Sonya Shah has decades of experience as a facilitator of restorative justice practices in her family and community, as well as in schools and prison settings. She has been teaching social justice education for 20 years and grounds all of her work in critical pedagogy and a systemic analysis. She is actively immersed in seeding restorative justice and trauma healing modalities locally and nationally, and ending the charity-based model of working in “marginalized” communities. Her experiences as a survivor of child sexual abuse are critical to her analysis and approach to this work.
As a group facilitator, Sonya creates learning environments that reflect values of equity; nurture the unique perspective of each participant; build collective and community-based knowledge and agency; and challenge oppressive assumptions and structures. She has trained hundreds of people in group facilitation, and helped communities design their own restorative processes particularly around healing severe trauma and serious violence.
Sonya is currently facilitating circles for survivors of sexual harm and people who have committed sexual harm in an inaugural cohort of grantees and fellows with Just Beginnings Collaborative
. As part of this initiative, in 2015, she founded Project Ahimsa
, which offers non-punitive approaches to addressing and healing harm through workshops, trainings, circles and writing. Projects are grounded in and through the lenses of restorative justice, trauma healing, transformative justice and critical pedagogy.
Project Ahimsa will access, record and publish the foundational wisdom of people directly involved in and affected by child sexual abuse. To access this learning, the project will conduct a series of talking circles in California prisons with people who have committed sexual abuse. This work is grounded in the belief that people who have committed harm can surface critical insights into what gave rise to their harmful actions. They can articulate the circumstances under which they perpetrated, the triggers that would cause them to do it again, and the factors that would have helped them stop. They also have insight into the specific familial, cultural, historical and economic factors and inequities that created the context for them to cause harm. Finally, if they themselves are survivors of child sexual abuse, they can speak to what impact that experience had on them. Survivors of child sexual abuse also have essential answers for ending the crisis. Project Ahimsa will learn how people were victimized by talking to survivors about their victimization and, without blaming them, explore the causes and conditions that produced their susceptibility to sexual abuse.
“What survivors know about their abuser’s motivations and causative factors will vary greatly. But only they can describe the details of what happened, and the lasting impact of child sexual abuse on their lives. They can tell us how particular structural inequities made them more vulnerable to the harm, and the systemic failures that did not stop it.”
Prior to founding Project Ahimsa, Sonya was the Replication, Training and Curriculum Director at Insight Prison Project
and responsible for oversight of the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG) program in prisons statewide and nationally. She is a founding member and chair of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice
, an initiative of Californians for Safety and Justice. Sonya has served on the advisory board for Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth
and the board of trustees for the California Institute of Integral Studies
(CIIS), where she is an Associate Professor.
In describing her work, Sonya says: “Gandhiji had a saying—that we should be creating policy for the last girl in the last village and then we’ll have equity. I feel like that’s the nexus of where I work/live— in the U.S.A the last girl is sometimes the man sitting in solitary, sometimes the small child being abused by her mother who has locked herself in the bathroom, and sometimes that family dangerously crossing the U.S./Mexico border with nothing in their pockets. I have been teaching in education and healing for 20 years and believe it to be a practice of personal liberation and collective transformation. Whether it is in my university, community, family, or a prison, I feel my role is merely to create the conditions for people to experience their own agency, to feel that they are the authorities of their life experience and get to decide the trajectory of their future. I don’t think I have the right to talk about anyone else’s suffering, what I can talk about is my experience of witnessing suffering and transcendence in the most extreme places and what it teaches us about the human condition, in particular why we harm each other. And, I can talk about is what it teaches me about myself.”
Sonya earned a BA from Brown University and an MA in Film & Video from the Art Institute of Chicago. She was awarded the prestigious Fulbright fellowship and Jacob Javitz fellowship. She has appeared on various radio programs including NPR, KPFA, KQED and KALW, and has a blog on Huffington Post
Five Questions with Sonya Shah
What Makes You Come Alive?
I know men who have spent 20 years in solitary confinement who've suffered unspeakable abuses, their lights are so bright it is impossible not to see them.I know wo/men who have everything and suffer from debilitating depression.I often wonder what causes one person to feel darkness and another to thrive?If I knew the answer, I'd be enlightened.Until then, I am aware that every choice I make either puts me on a cycle of awakening or on a harmful spiral. I know about ping ponging between both spirals:I have lived the downward trajectory. I do not think it's my place to figure out why someone chooses light or feels darkness, but to support people with love, compassion and non-judgment in every choice they make on their path to freedom.Sitting in circles in prison in extreme suffering, I am present to the moments when people wrestle deeply with their spirals and choose the light.It's a transcending experience to bear witness to the whole processthe ugly, the painful and the joyful.
Pivotal turning point in your life?
My daughter was born ten years ago. Her birth changed my life. Before she was born I was a bit of a nihilist. I had trouble believing that anything mattered. Spirituality was buried within me but not accessible due to early childhood experiences. Sexual abuse by the hands of a caretaker led me into deep fear. As a small child it was impossible for me to differentiate between my true nature and the terror that engulfed me. Unable to understand my strong emotions, I physically and spiritually locked myself in the bathroom throughout childhood and adolescence.Sanam was born on April 24, 2006. The first time I saw her I realized that she mattered, and if she mattered then everything mattered: the gurney, the sheets beneath my skin, the tiles on the floor, all of it. In a split second I went from de-constructing everything into nothingness to seeing the interrelated nature of reality. In her birth, the bathroom doors unlocked and I found access to the spiritual world inside of me.
An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
When I was 23 I had an unfortunate situation that landed me in a hospital for 10 days. I was in India and had a studio at the art college at M.S. University of Baroda. When she heard the news, Priya, a fellow studio-mate, brought me to the hospital every morning and home every night and stayed with me at the hospital. For ten days she nurtured my body and spirit back to health, for another two weeks I lived at her house: she covered me when I was cold and made me sit up to eat because I needed to get stronger. Priya's extreme generosity for a woman she had only met nine months prior was something I'll never forget.
One Thing On Your Bucket List?
Spending longer periods of time in India :)
One-line Message for the World?
What kind of world could we co-create if we lead with love, compassion and non-judgment?