Restorative Justice Project Maine is excited to be bringing the Open Table model of community transformation to Maine as part of an effort to build out re-entry supports for people returning to community life in Knox and Waldo counties after a period of incarceration. We had over 30 attendees at our first Open Table informational session on January 21, hosted in partnership with Open Tables Director of Community Engagement, Rachelle Butler.
The Open Table Movement was born from one church’s chance encounter with a homeless man in 2005. Today it is a nationally trained model equipping faith and other organizations to transform communities through sustainable, long-term relationships with people experiencing economic and/or relational poverty. The Open Table model gives community members a way to invest their own social and relational capital in the lives of others to help them achieve the better lives they envision for themselves.
A "Table" is 6-8 volunteers working alongside an individual or family in need for approximately one year. Together with the "Friend," they implement the Friend's Life Plan, and together all live into their human potential. If you are looking for an opportunity to draw on the power of your social network and community relationships to support and transform the lives of those in our community who have been incarcerated, please reach out to Erica Buswell, Knox County Community Justice Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will contact you with an invitation to attend a future info session.
Leigh Anne Keichline
LA: What brought you to RJP Maine?
Dennis: Six or seven years ago, a dear friend and local mentor Mariellen Whalen and I were talking about a specific case in Waldoboro.
It was our first introduction to restorative practices, and it prompted us to extend an invitation to Sarah Mattox. She came and spent time in Mariellen's living room, and described the general mission and philosophy. Shortly after that, I completed mentor training.
LA: Tell me about your mentoring work.
Dennis: I've had 8 - 10 mentees over the years. The first one was a school-based referral. I continue to have a relationship with that young man who is now in his 20s. I learned a lot through that process, and that relationship continues to enrich my life and my family's life. The young man still has a relationship with two of my boys, hiking together.
LA: What advice would you offer new mentors? What have you learned through your years of mentoring?
Dennis: The most important lesson is to listen. You're not there to fix things. It's more important to build a relationship, as best you can, that's trusting. Too many of our young men in our communities don't have male relationships that are built on trust. For me, it's a matter of taking the time to be an active listener and try to come to an understanding of how they've come to the place that they're at. From there, it's much easier to be a positive force in their life.
Other than, the basic fundamentals are providing a guiding force to work on the repair agreement. It's more of just being a presence with an individual that is comforting, reassuring, positive -- you're not there to offer quick and easy solutions. You're not there to moralize.
They've all been incredible learning experiences for me -- every one of them -- even with varying degrees of "success."
To be invited into people's personal lives has been a gift for me. The curtain is pulled back sometimes for some very personal stuff -- that's a privilege. I try to be really sensitive to what's being shared with me and what I learned.
I come from a very privileged place in my own life. I think about how much I get in return from these interactions. Some of the struggles I've had in my own life really pale compared to what others go through. It's an incredible way to stay grounded.
LA: What have been some challenges during COVID?
Dennis: The biggest issue for me, especially during COVID, is that communities are being torn apart. There's health care issues, there's economic issues, income inequality, the COVID numbers are off the chart, people without health insurance. THe inability to get together as we were pre-COVID is more aggravated.
The institutions we trusted are no longer living up to their missions. Drug, alcohol issues are off the charts. It shouldn't be a question as to why that's happening.
RJP Maine, even if in a small measure, and in increasing measures, can help reverse those trends and rebuild community. That's exactly what it was set up and designed to do.
LA: What are your thoughts as we look ahead?
Dennis: I'm excited, it's a great time for me to be on the board as a volunteer. RJP is in a position to do some incredible things. RJP Maine has deliberately gone out of their way now to have a more equitable distribution of board representation throughout the district that we work in. That's encouraging to me. There's a ton of opportunity for us to have an incredible impact to strengthen communities on the Midcoast. The CBCR grant gives an opportunity to work in a more proactive way, rather than just responding to harm.
From a personal philosophical perspective -- I've always been drawn to issues around social justice and RJP Maine is in a great place to address issues around social justice. It's hard to address any form of justice without addressing the root causes. These days the fabric of our society is being torn apart at an increasing rate. Health care, income disparity. RJP Maine is an organization with an incredible position to help reverse those trends.
Before joining the RJP Maine board in January 2021, Dennis has been a longtime mentor and facilitator for the organization in Lincoln County with a focus on youth, court diversion and community conferencing. Dennis and his wife, Christine, have six children and one grandchild. He enjoys hiking, camping, reading and quality time with his large, extended family. Other civic and volunteer interests include board membership on the local school committee and numerous other small nonprofits. He has a BA in philosophy from St. Anselm college. Dennis owns and operates a landscape design/ build firm serving midcoast Maine.