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!