Ever since she returned from a semester in Madrid as a junior, Isabella Banks ’15 has had a hankering to go abroad again. When she came across the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, funded by the Watson Foundation, Banks decided to apply. The fellowship awards $30,000 for a year of self-directed international travel to seniors at 40 partner colleges, including Wesleyan. Over spring break, after a nearly year-long application process comprised of an initial proposal, two rounds of interviews, a five-page personal statement, and a five-page proposal, Banks learned that she had won.
Banks, a College of Social Studies major who is writing her senior thesis about criminal law, will travel to Australia, New Zealand, England, and South Africa to observe and participate in restorative justice movements. Restorative justice, she explained, is a community-based alternative to traditional criminal justice that is focused on victims and perpetrators.
“Restorative justice practices, such as victim-offender mediation, community and family group conferencing, circle sentencing, programs for juvenile offenders, indigenous justice forums, and community policing, emerged to give victims and their surrounding communities greater agency than traditional criminal procedure provides to resolve conflict and address its consequences,” Banks wrote in her proposal to the foundation. “In addition to observing and participating in these practices, I will interview the individuals involved—the mediators, police officers, victims, offenders, and family and community members—to better understand what drew them to a restorative rather than criminal resolution and whether or not they feel that it serves justice.”
The initial step—deciding which countries she would visit—was a challenging one.
“The fellowship has all these restrictions on where you can go, and one of them is that you can’t go to a place that you’ve been for an extended period of time—for instance, I wouldn’t be able to go back to Spain,” Banks said. “Basically, the first part of the process is trying to make contacts in countries you’re interested in going to in order to establish some sort of connection. I was sort of cold-emailing random people that I found online, trying to explain what the fellowship is, and that I may be there in a year and a half.”
As of now, Banks will spend three months in each of the four countries, traveling first to Australia and then to New Zealand before flying to England and finishing out the year in South Africa.
“Nothing is set in stone yet, because a lot of the organizations I want to work with are NGOs that are dependent on funding, so everything is a little bit up in the air,” Banks said.
Very few countries employ restorative justice in a meaningful, institutionalized way; Banks hopes to develop a sense of which of these restorative justice programs have been successful and why.
“It’s kind of a strange alternative to traditional criminal justice,” she said. “For example, New Zealand is one of the only countries that’s incorporated it into legislation, so for juveniles, it’s required in certain cases that they be diverted to more restorative programs rather than be incarcerated. England also has a pretty strong community program for juveniles. And Australia has a program called Sycamore Tree, which is more focused on offenders of serious crimes, who are in jail. It’s more controversial, because some people think that those people shouldn’t be able to meet with victims, or be forgiven at all.”
All restorative justice programs, Banks explained, are voluntary and depend on the victims’ willingness to participate. In the Sycamore Tree program in Australia, for example, victims—or people who have been affected by crime in a serious way—meet not with their perpetrators but with offenders of similar crimes.
“It’s not so personal, because a lot of people would feel hatred towards the person who actually was responsible for drastically changing their life,” Banks said. “The idea is that by meeting offenders who have committed similar crimes, and sharing their pain and experience, it can be good emotional release for the victims and be educational for the offenders. It personalizes the offense, and makes the offender feel more accountable, or at least more aware, of what their effect has been, and hopefully reduces the chance of their committing a crime in the future.”
One of the programs about which Banks is most excited to learn is the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which the country famously implemented after the abolition of apartheid. Banks initially learned of the Commission in high school and has been fascinated by it ever since.
“It’s restorative justice on a national level,” Banks said. “The crime [of apartheid] was so widespread that there was nothing else they could do. It was too massive to be resolved in a traditional way. Partially because of that, there are a lot of NGOs that do restorative justice work in South Africa.”
The Watson Fellowship awards enormous freedom to its fellows. Once she receives her stipend, Banks is allowed to modify her plan to her heart’s content. If she decides to stay longer in one country or add another country all together, she is able to do that, as long as she works out the arrangements.
“I’m playing it by ear,” Banks said.
Part of the challenge of Banks’ project will be financial. Most fellows travel to remote countries, where living is cheap. Banks, though, will stretch the same budget over her stay in four countries in which the cost of living is dramatically higher than many others around the world.
“The only reason I’m not [traveling to more remote countries] is that the countries I’m going to happen to have restorative justice programs,” Banks said. “All those countries are former British colonies, and part of the reason restorative justice began was as a response to the adversarial criminal justice, which is where there are two attorneys basically disputing about what happened.”
The summer after her sophomore year, Banks interned at a public defender’s office in San Francisco. Since then, her mild interest in alternative options to incarceration, especially for juveniles, has become a fascination. She hopes to attend law school but says she’s open to changing her mind.
“One of the restrictions of the Watson is that they don’t want what you do for your project to be pre-professional at all,” she said. “They don’t want it to be something that you use to advance your career. And I don’t think it is, because restorative justice is pretty unrelated to traditional criminal law.”
Indeed, the fellowship is meant to be focused on personal development rather than a documentable achievement; the foundation says that it invests in people, not projects.
“They don’t require you to complete much of anything,” she said. “You have to submit quarterly reports that are a few pages long, just to update them, but there is no final product besides your experience and what you do with it.”
To Banks’ understanding, the foundation believes that awarding fellows broader cultural awareness will result in long-term benefits for the fellows’ communities.
“They’re trying to invest in future leaders who have an awareness of other cultures that most people wouldn’t have the opportunity to have the exposure to,” she said. “They’re looking for personal transformations that have an effect on other people later. My topic is even a little more traditional than the others. People are doing the wildest things. There’s someone doing something about cheese-making.”
Fellows are prohibited for the entire year from returning to the United States; however, besides missing her family, Banks says she’s excited about the prospect of independence. She is anxious, though, about the lack of requirements along the way.
“I’m used to completing tasks in a formal school setting, to always having something to do, a clear thing to complete or achieve,” Banks said. “To not have any requirements will be really weird for me at first, but that’s part of the reason I wanted to do it. It’s a personal challenge to define my own success in the project.”