As a survivor of violence, this is the first thing that really resonated. —A victim
I thought it would be easier. I didn’t want to go to jail. I thought the Circle would give me an easier sentence. It was anything but easier, but it got me to where I am today, and jail wouldn’t have done that. What is scary is that if I’d known—really known—how tough it was going to be in Circle, I’d have gone to court and gone to jail, and this is the scary part, where would I be now?
—A former offender
Circles are so life-affirming—people coming together to make it work. They’re the most powerful experience of community. I feel so connected to community in them. It doesn’t seem to matter if people know each other when they come in.
—A community volunteer
The biggest gift we can give the community and the people we serve is the opportunity to resolve these problems themselves.
—Paul Schnell, St. Paul Police Department, Minnesota
Practicing social democracy: that’s what I contend Circles are.
—Darrol Bussler, Founder of South Saint Paul Restorative Justice Council, Minnesota
Young people naturally want to make people feel better. Circles provide a model by which they can do that collectively without judgment and in their own space. Youth who are living in challenging situations and dealing with multiple barriers feel a sense of empowerment in the sacred space of the Circle. It is probably the only place in the world where they make up their own rules and challenge each other to live by them. The depth of relationship created in Circle surpasses any other relationship anywhere.
Young people are constantly challenged to live a certain way, but they often have no model by which to do that. We as adults say to them, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Circles provide a place and model for being the best human being you can be. All the youth at Roca who engaged in the Circle process felt a sense of empowerment and responsibility to their community.
—Circle trainer Gwen Jones, Minneapolis, Minnesota
I have been working with youth for nine or ten years as an outreach worker. I have worked throughout the city of Chicago in a number of communities, including Englewood, Marquette, McKinley Park, Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, Brighton Park, Little Village, Pilsen, North Lawndale, South Lawndale, Humboldt Park, Logan Square, Belmont Cragin, Hermosa, and Westtown. I have also done outreach work in the Chicago Projects, including Stateway Gardens, Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor Homes, ABLA, Lathrop Homes, and Rockwell Gardens.
The Circle training I attended has helped me be at peace with myself and receive healing in my life. It has made an impact on me and changed me. Through the training and by doing Circles, I have made a personal paradigm shift. I believe that you really have to experience for yourself this kind of change from Circles to really be able to do Circles effectively with youth. They can see right through you, and they know if something is not real, not genuine. Circles really do have to be a way of being, a way of life. Circles change you in your mind.
Youth always want and need a place where they can be heard, a place where they can have a voice. They need to express their feelings. They also want to talk about the hard, ugly, painful things in their lives. Circles provide that space. It is a safe space for them to be free and to express their feelings. At first, they don’t want to do Circles. They don’t know what it is. But once they learn how Circles work—the process—they get into it and ask questions. Once they experience it, they are more open to it.
I recently had a good experience with two young ladies, who started to open up in Circle. One of them talked about her father’s heroin addiction and how painful it was for her to live with her father. She was expressing these painful feelings to the whole group. Well, as the talking piece went around, everyone gave her support and advice. Then, because the first lady opened up, the second one did too. She talked about her parents’ alcoholism. Everyone embraced the hurt and pain of what these two young women were going through, and the Circle created the space for them to do that. Maybe some youth don’t buy into the Circle right away, but even if they just sit there and listen, you can see it working on them.
It’s the personal experiences that get them. If they see that Circles have helped you or someone else, they become more open. It feels genuine. You have to let that experience be real and heal you first, so that it becomes a way of being. Circles become a part of you. The Circle way stays at the forefront of your thinking. It becomes natural, automatic.
Not too long ago, a young man was shot. He had just started coming to the Circles. His death was gang-related. So, we held a Circle. They talked about grieving, but other problems in their lives came up too. One person was upset at being expelled; another was struggling with being homeless; someone else had just lost a parent. Because so many issues came up, we had a second Circle to focus on this young man’s death. The young people were very direct: “He took his own life in his hands by choosing that lifestyle.” “My boys were killed because of him.” They grieved too, but they spoke very honestly.
From there, the youth raised other issues that needed to come up about the school. They felt frustrated. So I put it to them: “How can we make the changes we need to make here?” “How can we deal with the issues we have, such as attendance?” “How can we help each other deal with the family issues that come up?” Using Circles is helping to create a school family, and the youth are taking responsibility for the school. The Circle puts the ball in their court. They’re taking responsibility for making the school a more restorative justice place—more about working together, less about punishment. Circles provide a space where youth can bring solutions to the problems we have in the school.
Because more Circle trainings are being offered all over the city, people from all walks of life are learning about Circles and using them. More and more agencies in the communities are going to trainings and buying into the process. Probation officers have been very keen to learn about Circles and use them with youth. Churches, schools, law enforcement, counselors: they’re all experiencing what Circles can do for young people. It’s a movement that is going on throughout the city.
But you have to start with yourself. You have to know yourself first. That’s key. You have to know your weaknesses, how you got here, who you are. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to be effective or have an impact on the youth. Spiritually, mentally, in every way, you have to let the Circle bring you along.
For so many years, I have been working with youth who are at high risk. I would ask myself, “How can I be of better help to these young people? How can I help them deal with so many things that are going on in their lives?” Circles answer that.
—Sixto Torres, Outreach Worker, Community Liaison, Counselor, Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy, Pilsen Little Village, Chicago