I’d like to dedicate this post to something other than the 9/11 anniversary or yesterday’s city holiday in Zürich — something that’s been occupying my mind for a few days now.
You see, the world lost a truly great human being last Friday.
Liz was assigned to be my initial supervisor when I started my graduate program at SFU. When I met her, realized how much I liked her and how much I felt that my thinking was aligned with hers, I knew that the “initial” part of the label would be eventually dropped, subject to her agreeing to take me on permanently (in the sense of until my degree’s completion, and not in the sense that I would hang around forever) as a student. When we had the talk and signed the papers that made our relationship official, I was very happy.
In the spring of 2008, I had finished my coursework and was getting ready to dive into my thesis research. I was also working as a Teaching Assistant for Liz’s Restorative Justice course. It was a great course — students loved taking it, TAs loved leading the tutorial activities (most of which were games that Liz had designed), and Liz loved teaching it. As someone who was very connected in (and, indeed, a pioneering member of) the Restorative Justice movement, Liz was able to bring in guest speakers who were involved in RJ from different angles — those who provided mediation or reconciliation services, victims who had benefitted from these processes, and offenders who had been involved in them too.
The offenders, naturally, were always very popular with the students – the lecture hall seemed unusually packed when word got around that “bad guys” were coming in as guest speakers. Liz would have discussions with these people, many of whom had spent a significant chunk of time in prison, in front of the class of two hundred or so students. It was clear that she wasn’t acting as a professor who was working to draw concepts out of a discussion. She was simply having a conversation with a friend of hers, and the important points came out naturally. I remember how scandalized some of the students were when one of these former-offender guest speakers said, “You know, Liz, like the way you let me stay at your house that time. That kind of trust and respect that shows a person they really have been accepted and given a second chance.”
Midway through the semester, Liz received a diagnosis. It was a serious one, and her doctors told her that she would have to go on medical leave and begin receiving treatment immediately. The other teaching assistant and I, with help from Liz, lined up lectures (including ones we delivered ourselves) and guest speakers to see us through the end of the term without her. During that planning session, Liz said to us, “Obviously this means that I can no longer supervise your theses, either.”
The other student and I were sad, but we understood. I went on to have another great supervisor, who was himself very fond of Liz and her work, and I graduated from the program in 2009. Before I did, Liz (who was still on medical leave, but on campus intermittently) gave me a gift of stained-glass art that had been made by inmates at a B.C. prison where she did a lot of work, as well as a card saying, “The sky’s the limit for you, [Dr.] Howard.” While I was her student, she had made repeated allusions to me doing a Ph.D., though it was never an idea that I took seriously.
I have so many fond memories of this woman that I could go on and on, but I’ll share just two more. Liz had been a social worker before going back to school, as a mother of two young children, to get her Ph.D. Once I told her that I thought social work might be something that I’d like to pursue after graduate school, and she said, “Okay, then I should tell you what it was like for me.” And she proceeded to share stories, both heartbreaking and uplifting, that gave a view into her experience. I remember thinking how rare and refreshing it was to be spoken to so honestly, so intimately, by a professor when you were a student. It was because she spoke to me like I was her equal. No, more than that; she spoke to me like she did to everyone — like I was her friend.
Secondly, Liz was somewhat famous around the Department of Criminology for her theory of “Viagra politics.” I remember clearly when she said to me, in one of our meetings, “Have you ever noticed how when it comes to criminal justice policy, the government’s all ‘stronger’, ‘longer’, ‘harder’? What are they really trying to sell me here?” Amazingly, you can see Liz talking about this on youtube.
After I finished my degree we didn’t have much more contact, as is normally the case when students move on. In 2010, another professor contacted me to ask if I would write a letter of recommendation for a national Restorative Justice award that Liz was being nominated for. I was honoured to be asked, and in my letter I wrote about how Liz had adopted Ghandi’s mantra “be the change that you wish to see in the world”; how she was one of those people who really was being the change. I sent the letter back to the professor who had requested it, saying I hoped it was okay. She wrote back that it was great, and that she also was sorry to tell me that Liz’s health was deteriorating further.
Liz went on to receive the Ron Wiebe Restorative Justice Award in December of 2010, and she made it this far through 2011. Now that she is gone, a number of memorials and ceremonies are being held in Vancouver, and I wish I could be there to honour her. I wish I could stand in her office, which is being kept open as a memorial to her for a period of time, to remember all the hope and wisdom she shared with me there.
Why do so many good people, people who really do change the world and the lives of others, die so young? I can’t answer this, but I know some things that I can do in response. I can try to carry Liz’s spirit forward — her honesty, her generosity, her kindness. I can remind myself of how simple and effective it is to speak to any person as though they are on your level, as though they are your friend. I can pull that stained glass out of its storage place, and let the light shine through it.