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In September, 2019 sujatha baliga won the MacArthur “Genius Award” for her work in Restorative Justice. The MacArthur fellowship is awarded to individuals who have shown “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”
It’s an honor that sujatha, a survivor of sexual abuse, could not have imagined as a child growing up in rural Pennsylvania.
Today sujatha dedicates her time to implementing restorative justice alternatives, across communities, working with crime survivors and those who have harmed others.
Her mission – what she describes as her “heart’s interest” – is to heal conflict and harm without the courts and without reliance on the criminal legal system. sujatha’s unique take on alternative restorative justice has its roots in indigenous cultures. It’s a system that works better she says, “because there are no sides and it increases the dignity and humanity of everyone involved in conflict.”
Developing her perspective on conflict resolution took a long while, given sujatha’s own struggles with her history as a victim of sexual abuse.
She talks about the anger she felt towards her father, her abuser, the shame she hid, and her fear of telling anyone the truth through high school and college.
“We were the only Indian family around. I couldn’t tell white people, because I didn’t want to be separated from my family and my father to go to jail.”
Eventually, sujatha confessed her terrible secret to her older sister who immediately believed her. It saved her, says sujatha. Speaking out publicly made her effectively ‘unmarriageable’ in the Indian marriage market; in her experience, Indian men and their families did not want to deal with a sullied woman. “I felt like damaged goods,” she remembers.
Predictably, the Indian community treated the disclosure harshly, as it tends to when taboo subjects like sexual abuse are raised.
“It is imperative that we reduce the amount of gossip and competitiveness and using other people’s sorrows and horrors in a way of feeling better than others, is really something that we need to let go as a community. I have definitely been on the receiving end of people.”
She says poignantly, “I didn’t need layers of shame to help me end up being the the person who got a MacArthur. It impeded my brilliance.”
After college she became a victim advocate while applying to law school and spent time working in shelters in Mumbai, but the experience triggered her own unresolved issues with sexual abuse. Then, during a backpacking trip around India, a chance audience with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala changed her trajectory in life and set her on a path towards forgiving her father and starting to heal.
The search for healing and forgiveness in her own life eventually led to sujatha’s trailblazing work in Restorative Justice today.
How Restorative Justice works
“Restorative justice puts the needs of the victim at the center of the process,” says sujatha, now an attorney and Director of the Restorative Justice Project at Impact /Justice, a national research center in Oakland advancing new ideas and solutions for justice reform.
“Instead of asking what law was broken, who broke it and how should they be punished – we ask who is harmed, what do they need and whose obligation is it to meet those needs? It invites us to a paradigm shift about these three questions.”
sujatha spent years in therapy, grappling with complex questions in her own struggle for answers. Anger towards her father had motivated her to want to study law, become a prosecutor and lock other criminals in cages.
“But,” she says, “I knew in my gut that wasn’t the solution, because it was not the solution I had sought when I was a child. I did not want my father in a cage. Why then would I go down a road that I did not believe was the solution for myself? It was patronizing to decide for other people something I would have never decided for myself.”
Before embracing restorative justice, sujatha worked as a Public Defender for many years, but she contends that “In all my years in court, I never saw anything as healing or as productive as restorative justice processes.”
Why restorative justice works, says sujatha, is because it gives new voices to victims, to offenders, and to community representatives, and as a facilitator, she counts on the wisdom of family and community to solve the harm themselves.
“Our process starts with who has been harmed, but then it is about family and community wrapping around the person who has caused the harm in order for them to be directly accountable to their crime survivor’s self-identified needs.”
“I am not interested in rights; I am not interested in diagnosis. We aren’t fixing anyone,” explains sujatha.
The restorative justice facilitator creates the container of the process for people to come to their own solutions, through face-to-face dialog and consensus-based participatory decision making.
What Forgiveness Means
Despite her own journey to find forgiveness, sujatha is emphatic that restorative justice neither requires forgiveness for participation nor has it as an expected outcome.
“I have worked on cases where people just want answers to questions and would like their stuff back or to know what their child’s last words were.”
But forgiveness has played a big role in sujatha’s own life. She recognizes that her father was a complex man – he had an incredible sense of humor but was depressed and “deeply dissatisfied with his life – why we left India, he missed his family, we were super isolated.”
She reflects that “…when I think about my father, I am because he was – both the things that have been challenging about me and the positive things.”
sujatha suspects her father himself was probably abused. “The vast majority of people I have met who have caused sexual harm, have also experienced sexual harm or some other horrific abuse in their past. That is not an excuse, but its data, it is information that can help us figure out how to end this global pandemic of sexual abuse.”
Her mother, says sujatha, was “enraged” when she learned about the abuse. “She has a different forgiveness journey. Forgiving someone for something they did to their child is a much more difficult thing.”
But sujatha is relieved her secret came out in the open. “…a big part of what allows child sexual abuse to continue is the nature of the secrecy and shame and silence. If we can’t talk about what is happening, it can’t be seen, it can’t be known, it can’t be stopped.”
She implores communities to create safe spaces where we can tell each other what is really happening in our lives. People must support organizations that help victims of intimate partner violence and sexual violence – “donate your time and money and educate yourself.”
sujatha is grateful that she is building a career based on Ubuntu; a Nguni Bantu term often translated as “I am because we are” or “ A person is a person through other people”. It’s a concept about the interconnectedness of the universe that is basic to Vedic and Buddhist philosophies and exemplified in the story of Indra’s Net.
“We fall prey to individualism in the US, but South Asian culture has always prioritized the interdependent way of humanity.”
At its heart, restorative justice uses this concept to bring the community together.
sujatha baliga does not capitalize her name, both for aesthetics as well for the notion of equality or interdependence of all life. “We as humans consider ourselves to have dominion over animals or think we are the most important species on the planet. If we understand all things as equal, we would be more likely to not mistreat the environment.”
Changemakers: Individuals making a difference in all walks of life
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.
The article was edited by contributing editor Meera Kymal.