Speaker: Karen Lischinsky

From Organizing to Helping Heal Communities

As the saying goes, “Hurt people hurt people. Healed people heal people.”

Dr. Karen Lischinsky has been at the forefront of efforts to work with the incarcerated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts through restorative justice practices.  As the decades-long volunteer coordinator of the Restorative Justice Group at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute (MCI) in Norfolk, and more recently as founder of the Transformational Prison Project (TPP), Dr. Lischinsky brings incarcerated persons face-to-face with victims, saying that she “tries to make things not right -- but at least more right.” 

Known as the US’s first “community-based” prison, Massachusetts Correctional Institution (MCI) in Norfolk is one of the few prisons in the United States that allows for a multitude of restorative justice programming for the incarcerated. Under the guidance of Dr. Lischinsky, restorative justice practices at MCI Norfolk were seeded when a small group of men serving life sentences started to explore the concept of restorative justice as a means of easing the tension that was beginning to mount among them in 2010. The “long-termers,” or “lifers,” desired to become better role models and work more closely with younger prisoners who would eventually be getting out. They began reading about international peacemaking tribunals like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They began applying the models to their own lives.

Dr. Lischinsky now serves as the volunteer coordinator of this restorative justice initiative which is anchored in a commitment to mend harm, rehabilitate, and rise above trauma. A process with roots in Native American and other indigenous cultures, the power of restorative justice is that it centers on the voices of those who have been harmed due to crime, while supporting those who are willing to face responsibility for the harm they have caused.

As part of this project with MCI Norfolk, Karen and her colleague supported a group of incarcerated persons who wanted to put together a two-day Restorative Justice & Responsibility retreat to guide fellow incarcerated men and women through a process of rehabilitation that restores a sense of community responsibility, and nurtures a space for introspection such that a commitment to change can take place. This gathering, which has been running since 2012, typically brings together over a hundred incarcerated persons, together with various victims, judges, prosecutors, and mediators. Karen plays a role in mediating these dialogues which provide opportunities for rehabilitation for offenders, and healing for all parties harmed by acts of violence – whether or not the victim families present were directly connected to the particular prisoners’ acts of violence. In these circles where honest and vulnerable conversations take place, families of victims – seated together with incarcerated men and women – can find greater healing in an unlikely place. The circles also provide safe spaces for honest dialogue, building understanding and open-heartedness for all individuals who have been involved with violent crimes.

Raised in Massachusetts, Dr. Lischinsky is currently an Associate Professor in the Sociology and Criminal Justice Department at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. She teaches a variety of courses ranging from the intersectionality of race, class, gender to the Sociology of Sports. She also teaches a class at Norfolk Prison through the Boston University Prison Program and conducts trauma workshops for members in the law enforcement community.

As an educator, she has sought to help students make meaning about the social issues around them, providing perspectives and encouraging discourse on issues like the death penalty, sexual assault, and restorative justice. A believer in experiential learning, Karen has taken learning out of the classroom as part of a criminal justice inquiry class. Started in 2010, together with a colleague, she led a "sleep-out” -- an on-campus overnight learning experience -- to bring attention to the issue of homelessness and to guide reflection on the issues of homelessness and poverty experientially. “I want (the students) to really think,” said Karen of the experience, “We’re going to have conversations throughout the night. What does it feel like to be cold? There are 8,000 homeless people just in Boston. It’s not a class for them.”

Karen’s desire to help others lead dignified, honorable lives also sees her being a part of the Ahimsa Collective – a network of people committed to address violence, heal trauma, and restore justice.

Prior to becoming a sociology professor, Karen was a community organizer lobbying for affordable housing, better working conditions, disability rights movement. She has also served as a union organizer where she worked successfully on organizing hotel and restaurant workers to establish better working conditions in all of Boston's union hotels.  Raised in Massachusetts, Karen received her Ph.D in Sociology from Northeastern University, her Master's degree in Social Work from Boston University, and her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Suffolk University.  Karen has also served in the United States Army Reserve.

Join Dr. Lischinsky in conversation as she shares more about her journey!

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