Disarming with Empathy

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Dave Fisher from the Forest High School in Cinderford, recently shared with us news of a very special visitor who came to see them on St Patricks Day.

‘Jo Berry, who is a peace activist, had an important story to tell us all. It may be the most important story that any of us will ever hear;’ says Dave. The reason for this is that Jo seems to personify exactly what it means to be restorative. ‘She shows us that to meet the most difficult circumstances with love and compassion, it may be the hardest thing we do.’ 

In case you haven’t heard of her, Jo Berry is the daughter of Sir Antony Berry, a politician who was killed in the Brighton bombing in October, 1984. When Patrick Magee, the man convicted to serve consecutive life sentences for planting the bomb, was released in 2000 as part of the Good Friday Agreement, Jo wanted to meet him. 

Magee says, she disarmed him with her empathy. Jo had already vowed to use this tragedy in a positive way but when she met him, she said, she was terrified. But she also trusted in the process. She believes she’s learnt so much in those intervening years since they first met. They’ve walked side by side in the hills of Wicklow and she’s listened to his life story and thought she might have made the same choices, had she been in his shoes. ‘In that moment, there is nothing to forgive… just that understanding. My story can be his story and his story can be mine.’

They’ve since spoken over a hundred times together, in prisons and schools, here and around the world.

‘Jo has been reaching out to young people during Lockdown and has already joined us in an online seminar before delivering an online assembly to our year 11 students. We all sat awestruck and silent as Jo retold her story of losing her father. She fielded our questions about what it takes to meet such a loss with bravery and compassion. Listening to Jo’s responses wasn’t easy. We often talk about ‘being ethical’ with our students but Jo demonstrates how it is to ‘walk the talk’ said Dave. ‘The assembly stirred many responses; some incredulous, some inspired, all necessarily complex.’ 

‘It has been a personal privilege to meet Jo, as well as a hugely rewarding experience to introduce her to our students. I am grateful to our restorative friend and mentor, Mel Warner, who introduced us to Jo. I am also grateful to announce that Forest High has plans to work further with Jo as we progress along our restorative journey.’

As the Lockdown restrictions are lifted Jo will be meeting with staff and students on site, as part of the school’s continuing commitment to embedding a restorative approach in all that they do:

‘Jo helps us put forgiveness and humanity into our practice. She offers us an extreme perspective whilst also speaking frankly about the ‘everyday’ face of restorative practice. This is important during these times of uncertainty and with the continued challenge to wellbeing that the Pandemic has caused. In the face of discipline-oriented approaches in our society and schools, with highly marketed ‘ultra-strict’ head teachers offering quick solutions to complex problems, Jo offers a breath of fresh air and necessarily intelligent thinking.’

About Jo Berry

The founder of the charity ‘Building Bridges for Peace’, Jo advocates that unbounded empathy is the biggest weapon we have to end conflict. Jo has developed workshops in schools and with youth groups on topics of conflict transformation, storytelling, becoming positive change-makers, and challenging violent extremism. Sixteen years after her father was killed by an IRA bomb, Jo first met with the man responsible, Pat Magee. This initial three-hour meeting led to them speaking on over three hundred occasions, on a shared platform around the world.

Jo is frequently invited to address international conferences and seminars on themes of peace, conflict resolution and healing from trauma. She has worked in areas of conflict including Lebanon and Rwanda, India, Bosnia, Ireland, Palestine and Israel as well as throughout the U.K. Jo is also trained as a Restorative Justice facilitator and is an advocate for Restorative Justice around the country.

If you’re interested in having Jo speak please contact her at joberry@buildingbridgesforpeace.org.

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