If you observe nature you will find circles everywhere. They are in the nests of birds, the currents in our oceans, and even in the many galaxies in our universe. Circles are everywhere!
People from around the world, if they go back to their own ancestry, will find their relatives sitting in Circle discussing the hunt, celebrating a new birth, or helping a family mourning the passing of an elder. Indigenous cultures used circles to deepen connections, repair harm, and ensure the community thrived. It is important as we hold Circles that we honor where they began and acknowledge their origins.
You may have heard the term restorative practices. This broad term refers to an area of study of how to strengthen individual relationships and community social connections.
Restorative justice is a subset of restorative practices and forms the basis for the philosophy that is at the foundation of Circles. The modern use of restorative justice is focused on the criminal justice system and its process to repair harm between the three spheres affected by crime: the victim, the offender, and the community.
If you are an educator or work in the criminal justice system, you may be familiar with restorative practices or restorative justice. The restorative in this context is important because we must ask ourselves to what are we are restoring. In some cases, connection or justice has always been absent. For this reason, a good place to start is with community building, or weaving, in Circle.
In this module, you will learn a variety of ways to support what you already do in your work around community building. The four aspects of community building are Getting Acquainted, Building Trust, Decision Making and Community Building. In various videos, readings and exercises, you will learn about the different types of Circles, how they can be used to support the community building process and lead difficult conversations, and the essentials needed to guide your own Circle.
Lesson 1: Circle Process
Circle process is different from talking in a circle. Three things must be present:
- A circle of at least three people with nothing in between them. Circles should not take place at a table. When people are all at the same level, the space allows for the group to build a container with no barriers to dialogue. The Circle ensures equanimity. There is no hierarchy in a Circle. Even the facilitator is an equal participant whose role is simply to ensure the agreements are kept.
- The Circle facilitator uses a talking piece and questions to guide the conversation. The talking piece typically holds meaning for the facilitator and can be symbolic. It is passed clockwise and must never be passed across the Circle. It passes from hand to hand, which allows people in the Circle to listen deeply to each speaker until the piece comes to them. Often, participants realize that their response to the questions changes significantly after listening to others in the Circle. Participants can pass during a round if they choose.
- Agreements are a set of guidelines agreed to by the participants. Examples include: speak only for yourself, maintain confidentiality, don’t try to fix others. Once participants have had a chance to offer their suggestions and they are written on a piece of paper, the first round of dialogue often asks participants if they can each commit to the Agreements. Agreements can be added or changed, but the Circle does not begin until every person agrees to abide by the Agreements. The facilitator’s primary role is to hold the group to the Agreements and express if they are not being kept. If the Circle begins and a participant refuses to adhere to the Agreements, he or she is asked to step out of the Circle.
Lesson 2: Types of Circles
There are many types of Circles you can use to build community and weave relationships. Here are a few that are most commonly used:
- Talking Circles
- Healing Circles
- Support Circles
- Conflict Circles
The talking circle is the most frequently used Circle. The basis of this type of Circle is to talk about a variety of topics and is especially helpful in building community.
The healing circle is designed to help participants go through a process of healing and understanding. The circle keeper will assist in gathering participants to discuss the situation and help participants move toward a place of healing.
Support circles are designed to gather the community around individuals who are in need of support. The circle keeper can give each participant an opportunity to support these individuals and support the community’s efforts to provide comfort and material support to those who are in need.
Conflict circles are designed to help participants resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner. Individual conversations are conducted first to understand the conflict from multiple perspectives and to decide whether the participants are ready to come together. Once that has been determined, those who are involved in the Circle can determine the additional people they want to invite to be part of the conflict Circle. Once the members of the Circle have agreed to resolve the conflict, Agreements can be generated to repair the harm and create a pathway toward reconciliation.
Lesson 3: Circle Structure
Circles are composed of an inner frame and an outer frame.
We can think of the inner frame and outer frame when looking at a tree. The inner frame would be the part of the tree we do not see: its roots.
The inner frame includes:
- The shared values
- The guidance of the medicine wheel
- Circle principles
The shared values are the ways in which we can aspire to be our best selves and create the conditions for others to do the same. Some examples are:
Participants are invited to share their values and hold each other accountable to living out these values during the Circle process.
The medicine wheel, which comes from Indigenous cultures, holds that all human beings are made up of four aspects:
We draw on all four of these areas to bring balance to the Circle process. Storytelling is the pathway to healing and understanding. As stories are shared, members of the Circle interact with those stories and create other stories. Telling your truth gives others permission to do the same.
Once you have created your Circle values and are invited to engage the ancient wisdom of the medicine wheel, now you are ready to move into your Circle principles. Circle principles are here to guide your Circle as you move toward the community building process. These principles are:
- Circles call us to act on our personal values.
- Circles include all interests.
- Circles are easily accessible to all.
- Circles offer an equal opportunity to participate.
- Involvement in Circles is voluntary.
- In Circle, everyone participates directly as themselves.
- Circles are guided by a shared vision.
- Circles are designed by those who use them.
- Circles are flexible in accommodating unique needs and interests.
- Circles take a holistic approach.
- Circles maintain respect for all.
- Circles invite spiritual presence.
- Circles foster accountability to others and to the process.
The outer frame represents the part of the tree that we do see: the trunk, the branches, and the leaves.
The trunk of the tree represents:
- Circle keeping: the facilitator of the Circle process
- Talking piece: a material object used to allow each member to speak
- Guidelines: they guide the way we live out the Circle values
- Ceremony: rituals that open and close a Circle
- Consensus: the decision making process for Circles
The branches and leaves represent the output circles create:
- Community building
The inner frame and outer frame create the foundation, structure, and process of Circles. It is through these aspects that participants can weave together stronger connections.
Lesson 4: Weaving in Circle
Engaging in dialogue in Circle helps to create communities that are connected, supportive, and resilient.
You will now keep your first talking Circle. It can be as simple as inviting two friends or family members to try this way of dialogue with you as a first step. Below are the basic elements to help you prepare, facilitate, and reflect.
This detailed guide by Kay Pranis, a nationally recognized trainer and writer on Peacemaking Circles and restorative justice, includes examples of check-in and guiding questions:
- Determine people you will invite to the Circle, where you will meet, and the purpose of the Circle. A simple Talking Circle is a good place to start.
- Choose a talking piece. It is meaningful to choose a token that means something to you — a favorite stone or collectible can serve this purpose.
- Create an agenda. A simple one can include the following:
- Welcome everyone to the Circle
- Open the Circle by reading a poem, playing music, or offering a short reading to set the tone.
- Explain your role as facilitator, the purpose of the talking piece, how you will pass the talking piece clockwise (not across the Circle), and the use of the agreements.
- Create the Agreements with participants. Sample Agreements include:
- Be present in the moment
- Share the mic (take 1-2 minutes per question)
- Listen deeply
- Share your truth
- No “fixing” others (we are here to take our own journey)
- Suspend judgment and identify your own assumptions
- You can pass – we respect silence
- Maintain confidentiality
- Remember to breathe
- Begin the first round asking if each person can abide by the Agreements. Pass the talking piece and have each person respond. Changes can be made. If any are made, have another round to ensure agreement.
- The second round can be a one-word check in. How are people coming into the Circle.
- A warm up question for the third round can be, “What is your superpower?” or “Is there a story about how you were named or what your name means?”
- The following rounds can get deeper. See samples from Kay Pranis’ Handbook.
- The last round can include a one-word check out.
- You can close the Circle with another poem or reading.
- Thank everyone for coming.
Sample Case Activity
As a Circle keeper you have been asked by a community to help them discuss ways for this community to discuss ways to support our growing youth and elder community. How can our community create spaces where the Youth and Elder community can interact in positive ways? How can Elders and Community members build a stronger community together? What are programs that can be created or are their existing programs that can be used to foster relationships with the Elders and Youth?
As you prepare your Talking Circle experience, you will do the following:
- The Host organization should select a location for the Talking Circle that is accessible to all participants, free parking for cars and/or bicycles, be accessible to those with disabilities, have interpreters for those who speak other languages or are deaf and have a child care space for those who bring their children.
- Before the Circle is convened, you can now begin the ‘gathering process’. You can interview all participants to find out their hopes and aspirations for the Circle. Let each participant know that this part of the process is confidential unless they give permission to have their responses shared in the CIrcle. The ‘gathering’ is to gain better insight into what each participants’ hopes and needs are gathered from the process.
- Select your talking pieces for your Circle and your Centerpiece (Your talking pieces must have special meaning to you as the Circle Keeper. Be prepared to ‘on board’ your talking piece by telling a story of why it is special to you and why you have selected it to be in our talking Circle) Your CenterPiece which includes your rug where you will place your talking pieces and a plant to represent life (optional) will be placed in the Circle. You can also invite your participants to bring their own talking pieces to the Talking Circle. Make sure the participants know that others will touch your talking piece so encourage them to bring a talking piece that can not be easily damaged. If they bring a photograph, please put it in a plastic zip lock bag for added protection.
- After you have interviewed everyone, select your opening, closing ceremony, ice breakers, and mindfulness activities for the Talking Circle. The opening and closing ceremonies could be a poem, a song, or a musical selection to open the space and invite the participants into the Talking Circle. Keep in mind that the opening ceremony sets the tone for what you are going to be speaking about with the participants. The closing ceremony lets all participants know that the Circle is complete and we can all go back to our homes in a good way.* The ice breakers are activities that allow participants to get to know each other in a safe and fun way. (I will add some icebreakers I use in the appendix) The mindfulness activities can also be used to set the tone for the Circle and invite all participants to be present to their breath, mind, body and spirit.
- Now you are ready to invite the participants to do a series of rounds around the creation of their shared values and guidelines. When creating your shared values the material you will need are paper plates, crayons or markers. Invite each participant to this exercise by asking them to share a value that you need in the Circle to feel safe and feel connected to the space. An example of values they could share include: Respect, honesty, Inclusivity, Peace, Confidentiality, Hope, openness, etc. Invite each participant to write down their Values on their plates and ask each participant to place each plate in the center of the Circle.
- Now you are ready to create your shared guidelines. The guidelines allow for the participants to actualize the Values created in the previous round into actionable sentences. These guidelines include: Respect the Talking Piece, Honor Confidentiality, Listen with your head and heart. Start time for Circle and End Time of Circle. Once the Guidelines have been agreed upon through the Consensus decision-making process (see #9) You are ready to begin your conversation.
- Select the prompts you will be using for your talking Circles. The prompts can be specific questions or you can invite the participants to tell stories that connect them to each other. Each Prompt should build upon the relationship building process-Getting Acquainted, Building Trust, Decision-Making, Community-Building. Some examples include “Describe a time when you needed help from someone and they helped you. How did you feel and what did you need?” “Share a moment when the wisdom you received from someone helped with an issue or problem. Describe how it felt”. “Share three things we can do to support youth and elder engagement in our community”. Depending on the size of the CIrcle you can complete 1-2 rounds for these prompts to allow those that want to pass and listen to the participants and give those that want to speak on the topic multiple times to share.
- Once these rounds are completed, we can move to the Consensus decision-making process for this talking Circle. This is the place where the CIrcle begins to make concrete decisions on what was discussed.
- During the Consensus decision making rounds, participants will have the opportunity to ponder the subject and make decisions as each participant shares their thoughts on the matter. This part of the process may take longer depending on the subject discussed and the participants willingness to come to an agreement. As the Circle Keeper, you will ask by show of hands “Who disagrees with the decision moving forward and whichever participant raises their hand, they can choose a talking piece and begin the round. Each participant can then respond to the participant’s feelings on the matter. The decision on the matter is concluded when all of the participants can live with the decision made by the CIrcle. You can now perform the closing ceremony which could be a reading, a song or a musical selection.
- Now the Circle is ready to close. You can invite the participants to share any thoughts they have. Once everyone has shared, you can perform your closing ritual.
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