John Lash was born in Louisiana and grew up in Valdosta, Ga. His troubled youth led to his incarceration. He had spent almost 25 years in prison after being arrested at the age of 18. Lash was introduced to the practice of Buddhism, non-violent communication and restorative justice while in prison and quickly latched onto them.
“I was a very angry young man, which directly played into my crime,” said Lash. “The changes I made through mindfulness practice were a lot about recognizing how my own story and what is going on in the world often doesn't match up with reality.”
Lash learned about the impact that language has in the internal world and its impact on others. He found solace in these practices and felt a need to share them with the other inmates, teaching them the non-violent skills that he was learning. In December 2009, Lash was released from prison. Upon his release, he wanted to complete his education in a field that utilized non-violent communication as well as restorative justice. Lash pursued a bachelor’s degree from Mercer University and a master’s degree in conflict management from Kennesaw State University.
After some time, Lash decided to move to Athens, Ga. He wanted to bring his expertise and knowledge to his new home, so he Googled “Athens conflict” and stumbled upon the Georgia Conflict Center, where he applied to be an intern for the organization. Lash quickly progressed and became the executive director in 2013, taking over the position from former Athens Mayor Gwen O’Looney, who assumed the role in 2011 from the founder Elizabeth Loescher.
Elizabeth Loescher founded the center in 1987 in Denver, Co. After 15 years of managing the organization, she decided to relocate to Athens to continue aiding in bringing peace to the city. The Georgia Conflict Center has various programs for all ages including the Peacemakers group. This group meets for eight weeks at a time to discuss nonviolent communication skills. The center also offers this group to the Athens Diversion Center, a work release center that houses nonviolent and minimum-security inmates.
The center mainly focuses on restorative justice, which is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by immoral behavior. It focuses on the needs of the victim as well as the offender as an approach to justice.
“We are looking to induce an empathetic understanding between the person who has caused harm and the person who they have harmed,” said Lash. “We want to work with people, since they are the experts in their own conflicts. Usually people are trying to fix others or to punish them somehow. ”
Lash counsels many people who battle issues with communication. Annice Ritter was a participant in the recent Peacemakers group and Lash was able to help Ritter overcome a personal issue in her life by seeing the importance of nonviolent communication.
“In the times we are living in, we need more non-violent communication,” said Ritter.
Nonviolent communication is a conflict-resolution process that has benefits for both parties in a conversation. Self-empathy, empathy for others, and honest self-expression are the three aspects of communication that create harmony among people. The Georgia Conflict Center has volunteer opportunities and encourages university students to get involved to help its members.
“Conflict exists in every aspect of a community - in schools, at work, at home,” said Leslie Jones, University of Georgia student and volunteer. “The Georgia Conflict Center has brought something to Athens that not many communities focus on, but all of them experience it on a daily basis. It provides members of our community with a safe space to explore conflict and discover new strategies of addressing it.”
Lash believes that the Georgia Conflict Center has the ability to make Athens a better place.
“We empower people to take responsibility for themselves and their conflicts by connecting with their own power of choice and responsibility for their well-being,” said Lash. We also offer support to those in conflict that isn't aimed at ‘fixing’ anyone, but instead seeks to bolster their inherent ability to express and understand meaning in the least intrusive way.”
Looking back on his life, Lash is reminded that prison and restorative justice had a great impact on him and the course of his life.
“I look at my life and it’s pretty miraculous,” said Lash.