Seeking Restorative Justice in Leuven

As a recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to Belgium, Dr. Mara Schiff spent the 2023-2024 academic year focused on restorative justice teaching and research, using qualitative approaches to consider the relationships between restorative justice education, peaceable schools, and restorative cities. Her research explored whether restorative education strategies might support more relationally-based approaches to municipal decision making and conflict through the development of restorative cities. The goal was to explore if such educational and municipal decision-making processes might result in more effective citizen engagement, and offer a blueprint for more collaborative and less violent communities worldwide. Dr. Schiff is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University.

Q: Could you describe your grant project for us?

The intent of my Fulbright Project was to combine teaching and research on advanced topics in restorative justice (RJ). My goal was to use qualitative research strategies to explore how integrated justice and education systems might collaboratively produce more stable, less violent, and more inclusive communities. Through observation, interviews, focus groups and document review, my research proposed to explore how European, and specifically Belgian, strategies that embraced peaceable and restorative educational strategies might offer a sustainable blueprint for building more restorative, collaborative and ultimately less violent communities in the US and around the world.

Q: What inspired you to apply to the Fulbright Program in Belgium?

Applying to the Fulbright Program and choosing Belgium as my destination were integrally intertwined. The Fulbright Scholar Program has been on my radar as an aspirational goal for many years but, due to other commitments, I was unable to apply before this year (2023-2024). As an avid traveler, combining my personal love of travel and culture alongside three decades of professional dedication to building an international restorative justice (RJ) community was a natural fit. My first international RJ experience took place in Leuven in 1997, in the Groot Begijnhof. Since that time, KU Leuven has emerged as the European  hub of restorative justice research, both due to leading researchers at the University, as well as the fact that it houses the European Forum for Restorative Justice, the most well-known RJ membership organization for research and practice in Europe. Moreover, for the last 3 years I have been serving as co-editor of an international book project organized by a KU Leuven professor emeritus. As such, my connections to the place, to members of the international restorative community based here, the encouragement of colleagues to locate here, and to the reputation of the work at KU Leuven made this an easy and obvious choice. 

Q: What have you accomplished during your time in Belgium? What can you tell us about the initial outcomes of your research?

My research evolved and changed significantly once I arrived. I had less access to schools, school administrators and local nonprofits working in schools than I anticipated, and I underestimated many language and cultural barriers to actively engaging in social science research. As such, I was unable to access and complete most of the school-based research, and thus shifted focus to the restorative city (RC) research. Here again, I overestimated the degree to which the Leuven RC was active, and underestimated both the language and the cultural barriers to participating in local meetings and events. Finally, when planning this project, I was led to believe there would be more support, engagement and collaboration with local KUL scholars, nonprofits and individuals than was actually available. However, all that said, I successfully reconstituted the project focus to explore what key factors in restorative cities internationally enable them to sustain and thrive, or wither and fail. Using Leuven as a base and a key project site, I have been able to launch an international project with a local KUL-affiliated partner, and have succeeded in planning the research, getting through the IRB process, connecting with local and international restorative city partners, conducting interviews, and more.

Q: You have been busy! What is a typical day like for you in Leuven?

On a typical workday, I wake up about 7:30-8am, have tea, and ease into the day. While I have an office at KUL, I mostly prefer to work at home where I am more comfortable. During the day, I either work at home on my research, and/or I may have meetings with local academics, government or nonprofit staff, or attend a presentation at KUL. Depending on the day, I may have Zoom calls with various colleagues on existing research projects or other academic obligations. I might meet a friend or colleague for coffee or lunch. I also have “life” tasks to address, such as medical appointments, grocery or other shopping, travel arrangements and planning, banking or other local administrative tasks. Some weeks are busy with travel, either within Belgium or elsewhere. I have visited the Netherlands three times for my research, as well as Italy, England, France and Estonia for meetings and a conference, and Italy just for fun. Some evenings are busy with friends, meetings, and events. Some are just relaxing at home.

Q: In what ways have you engaged with your host community in Belgium?

I have gotten involved with my local community through cultural events, university events and presentations, and volunteering at the International House in Leuven where I started running a monthly women’s circle for locals and expats. I have made multiple visits to other cities, including Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp, Hallerbos, Mechelen, Ostende and Dinant. These activities have impacted my Fulbright by deepening my relationship to Belgium and what is available here. The more I engage, the more I understand Belgian culture, and these activities balance the academic aspects of my time here.

Q: Can you tell us the story of a particular memorable moment from your time in Belgium?

There have been so many… one in particular was an extraordinary snowstorm on January 17th. Having lived in Florida for the last 30ish years, this was one of my most delightful days – wandering about in the lightly falling snow, walking through parks, stopping for coffee and just watching the snow swirl and blanket the city for nearly 12 hours. Other memorable moments include pretty much every time I walk through the Grote Markt in Leuven and see the old city hall – especially at night when it is all lit up. Or seeing the Grand Place in Brussels especially at Christmastime with the light show, or the extraordinary Africa Museum in Tervuren. What has been especially delightful has been my connection to a couple of other Fulbrighters in Leuven where, despite differences in age, professional experience, academic discipline, stage of life and more, we have become such good friends and supports for one another. That has been both surprising and special.

Q: Has Belgium been what you expected? Were there aspects of the cultural difference that surprised you for the better, or that brought their own unique challenges?

I have encountered my own “American-ness” against the backdrop of Belgian culture in ways I did not anticipate. There are many things I thought were just “normal ways of being” that turn out to be quite American by contrast to my Belgian colleagues, such as speaking my mind openly, asking directly for what I want, sharing details of my life to build relationships, and aspects of professional communication. I expected the Groot Begijnhof where I live would have more of a sense of community, that the University would be more welcoming and engaging, and that there would be more happening in my disciplinary area. I expected it to be easier to engage with Belgian locals. 

On the other hand, I have learned how much I love the richness of the history that greets me every day here. I have enjoyed the ease of navigating the healthcare system, the freshness of the food, the local markets and trying new tastes, and living in an extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage site here at the Groot Begijnhof which has been an unexpected gift. Mostly I love the pedestrian-ness of the cities and how many city centers – especially Leuven – are designed to be walkable spaces that limit the smells and sounds of cars and where everything is pretty accessible by foot or by bike. I’ll really miss that.

Q: What do you wish other Americans knew about Belgium?

I think Belgium is often overlooked in the shadow of France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and other European countries. I suppose I’d say that others should know about how beautiful Belgium is, the preponderance of English speakers in the Flemish regions making it easy to navigate here, and the richness of its interesting history.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is considering applying to the Fulbright Program?

This has one of the most extraordinary gifts of my three decades in academia, and I have nothing but appreciation for the experience. Had I known about all the different Fulbright programs to which I could have applied years ago – following college graduation as an ETA, between college and graduate school, or as a doctoral student – it would have changed the trajectory of my life and career. The experience is not always easy, and there are a lot of ups and downs, but I would encourage anyone to pursue this opportunity. My mother used to say “you’ll always regret the risks you didn’t take” and she was absolutely right – life happens on the edge. There is nothing quite like this to expand your academic possibilities, explore your own cultural boundaries,  culture, and learn deeply about yourself on the journey.