Human beings are different. Across the world we eat differently, speak differently, pray differently, dance differently, connect differently, but we all do all of those things, no matter where we are from. Last month’s “Tools for Collaboration” was centered around Lila Watson’s saying, “if you have come to help me you are wasting your time, but if you’ve come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then come, let’s walk together.” I think most people can recognize the deep truth that is written in these words but some of us tremble at the thought of how to move forward. How do I live solidarity? How do I, as Audre Lorde calls us to, “define and empower” rather than “divide and conquer”? At ALG, we believe that this all starts in circle. Different people, with different stories, seated in circle, fire, water, earth in the center, shared values written down, and talking piece honored. Restorative Practices have entered into every program, every practice, every conversation we facilitate, lead, and have. Starting with talking circles, we will show you how we live the solidarity Lila Watson and Audre Lorde compel us towards.
“Circles” or “Talking Circles” are a kind of facilitated conversation in which each participant is given a sacred opportunity to express themselves while the other participants sitting with them are given the same sacred opportunity to listen. There are many definitions of circles, but our favorite comes from Kay Pranis, a globally recognized master of Talking Circles. Kay has a four-part definition of the Circle process which is enumerated below:
1. A talking piece is the primary mode of regulating the conversation, so that each person has an equal opportunity to speak.
2. Participants engage in an intentional conversation about values and a set of guidelines for how they want to be together.
3. The process opens and closes with some form of ceremony.
4. Building relationships precedes and is treated as equally important as tackling difficult issues
This process is used for any variety of things — settling a dispute, solving a problem, celebrating a birthday, or exploring uncomfortable topics and teaching a lesson. Circles themselves have no one origin story, rather, they belong to the ancient cultures of the world gifted to the modern generations through the indigenous populations of Canada and New Zealand. The practice of sitting in circle connects us with our truest self — the part of us that seeks unity with the ebb and flow of the natural world as well as with our neighbors.
According to Kay Pranis’ definition, the primary focus in the Talking Circle process is on building relationships. The work of building relationships is more important than anything else. This means that in any given circle, if the facilitator notices that the group sitting together in Circle is not bonded sufficiently, they will delay the discussion of the topic set in order to ensure that there is a community built among the participants before they proceed. Sometimes building relationships is all that is accomplished in a circle, and that is often big enough. Most circles, if they have a specific goal, take place in several sessions, not just one.
Of course, Kay Pranis is just one of many practitioners in this field, the most grounded being the indigenous people themselves. At ALG we also take from International Institute of Restorative Practices and Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust. There are a myriad of shapes and sizes and styles to practice circles and as long as you are doing them from a place of solidarity, from equity and understanding that each voice is sacred, each story valid, and no one is more important than the other then you are doing it right.