Personality: Sylvia Clute

Spotlight on The Alliance for Unitive Justice president

9/21/2023, 6 p.m.
When former trial attorney Sylvia Clute read the book “A Course in Miracles” in 1987, her concept of justice shifted.

When former trial attorney Sylvia Clute read the book “A Course in Miracles” in 1987, her concept of justice shifted.

“I interviewed a woman who said she had taken three months off to read a book,” Ms. Clute recalled. “I had to read it after that because I thought it must be an important book.”

In the book, she said one message came through to her clearly — that there are two models of justice. One is a model of vengeance and the other is a model of love.

“I immediately knew what justice as vengeance is,” Ms. Clute said. “That is what I learned in law school. Our legal system is a retributive model of justice.

“What I didn’t know was what justice as love was or how it could be implemented. As soon as I had that thought in my mind, I was determined to find out.”

Finding out has been an ongoing journey for Ms. Clute who developed the Unitive Justice Theory to be “a model of justice with no punitive elements and grounded in the moral principle of lovingkindness.” The one-word spelling, lovingkindness, comes from its use in the King James version of the Bible.

In 2011, she and Donna Chewning co-founded Restorative Youth Services in Virginia to provide services for Richmond Public Schools’pilot restorative justice program at Armstrong High School. The program demonstrated great success in reducing disciplinary incidents, Ms. Clute said.

A move from a youth focus to the broader community led to a name change. Today the Alliance for Unitive Justice seeks to provide services and training in any setting that can benefit from using the principles of unitive justice to resolve conflict, transform relationships and build community.

Ms. Clute says meeting former prisoners Paul Taylor and Weldon “Prince” Bunn in December 2018 helped to both further her work and once more change her life. Although both men had committed serious crimes that earned them life sentences, they took action to help teach prisoners self-governance and ways to change the jail and prison culture.

Over three years, Ms. Clute worked with them, and filmmaker Patrick Gregory, to create the Unitive Prison Culture Change program, a series of 30 videos using the pedagogy of unitive justice.

This year, the AUJ is teaching leadership teams in Hopewell City Public Schools about unitive justice and how it can be implemented and sustained in an educational setting.

In preparing for its first Unitive Justice International Conference scheduled for Oct. 2-4, Ms. Clute hopes that it will be a call to action for anyone who is interested in system change and social justice.

“We are capable of so much better than we are doing,” Ms. Clute said. “Unitive justice provides a pathway to do it.”

Meet an advocate for unitive justice and this week’s Personality Sylvia Clute:

Volunteer position: President of the Alliance for Unitive Justice.

Occupation: Executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for Unitive Justice, author.

Date and place of birth: April 15 in Rocky Ford, Col.

Where I live now: Richmond.

Education: Bachelor’s degree, University of Colorado at Boulder, MPA, University of California at Berkeley, juris doctorate, Boston University School of Law.

Family: Husband, Eric W. Johnson. We have three children and six grandchildren.

The Alliance for Unitive Justice is: A nonprofit headquartered in Richmond. It was founded in 2011 as Restorative Youth Services of Virginia to provide restorative justice services for Richmond Public School’s pilot restorative justice program at Armstrong High School. We were at Armstrong High School from 2011-2013. The school year before we began working at Armstrong there were a total of 583 disciplinary incidents. The second year of our program at Armstrong, there were only 150 disciplinary incidents.

Our mission: The mission of the Alliance for Unitive Justice is to provide services that resolve conflict, transform relationships, and build community in ways that are consistent with the principles of Unitive Justice. AUJ is committed to serving neighborhoods, schools, courts, detention centers and other organizations and agencies.

Core values: Being present to our shared humanity. This means being connected on a level where our differences, while they do not disappear, they are not a cause for judgment or separation. This permits us to discover unified goals so we can go forward together.

No. 1 challenge: Our most significant hurdle is definitely funding. The people and the agencies that we serve are not wealthy. We presently are able to offer the programs we offer because they are staffed by people who often volunteer or are paid very little, but that limits those who can do this important work. We need to produce a revenue stream that can fund programs in communities, in schools and jails and prisons and that pay a living wage.

How funding will help: A former student of mine at Va. Union Univ. demonstrated a unique ability to do this work. We hired her to work in our youth program and trained her in Unitive Justice and in UJ Circle Facilitation. We could only pay her a small salary, so she had to take a full-time job elsewhere. If we had the money, we would offer her a job with a good salary and ask her to come back to do what she loves and does so well.

A proud moment for The Alliance for Unitive Justice: The proudest and most impactful moment for the Alliance for Unitive Justice is going to occur on Oct. 2-4 at the 1st Unitive Justice International Conference at the Roslyn Retreat Center in Richmond and streaming online. Presenters are coming from Uganda, the Philippines, Gibraltar and across the United States. The first two days will feature Unitive Justice programs for diverse environments and the third day is a post-conference called Lawyers as Justice System Changemakers. The presenters for all three days are leaders in transforming our understanding of justice and even transforming the justice system.

Ways to volunteer: An exciting new opportunity to work with the Alliance for Unitive Justice occur at the 1st Unitive Justice International conference Oct. 2-4 where we will be launching UJ Accelerators. This is a new membership level that is designed to further implement Unitive Justice initiatives wherever AUJ’s members are. This membership level will serve people who want to do UJ work, but would like guidance, training and support in this endeavor. This is an opportunity to build support and be part of a growing community for implementing Unitive Justice right where you are with what you have. More information about the conference is available on the AUJ website homepage at www.a4uj.org.

As a client: Our clients are most often institutions that are seeking culture change. Much more information about these programs will be available at that 1st Unitive Justice International Conference Oct. 2-4.

How I start the day: On my best days, I start the day full of joy.

The music I listen to most is: I like to listen to Susan Boyle radio on Pandora as background music while I work on my computer. A song that I especially like is “Hallelujah” sung by Andrea Bocelli.

A quote that I am most inspired by: Kabir, a Sufi poet who wrote in the 15th century, said: In your veins, and in mine, there is only one blood, the same life that animates us all! Since one unique mother earth begat us all, where did we learn to divide ourselves?

At the top of my “to-do” list: Get everything done I have to get done by the Oct. 2-4 conference. That is a very long list. After the conference I will work on letting people know about my new book, “Unitive Justice: Bending the Arc of Justice Toward Love.”

The best thing my parents ever taught me: Work hard, be a person of integrity and get good grades.

The person who influenced me the most: No one person stands out. It has been more like a little here and a little there from so many people I have met on this journey.

Book that influenced me the most and how: “A Course in Miracles.” It is attributed to Helen Schucman.

What I’m reading now: I am not reading a book now. I am doing research in criminology because I am preparing a handbook on Unitive Justice Criminology theory that predicts the conditions in which those who were the problem (those behind bars) become the solution. This is how we make what Paul Taylor and Prince Bunn did in prison replicable. I hope to have this handbook done before the Oct. 2-4 conference.

Next goal: Get a lot of rest after the conference.