In the Circle: Finding Community in Hard Times

The news of the police shootings in Dallas on July 6 was still unfolding Friday morning, as I was getting ready to co-facilitate a restorative circle with colleagues at Morningside Center. The circle was to prepare us for the 5-day professional development training we’d be doing with educators over the summer — a new version of our training that includes material on “celebrating identity” and “standing up to oppression.”  Extremely relevant, it turned out, in the context of the week’s events.
It was the first time we’d be together after wrapping up a busy school year, in which we’d expanded our restorative practices work exponentially.  And it was the last time we’d be together before starting down this path of introducing restorative circles materials that help to celebrate the richness of identities in our school communities while addressing prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination, and exploring ways to stand up to oppression.  Facilitating a session on implicit bias and interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline would be another first for us at this summer’s training.  We had our work cut out for us.

I needed to make sure I was prepared for the day, and not just prepared to cover the new curriculum materials. I had flown in the night before from Europe, where I’d been on vacation. I had heard about the shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile earlier in the week. Two more men of color, killed by police, captured on camera.  I had decided not to immerse myself in the details of these two events, as I would have had I been at home.  I chose instead to stay on vacation a few more days, shutting out the chilling reality that video and social media have made available for all of us to see up close.
But Friday morning it was time to step out of my bubble and get ready for the day.  I opened up my laptop and started watching the video footage of the shooting death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA, which was shocking to witness.  I then watched Philando Castile die on camera, while his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, streamed the aftermath of his shooting in Falcon Heights, MN, talking us through events in an eerily calm and composed way. Meanwhile, the police officer outside her car window, gun still pointing inside, sounded like he had lost his cool. His panicked expletives stood in stark contrast to her controlled reaction.  Was she shell-shocked perhaps?  Was it that she recognized the need to stay calm, given the danger she and her daughter were still in?  A few minutes later, she finally broke down, wailing over the death of her boyfriend.  That’s when her 4-year-old daughter stepped in: “It’s okay mommy, it’s okay, I’m right here with you.”  Devastating.
And as if that wasn’t enough, the news of five white police officers targeted and killed by a sniper at a peaceful rally in Dallas, TX, the night before continued to unfold that Friday morning.  Word was coming out that it had been a lone gunman, angered by the deaths of two more men of color at the hands of police. What was this world coming to?
I needed to check in with my co-facilitator, who’d been in the U.S. throughout it all and who at this point seemed more steady than I was. We texted back and forth about an appropriate way to start the day. A moment of silence? A narrative from the news?  A piece of music … We Shall Overcome? Eyes on the Prize? None of it felt quite right.  We decided to talk in person. We agreed we had important work to do, but couldn’t do it well if we didn’t first acknowledge where people were at. After much back and forth, we opted for an opening ceremony that didn’t assume anything about anyone in the circle, where they were at, or what they needed at his time.

Ten o’clock came around, our colleagues assembled in the circle.  We welcomed them, then simply invited them to share what was on their minds and in their hearts, what were the things that could get in the way of being fully present with one another here today and with the work at hand. We had a lot of ground to cover – important ground, as this week’s events underscored. But sometimes  preoccupations can get in the way of what we’re trying to do. 

We’ve found that giving ourselves a chance to put some of these thoughts and feelings into the circle can help us set them aside temporarily so that we can focus on other things.  Starting a circle this way also allows us to connect and be sensitive to where people are at. Both important when doing challenging circles work.


We introduced the talking piece: a ball of yarn that is often used for a community web- weaving activity, illustrating the importance of relationships in our work and the ties that bind us.  As I noted this about the talking piece, I also shared that I was feeling unsteady and that I hoped to rely on the wisdom and experience of my colleagues, that we could be a community of co-keepers, as we set out on the day.
I watched my colleagues nod affirmatively in support.  We were ready to start the day.
As the talking piece went around the circle, people shared their preoccupations and distractions: sick and elderly family members, a son coming back from having been stationed abroad, a favorite uncle who had just died. There were the physical distractions: a hearing aid being used for the first time, a baby kicking in utero. There was lighthearted laughter. But some shared their anger, pain and disgust over the violence in the news and the larger state of race relations in the U.S.  One participant shared how she didn’t want to hear about any of it anymore.  Enough!  Another left the room to take a break from what she later described as the overwhelming pain she was feeling in our circle.
On a second go round, everyone shared their responses to the shooting deaths of the past week. It was heavy. It was painful. Some shared their need to watch the news incessantly. Others said they wanted to shut it all out. People talked of the responses of friends and strangers, where they found support, where they didn’t. Some expressed fear about Trump’s America, which encouraged a retreat into separate camps, when what is needed at times like these is to build and strengthen alliances, to stand together.  The disconnect and indifference of white people to these life-and-death issues was hard for folks to comprehend.  An African American parent talked about wanting to be free of the fear she continued to feel for her grown-up son. Another African American participant nodded and shared how she was able to relate.
When the talking piece came back to me, I tried as best I could to acknowledge the feelings in the room. My co-facilitator and I touched on the relevance of the work we’d come here to do. To help us do that work with integrity, we asked people to think about their intentions for our work together here today.  Having heard about what was on people’s minds, how should we proceed?

People committed themselves to being present, to listening with intent, to being open and mindful, to exploring and trying to understand personal triggers. People requested authenticity and for us all to be non-judgmental, to show concern and kindness. There was a call for tenderness, rigor and steadfastness. What most struck me was my colleague who committed to being patient with those white people who were only recently angered by incidents of police violence.
We then asked for permission from the group to move on and to commit to making an effort to care for ourselves and each other in our circle today.  I also asked if people needed few moments to stretch, perhaps to reach out to one another, before we turned to the content of the day’s session.  Yes, we could move on. Yes, people needed a breather.  So we took a break before we started our circle training to introduce Morningside Center staff developers to the new unit in our curriculum guide and the training components that accompanied it.
The rest of the day, we learned about each other’s multiple identities through activities in which we explored poetry, created and shared identity maps of ourselves, stood up to prejudice and explored the notion of implicit bias – what it is and how it plays out in our schools.  It was a full day, a rich day.
At the end, we wrapped things up by weaving a web with the yarn we’d been using as a talking piece.  We invited people to share one takeaway: If they were to leave behind everything else we did here today, what would be the one thing they’d like to take with them?  Among other things, it was the wisdom, generosity and support of their colleagues, and gratitude for the Morningside Center community that people wanted to take with them as they looked ahead to facilitating circles with more than 1,200 educators from across New York City in the coming weeks.

Marieke van Woerkom has worked in the field of cultural exchange, interfaith dialogue, conflict transformation, violence prevention and human rights for 20 years. She has been a Morningside Center trainer and coach since 2006, using SEL to strengthen school communities. Having seen the power of restorative circles around the world, Marieke is now helping lead our effort to bring this transformative process to public schools through Morningside Center's Restore360 Program.