People could be forgiven for thinking this was a bizarre social experiment – inmates convicted of violent crimes mingling with a group of victims of violent crime.
Even though the concept has had incredible results across 35 countries, people still find it hard to comprehend the Sycamore Tree Project. And it took a long time to convince the prison authorities in Queensland to allow it.
Despite all of this, the programme has been running for 10 years and the results have been so remarkable that judges, prison officials, criminologists and members of parliament have regularly come into the prisons to see how we do it.
The structure is simple – unrelated victims and offenders meet together for eight weekly sessions to discuss the consequences of crime.
A facilitator begins the course by recounting a historical confrontation between a hero and a villain under an actual sycamore tree. The hero curiously decides against revenge and instead invites himself over for a meal with the villain. The unexpected outcome is that the villain is moved by this experience of connection and acceptance and decides to ‘pay it forward’. He agrees to return all the stolen money and become a positive force in the community.
More than just an ancient story, we see this encounter as initiating a new pattern of thinking in how we relate to our enemies – even in criminal cases.
Each week we discuss constructive responses to crime – taking responsibility, repentance, forgiveness, restitution and reconciliation. As crime victims share their stories, the inmates recognise (often for the first time) the ripple effect of their own wrongdoing. Small group reflection times accompany the learning. As each week passes, victims and offenders grow in their appreciation of their shared humanity.
This crash-course in empathy and positive outcomes has made The Sycamore Project the subject of many favourable studies as it offers some benefits that other restorative programs are unable to deliver.
It enables a restorative encounter for crime victims whose perpetrator has never been found, or is otherwise unavailable. It enables crime victims to have a restorative encounter without the obligation of meeting their perpetrator. Significantly, it invites prominent community influencers into the program to see restorative practices up close. In the graduation ceremony judges, public servants, justice officials and prominent community leaders have been moved to tears as they witness these ‘natural enemies’ become friends after 8 weeks in the program.
It is difficult to describe the phenomenon that emerges during the Sycamore Tree Project, because it is not always visible on the surface. But it is unmistakeable in the smiles, kindnesses, tears and caring gestures that make up the most powerful, silent side of our communication.
Words eventually come and they are just as powerful. A typical response I have heard from participants and observers reveal the unique impact of what happens in the program:
“I never realised how my crime affected my victim”
Offenders are almost always unaware of the long-term consequences of their crime. But the dynamic of the program helps them to develop awareness; and to channel this new awareness into constructive patterns of behaviour in the future.
See powerful stories from the Sycamore Tree Project www.sycamorevoices.org
Amazing things I’ve heard “under the sycamore tree” https://youtu.be/llOr4hG6pvU
About the Author
Martin Howard established the Sycamore Tree Project in Queensland beginning in 2011. He is a member of the global steering council for Restorative Justice International and Vice Chairman of RPI Queensland. Martin has presented at many learning events and conferences. In August 2020 he convened a worldwide coalition of restorative organisations to form the RJ World – a 10 day online gathering of 700 delegates from 50 countries, following this with the recent RelationalSchools eConference with more than 350 delegates and 40 speakers.
He practices as an art director in Brisbane where he lives with his wife and family. He has been part of the Prison Fellowship leadership in Queensland since 1995.
Group for Schools for The European Forum for Restorative Justice and she is currently the principal of an IB public school in Oslo.
MARG THORSBORNE 3 May 2021 19:18
Well there you go! I never knew the original story about the hero and villain under the tree. Make complete sense to me! The program is a great example of how RJ can be done in all sorts of ways……………just imagine the healing these programs havel resulted in for those harmed and those responsible, even though they don’t “match”. Thanks for your powerful work Martin.
Anonymous 9 May 2021 19:52
I am looking forward to finding out more about the Sycamore Tree Project. It is heartening to learn of good work happening in our prison system.
KIRSTY FERGUSON 10 May 2021 09:30
Thanks, Martin, I really enjoyed reading your succinct summary of this programme. I was struck by the outcomes of a process that allows both victims and offenders to tell their stories, what it is to be truely heard by another human being and the opportunities this creates for all parties to become more whole.
ANDREW BALLIN 23 Jun 2021 10:43
That is fantastic to hear about. It can be a massive challenge to get things from idea into practice, so it is so good to hear you have managed to get that to happen. It is certainly something that needs to happen much more often in our judicial system (and all of our lives).
I loved your use of that story. I have used many similar stories in some of the training work I do (such as the prodigal son and the ungrateful servant), because I find there is so much power in them to help us all understand the nature of restoration and especially different perspectives that stakeholders in these broken relationships have.
Thanks for your inspiration of what is possible even within the constraints of systems !