which perpetrator and victim can communicate and find the means to understand each other. Moreover, Roman demonstrated that cross-cultural encounters don’t happen just in foreign countries, but rather with people all around us, in our own community, in different parts of our city, who may live nearby but have very different life experiences than us. With patience, humility, and empathy we can bridge divides and build stronger relationships and communities.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Culturally Attuned, produced by the United States Institute of Peace, and in collaboration with our partner, Burning Man Project. I’m Dominic Kiraly. Be sure to tune for more episodes and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Culturally Attuned Credits

Produced, engineered and narrated: Dominic Kiraly
Co-Creators: Christopher Breedlove, Kim Cook

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