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Trailblazing restorative justice leader aims to circle back home

Kris Miner looks over shelves of “talking pieces,” objects that are passed from one speaker to the next in the restorative justice circle process. Each of these objects has its own story, she says. (River Falls Journal photo by Judy Wiff)

This fall Kris Miner, who has worked with River Falls-based St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program for 15 years, will move to the South Dakota farm that was homesteaded by her great-grandparents in 1904 and plant bulbs.

For the woman who has spent most of her career promoting the value and effectiveness of circles, going back, regenerating and caring for family seem the right things to do.

The decision came both suddenly and naturally, said Miner, 47.

Her dad called to tell her his vision in one eye went blurry. It wasn’t the stroke Miner had feared but macular degeneration. Her dad had decided to sell the farm and move into town.

“That was a shock,” said Miner.

While she and her three siblings agreed it was their dad’s decision to make, they were stunned.

Less than two weeks after her father announced his decision to sell, Miner’s parents visited River Falls and enjoyed a SCVRJP event with her.

Miner was touched when the board presented her with a plaque in honor of her years of service. She realized how deeply the program has been embraced by the community and felt, she said, “an accomplishment on a new level.”

On the trip back to South Dakota, Miner’s father decided that while it would be best for him to live in town, he doesn’t want to give up the farm.

By April 1 Miner had made a decision of her own: She would go back and manage the 1,500-acre ranch.

“If I don’t go try this, I will regret it,” she remembers thinking.

“My family needs me,” said Miner, “and I’m going to do this, and it’ll figure out.”

The acreage is rented to other farmers who keep cattle there from March through October.

Along with helping her parents work out their new life, Miner’s main farm tasks will be seeing that the fences are maintained and caring for the barn cats and one horse.

“It’s time to just wind down and simplify a little bit and make sure his (her father’s) transition to town is OK,” said Miner.

For the last several years, she has wanted to write a book about restorative justice but hasn’t had time.

Now, said Miner, living alone, without the pressure of an all-consuming job, she will put herself on a writing schedule.

Miner grew up in rural South Dakota, 15 miles from Gregory, a town of about 1,000. She earned her bachelor’s degree in mass communications from South Dakota State University.

“I was going to be a TV news reporter,” she said, but an unplanned pregnancy changed her course.

In her early 20s she gave birth to her daughter Kylie – “my absolute pride and joy” – and went on to earn a master’s in counseling.

While working on that degree, she started a support group, Successful Solo Parenting.

Since her birth, Kylie has been a part of her mother’s career and was included when Miner attended a training led by Kay Pranis, a national leader in restorative justice who specializes in peacemaking circles.

Kylie was not impressed, said Miner, who remembers the girl saying, “Mom, it’s stupid that you have to hold a feather to talk.”

In 1997 Miner was hired as a caseworker in Rochester, Minn., working with violent youngsters who were at risk for out-of-home placements.

These kids, she said, came from tough backgrounds and often belonged to gangs. As an example, one of the girls had run away from her foster home, stolen a car and led an officer on a high-speed chase that ended in a crash in which he was permanently disabled.

Minnesota, at that time, required its social workers to train in innovative practices, and in 1998 Miner was involved in sessions offered by Real Justice, now called the International Institute of Restorative Practices whose slogan is “Restoring Community in a Disconnected World.”

“I didn’t necessarily buy into the philosophy,” recalls Miner. “Maybe I was a little naïve and kind of thought I knew it all.”

In 2000 Miner moved to Pierce County to take the job of children, youth and families supervisor -- again working with child protection and juvenile justice.

About that time Keith Rodli and Marlene Parslow had been looking into forming a restorative justice program in River Falls, and Miner became an officer on SCVRJP’s first board of directors.

In 2005 she was hired as program coordinator and a couple of years later became executive director.

SCVRJP uses trained volunteers and the restorative justice circle process to focus on listening and storytelling to help offenders and those impacted by deaths from causes such as suicide, homicide, traffic crashes, drug overdose or accidents. The agency also offers two-day trainings in the circle method.

Miner recalls being invited to help a kindergarten teacher use the circle to deal with classroom problems.

She still remembers the words of a kindergarten girl who was asked how she felt when someone else took her turn: “It made me feel invisible.”

Miner said the circles take a different approach the classroom because the teacher doesn’t redirect the children, instead lets them tell their own stories and learn the impact of actions.

“They learn, ‘I do this because it makes me feel good, it helps other people,’” said Miner.

The process is experiential and focuses on values, she said.

SCVRJP is often called upon to help the community in times of tragedy when the wounds are very deep, said Miner, giving the example of a violent death. Nothing can reverse the tragedy, she said, “But we can provide our mission which is peace and belonging.”

When three little River Falls girls were killed by their father a few years ago, SCVRJP was invited the next Sunday to meet with the children at the Unitarian Universalist Society, where the sisters had belonged.

Restorative Justice was also asked to work with students at the school the girls had attended.

Miner said, too, that a couple of other families who had moved here after losing children to violence called to seek help dealing with the emotions the new tragedy revived.

“I feel like this organization is one of my kids,” said Miner. “Two things I hold dearest are my daughter and St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice.”

But she feels it’s time for her to move on.

“The idea of planting bulbs, it’s a metaphor for my life right now,” said Miner, who looks forward to digging in the earth, planting, waiting and anticipating growth in the spring.

Going home now seems right to her and has intriguing possibilities: “I could go back there and wear cowboy boots.”

While she intends to write her book and do consulting and training, other ideas of earning a living have also crossed her mind. She said she might bake and sell pies, plant lavender and make soap, or run for office and become a senator.

“There’s so much I could do,” said Miner. “I’ve just got to decide. I feel like it’s pure potential.”

Miner will certainly be missed, said Rodli.

“Kris was involved in the local restorative justice program from the get-go, initially as a member of the board of directors,” he said. “But the program didn't really take off until she took over the duties of executive director. She expanded programming in a very significant way in that she was able to find ways to offer programs that were relevant to actual needs in the community.

“This is quite different from offering noble-sounding programs and then hoping that the community will respond. That doesn't always work so well.”

After she announced her decision, Miner received dozens of messages from people telling her how much she has meant to them, how much they will miss her and suggesting her successor will have trouble filling her shoes.

For the complete story, see the May 7 print issue of the River Falls Journal.

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.