Commencement Speech Living Your Passion, Loving Our Work

By Mika Dashman


Thank you for inviting me to your graduation ceremony. It means a lot to me to be here. I’ve actually been waiting 24 years for this opportunity. I missed my own PDS graduation because I was out of the country at the time. But that’s a story for another time.
 
I think what I’m supposed to do on this occasion is to give you some advice. Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of practice giving unsolicited advice. So here goes:
 
Relationships should always be your top priority.
 
In 2012 I made a terrible mistake. I left my job working in the legal department of a large non-profit organization and I went to work at a small “boutique” law firm. When I left my job at the non-profit my coworkers presented me with a bouquet of flowers and a sappy but sweet card. Former clients dropped by to wish me well. People made it abundantly clear that they really appreciated me and would miss me.
 
On my first day at the firm I arrived at the agreed-upon time to find the office completely deserted. No one was there to greet me, no one had left a note with instructions, and neither my computer nor my phone had been set up. So I busied myself cleaning the schmutz off my keyboard and monitor (which the outgoing attorney had not bothered to do) and I waited. I will spare you the details of the rest of that fateful day, but the primary thing you need to know is that it was all downhill from there. It was the exact opposite of the warm, collegial environment I’d left behind.
 
The thing is, I had taken the job knowing full well that I didn’t particularly like or respect the person who hired me. But I thought that didn’t matter. I thought I could ignore or circumvent this small interpersonal inconvenience in the interest of furthering my career.  I’d do it for a couple of years, learn some skills, pad my resume and move on to greener pastures. That’s what I told myself. 
 
On the same date exactly one year later, my boss summoned me to his office and fired me. I had never been fired from a professional job before and although it didn’t exactly come as a surprise, it stung my pride and bruised my ego pretty badly. But I also immediately recognized it as an opportunity. By that time, I had an inkling of what I might like to do instead, but no idea how I could actually do it as a job. My liberation from the law firm seemed like an invitation from the universe to explore this subject that had recently captured my interest.
 
That subject was restorative justice. Restorative justice is a set of principles and practices that trace their roots to many indigenous cultures. Here in the U.S., restorative justice represents a new paradigm for justice; one that promotes meaningful accountability, healing and growth while preserving agency and dignity for all people impacted by crime or conflict.
 
It was a concept I had never heard of before reading a 2013 article in the New York Times—not in 3 years of law school, two mediation courses, or seven years of legal practice. But when I read that article, it made perfect sense to me and I realized restorative justice was what I had been looking for all along.
 
Restorative justice falls under the broader umbrella of “relational justice.” It recognizes that crime is fundamentally a breach of human relationships and that even when we’re in conflict or we cause one another harm, what we truly desire is to be in right relationship with one another. When I walked out of the firm for the last time I made a promise to myself:  never again will I make a decision based on the notion that there’s some goal that’s more important than my relationships with those around me. Of course, I never would have landed at the firm in the first place if I’d paid attention to my instinct, which brings me to my next piece of advice:
 
Follow your heart.
 
I went to law school because I wanted to engage in social justice work, not because I had any particular interest in becoming a lawyer. When I graduated, I still wasn’t sold on practicing law, but I passed the bar and I landed a job in legal services. I spent the next seven years litigating, but I was never fully at ease within the adversarial justice system—a system that often forbids direct contact between disputing parties and discourages people from taking responsibility for their actions and the resulting harm. It was clear to me that there were always important emotional needs—the need to be heard and acknowledged, the need for dignity and respect—that were rarely met throughout the life of a lawsuit. I was seeking a better way to address harm between people, and when I learned about restorative justice I knew I had found it.
 
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not sorry I went to law school. I don’t have regrets because even bad decisions are learning opportunities. But I have noticed that the handful of times in my life I really wish I’d made a different choice, it’s been because I based a decision on some notion of what I should do, rather than what I actually wanted. On the other hand, when I have followed my heart it’s always landed me in a better place. The deep inner work that’s required to know your own heart and the courage to respect its wisdom brings me to my next piece of advice:
 
You must be willing to change yourself if you want to change the world.
 
When I first encountered restorative justice, I was shocked that I hadn’t come across it earlier. And when I began asking around I learned that it did exist in New York City, but only in a handful of relatively small programs and individual schools. And many of the restorative justice practitioners I met in the city at that time, didn’t seem to be familiar with each other’s work. The more I thought about what would be needed to move restorative justice from the margins to the mainstream in New York City, the more I felt that a combination of advocacy, community-organizing and strategic planning was called for. It seemed to me that restorative justice needed an advocate, and that its practitioners and supporters needed a networking hub. I was also pretty sure that this was the job for me. There was only one problem…I hated networking.
 
At that time in my career I avoided networking events, alumni receptions and cocktail parties, like the plague. I wouldn’t exactly have called myself shy, but I couldn’t bear the awkwardness of trying to make small talk with strangers. At the same time I recognized that if I wanted to have an impact, I was going to have to build community and social capital. If I wanted to raise the profile of restorative justice in New York City, I was going to have to talk about it a lot, to a lot of different people. And that meant I would need to face down my fears and go bravely forth into room after room full of strangers…cocktail glass in hand!
 
In 2015 I formed Restorative Justice Initiative, a citywide, multi-sector advocacy and organizing project seeking to bring the principles and practices of restorative justice to New York City’s neighborhoods, courts and schools. In my capacity as Founding Director of Restorative Justice Initiative, people sometimes reach out to me seeking a “restorative justice expert.” But I don’t believe in experts. I’m just someone who’s taken a lot of time to learn about a particular subject that interests me. And I’ve made it my business, literally, to know what’s happening with restorative justice in New York City. And this brings me to my final piece of advice:
 
Be humble and listen. 
 
My experience with formal education has been that the more of it I get, the more aware I become of how little I actually know and understand. We all know things and we all have a lot to learn—and that remains true throughout our lives. Needless to say, you and I are part of a privileged minority to have had access to an education like this. And I imagine many of you will spend the next 4-6 years or more in elite institutions of higher learning. But as you wrack up diplomas and academic accolades, you must never assume that you’re the smartest person in the room. Learning is one thing and wisdom is another, and they don’t always go hand-in-hand.
 
One of the teachings of the peacemaking circle—an indigenous restorative justice practice—is that the wisdom of the whole is always greater than that of any of its individual parts. When you create spaces that allow people to be their authentic selves, and for all voices to be heard, enormous good will and creativity can emerge. I believe that listening deeply to the stories of others—especially those with different lived experiences—can be transformative (both for the listener and the speaker). If you can listen to people who’s views are different than your own with open-hearted curiosity—rather than trying to argue, persuade or convince them that they’re wrong—you will be much more likely to change hearts and minds. If you’re lucky, you won’t always be surrounded by likeminded people so you’ll have plenty of opportunities.
 
I think the world would be a lot better off if people prioritized their connection with others; followed their hearts; recognized the symbiotic relationship between internal and external change; listened more and talked less. With that said, I will offer you my congratulations, wish you luck, and stop talking.