Circling Up

I remember frequently laughing at EMU buzz words/things, or mini-Mennonite fetishes as I sometimes somewhat secretly thought of them. It’s the kind of thing you see on “Stuff White People Like” with an Anabaptist twist: orange vegetables, fair-trade-home-brewed coffee, low lighting photography, being “intentional”, four-part-harmony and of course, circles. Maybe this is just a peacebuilding-major thing. But it seemed to me that the idea of a “space” and the image of a circle were two things so incredibly strongly re-enforced at my time studying at EMU that they hardly passed the “interesting” stage of thought and jumped straight to eye-rolling-parody. It’s not that I didn’t agree that circles were a generally helpful shape in which to organize chairs, to think of ideas like eternity and wholenes, or anything– it’s just that I really didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I didn’t understand how certain authors, teachers, and friends were so very emphatic about it. “It’s a shape”, I wanted to say, “triangles have their own virtues” part of me wanted to comment.

” All shapes should be treated with respect and equality!” – Jessica Sarriot, circa 2009

Well, as usual, my ever-so-superior snarkiness has been proven out of place.

Over the past two weeks I have started both the training-of-facilitators for my upcoming prison work as well as teaching circle processes to my church-work group in order to use them with the victims we worked with on saturday. Now, to be sure, the actual events of prison-workshops and Circles-with-victims continue to be a daunting and large question-mark for me in terms of how well we can pull them off, but the “practice” circles have been hugely rewarding.

There are all kinds of Circle Processes one can do (I have a particularly impressed memory of a giant inter-departmental circle process I happened to sit in on at EMU regarding the intersection of theology and peacebuilding where I first fell into professional love with Lisa Schirch, Gloria Rhodes and David Brubaker, as I recall, but I digress) and the most basic is a Talking Circle, where really, you’re just using a structure and ceremony to discuss some issue and hear various perspectives. This is the kind of thing that drove me mad “Why not just sit down and have a normal discussion?” Well, it turns out that in a normal conversation people like me (who enjoy the sound of their voice and trust the importance of their thoughts far too much)  take up a huge amount of room leave very little room for others to speak. In a circle, we pass the Talking Piece around and everyone has a chance to talk, uninterrupted. Personal stories and experience are valued, and group-made norms and guidelines for dialogue are respected (ideally). It’s so simple: everyone gets a chance to express themselves and know that they will be deeply listened to. This should happen in all conversations, or dialogues, but it doesn’t.

I know this isn’t necessarily and awesome way of measuring how great circles are, but so far in all four circles I’ve been a part of here, someone has cried. That is to say, given the opportunity to be listened to and reflect deeply on a topic (topics included: your work in prisons, violence/nonviolence, and True Fasting) people have been able to be vulnerable and express stories and feelings they wouldn’t normally get to. And be held, and listened to and respected.

The last circle I was in my friend was leading for the first time during our church’s Saturday fast. We were nervous about how the regulars would react to a change in format (usually the two hours are dedicated to singing, preaching and prayer intercession, so using almost the whole time for a group dialogue was a sort of risky decision) but as we did the final round of “final comments/ How did you feel about this circle process?” everyone was extremely positive about it. One lady said “This is really an answer to prayer (indicating the Talking Piece); we’ve been praying to have a space to have real dialogue and be listened to without interruption.” They said they’d be glad to have another circle.

I know this is the tip of the iceberg. I’m not leading Restorative Justice circles or any kind of decision-making circle yet. I know it’s complicated. I know it’s sometimes unwieldy and imperfect, but the truth is I have fallen deeply in love with circles.




About Magelette

I use too many parentheticals, tend towards run-on sentences, and am a terrible self-editor. That being said I'm honest to a fault and fairly easily enchanted, so if you're into that, read on.
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5 Responses to Circling Up

  1. Jojo says:

    your blog makes me feel bad about myself on a regular basis. and i mean that as a compliment. XOXOOXOXOXOXOXOXOXO

  2. Jen CD says:

    circle round for freedom
    circle round for peace
    for all of us imprisoned
    circle for release

    (another good song)

  3. Judy says:


    by Edwin Markham (1852-1940)

    He drew a circle that shut me out —
    Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
    But Love and I had the wit to win:
    We drew a circle that took him in!

    A favorite poem of mine that comes to mind. My dear friend and teacher Bob taught it to me years ago. Really enjoyed your reflection!

  4. Eric Sarriot says:

    it seems to me you mean more by “circle” than “circle”.
    It seems like you refer to things like “passing the stick” and other PLA (Participatory Learning and Action) approaches.
    Any process that gets a Sarriot to shut up once in a while is a good process.
    Any process that gets the voices in a Sarriot’s head to stop yelling, would be much appreciated.

  5. Kaitlin says:

    I remember that quote by Jessica Sarriot! 🙂

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