The wisdom of the circle
One of the unexpected gifts of the Northside Planning Council’s partnerships in the last two years — with the Northside Early Childhood Zone and the Northside Safe & Thriving Community initiative — are the circle processes they’ve introduced to us as tools. You can read about the Police and Resident Listening Circles (p. 9) and the Parent Cafes (p. 19) in this issue. Another example of a circle process is a Restorative Justice circle, similar to the ones being implemented at our Northside schools as part of the district’s Behavior Education Plan.
What is a circle process? When done well, it’s a small group conversation that creates a space for each person to share their stories and share power in a safe and respectful setting. Circle processes can be used for exploring a complex topic, for providing mutual support, for group decision-making, for identifying restorative ways to repair harm, or for simply helping a group of people get to know one another better.
Circle process typically involves a talking piece which is passed to the speaker, as well as a mutually established list of shared values and agreements. There is a distinct ceremonial element to it to help create a space apart from our daily lives where we can be fully present with one another.
NPC’s newer programs these last few years have put us in constant contact with a much more diverse group of residents. The Neighborhood Navigators, the FEED Bakery Training Program, Healthy Food For All, FEED Kitchens and the MarketReady program all have strong equity components to them, and we’ve also worked hard to make Northside News coverage more representative of our community.
With our deepened connection with historically marginalized residents and through the egalitarian experience of sitting in circle with Northside residents, the importance of good process has been reinforced to me: how we do what we do matters.
Whose voices are at the decision-making table and in funding conversations? Are we allocating enough resources and intention in making sure diverse voices are part of those conversations? How do we share power in those settings once we’re together? How can we better listen to and understand the life experiences that inform each other’s perspectives? How can we put that understanding into practice in our actions and priorities? And, perhaps most profoundly, how do we honor each other as human beings and remain open-hearted, even when we can’t understand or agree with one another?
As the director of a busy nonprofit, being part of these circle conversations has transformed my understanding of my work and how I use my time and relative power. Improving the quality of people’s lives on the Northside is not just our end goal; it actually needs to be part of our process, every single day. We must think of ourselves not simply as service providers or advocates, seeking to reverse or undo through our programs the suffering that so many people experience. Rather, we are daily practitioners, and every interaction we have has the potential to further harm or heal the people around us.
There is tremendous power in a circle experience for residents, as well, no matter where you live or work. To be in authentic conversation with neighbors whom you don’t normally interact with, to sit with them and to hear their stories — not to react or debate, but to just listen and help hold the center — can be perspective-altering and life-changing, if you allow it to be.
I never expected that “healing” would become such an important part of my work as a community organizer and nonprofit administrator, but, if we are to move forward together, heal we must: from our mutual alienation, from poverty, from racism, from trauma, and from the harms we’ve experienced and committed. The good news is that we have tools to get us started. I hope you’ll join us in circle. Happy Holidays.