15 Circles in 10 Days - Yellow Medicine County Restorative Justice Circle Program

My daughters have been coaching me on blogging. “Don’t write too much – people will stop reading” and “Make sure your title is attention grabbing or no one will bother with it”. 

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Taking their advise to heart, I started this blog the day after I returned in July from Yellow Medicine County (YMC), Minnesota where I was a Restorative Justice Intern for two weeks. I was bursting with inspiration and wanted to shout out to the world the magnitude of my field work, not only for myself professionally, but the profound implications for the rest of our country as we grapple with how to make sustainable social change, promote healing, and repair broken relationships through the practice of restorative justice peacemaking circles. 

Six weeks later I am still struggling to find words to concisely share how profoundly this experience affected me. Here is my best attempt:

I was sitting in the office of Sharon Hendrichs, coordinator of the Yellow Medicine County Restorative Justice Department. We were reviewing what was going to happen during the next two weeks – things such as my participation in their circles and access to press and other historical data documenting their Restorative Justice Circle Program.  We also discussed the article I had agreed to write so that YMC could reach a wider audience with their learnings, including those of the surrounding counties whose restorative justice circle programs they helped develop. 

As we exchanged ideas, one theme kept coming up about developing connections – I didn’t really understand what Sharon meant until the end of the second week after which time I had sat in over 15 circles. As a government agency, Sharon and her colleagues spent the past 16 years wrapping their arms around their residents by providing an alternative criminal justice approach that connected people committed to walk along side each other in support, camaraderie, and accountability - all done through circles. 

The focus of each circle varied yet what remained steadfast in each circle was the element of humanity and loving kindness in each participant, volunteer, and facilitator. Whether dealing with chemical dependency and recovery, juvenile truancy and crime, incarceration or reentry from jail, family service and child welfare issues of neglect, sexual abuse and substance abuse, or professional restoration, I witnessed circles of caring people committed to supporting each other with a consistent focus on accountability in the most loving and caring way I have ever experienced.

I have heard that the rural Midwest is made up of many farmers whose survival is dependent on each other in times of need. They have an intuitive understanding of what it means to stand beside their neighbor, not to ‘fix’ anything but to offer a genuine supportive hand. Yellow Medicine County is one of those communities. I am humbled by all they taught me about what it means to be in community - connected to one another no matter how trying or difficult the situation. 

Yellow Medicine County started their restorative justice program in 2001 with Circle Sentencing. Since then they have added 10 more types of circles for county residents. The circles I attended were Circle Sentencing, Healing Circle, SHIFT Circle (incarcerated and reentry), Restoration Circle, Circle of HOPE (chemical dependency recovery), and Family & Community Circle.   

Someone recently asked me how a model of restorative justice from a rural community like YMC could be applied to a metropolitan area such as Southern California. My answer was simple “community by community”. 

We have a lot to learn from Yellow Medicine County. Stay tuned for more blogs and my best effort at publishing an article about Yellow Medicine County that holds the promise of inspiring agencies, practitioners, and other groups of people seeking alternative solutions for addressing harm, wrongdoing and crime. 

Thank you to those of you who read through to the end - the next blogs will be shorter!

No Goodbyes – Only Promises to Meet Again Soon 

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Yesterday my time at Eastern Mennonite University ended – it was hard to leave such a vibrant campus that pulsed with heart enthusiasm and dedication for peacebuilding.  Yet as our Circle Processes class concluded, there were no goodbyes – only promises to meet again. Cherished and honored, these 23 new friends and colleagues made my world a little more connected and broadened the reach of our work in restorative justice.

These heart strings extend to other people attending the Summer Peacebuilding Institute – those who shared their incredible, heart-wrenching stories of peacebuilding work in parts of the world that are suffering from the devastating consequences of conflicts, crises, and wars. Some of these courageous peacebuilders are assisting with trauma healing while others are working to find solutions to severe conflict situations that many times feel desperate and hopeless. Others simply live among people in communities and lend a caring hand of support. The peacebuilders I spoke with work in areas such as Jordan, Myanmar, Columbia, Cambodia, South Africa, and Northern Nigeria – their stories will stay with me forever. 

These past 7 days provided an incredible and challenging experience of  learning and growth in circle with Kay Pranis as our guide and sage. True to the restorative justice promise, that we can only be authentic practitioners when we embrace deep inner work while speaking our truth in community, I was not let down. 

 

80 People from 21 Countries Seeking Peace

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Back in school again - this time I am in Harrisonburg, Virginia at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute at Eastern Mennonite University.  As a Catholic, I wondered what the experience would be like? Who are the Mennonites? How would I fit in? 

I settled into my seat during the ‘Opening Celebration’, where 80 of us gathered from 21 countries to begin a week together. My anticipation turned to wonder as the program unfolded. We were all invited to form lines by rows and step onto the stage to say our name and where we call home. As each person shared, I was aware that my eyes were filling with tears and I wondered, once again, how I was going to manage this physical reaction to the joy I felt in my heart.  In the end, I used self control and let a few tears roll down my face while the remaining tears settled into the deepest part of my soul. I knew then that I would be at home here – surrounded by a community of people from all walks of life with different languages, religions, spiritualties, cultures, and ethnicities – all seeking peacebuilding. 

There are 5 courses in all during this session and mine is Circle Processes, a restorative justice practice taught by Kay Pranis. There are 24 of us who meet daily in the Discipleship Center, a lovely facility at the top of a hill overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. 

I have completed day 2 so far - learning from each member of the group – always in circle. Listening to each extraordinary person, who came from near and far with their own unique and individual stories, needs, goals, and hopes for gaining knowledge and skills in order to promote change in the world. 

Yes, I feel very much at home here.

And they do how many circles a day?

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Somewhere between reading the email about the Circle Keepers Summit and arriving at Timber Bay Lodge in Minnesota, I imagined as many as 60 circle keepers would be attending. Not unlike a fish story, I think I inflated reality each time I talked about it to match my excitement and anticipation. I am still not sure where the number of 60 came from. 

The real story is that there were 13 of us and it was perfect. I had the honor of being in community with restorative justice practitioners who hold as many as 2-3 circles a day as part of their job.  I learned that they hold circles for children in preschool all the way up to high school, families dealing with a loved one in recovery, people in prison or experiencing reentry from prison - just to name a few. They hold these circles as their job working for city, county and state agencies. I have come to view Minnesota as the circle heartland of America - they have been doing this work for over 20 years and (sorry for repeating myself) they do it as their profession.

During our time together, we sat in circle, we ate delicious food, we shared experiences that challenged our sense of right and wrong, we jumped in the lake fully clothed, we cried, and we laughed so hard our stomachs hurt. 

Thanks to the incredible efforts of the women who organized the summit and the people who attended, I am enriched, enlightened, challenged, and empowered. My path is now clearer.

One comment made during our closing circle told their story of circle as an agent for change, "We knew that Minnesota had arrived when the system stopped telling us how to be in relationship with each other". 

Circle Keepers Summit

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My suitcase is packed - sleeping bag, pillow, and towels. Also, indoor and outdoor shoes and hiking clothes. On Monday, May 14th I fly to Minneapolis, Minnesota and venture north to Timber Bay Camp where I will spend 4 days with a group of circle keepers as we explore this year's theme of Restoring Hope. The most recent email I received from the two amazing organizers simply stated "We are looking forward to bringing practitioners together to fill each other's cups as well as reconnect or connect deeper through storytelling."

Storytelling? Restoring Hope? Connecting? Nature? I don't think I will be able to sleep. Needless to say, I am giddy with joyful anticipation!

This adventure marks the beginning of a full summer of peacemaking circle learning, experiencing, and connecting - stay tuned for what is to come.

(Hint: Circle Keepers Summit; Eastern Mennonite University; Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota)