The Public Humanist

Storytelling as a Path to Justice

As a documentary filmmaker, naturally I am interested in telling a good story. My film subjects are often people who somehow repurpose culture or history to address problems they face. So my curiosity was piqued when I learned that several verydifferent communities were using a Native American tradition the peacemakingcircle to resolve conflicts and achieve justice.

The peacemaking circle is an ancient indigenous tradition that brings people together to deal with community problems. Participants sit in a circle with no table between them, and often place sacred objects in the center. The circle is opened with a ceremony such as a prayer, reading, or the burning of sage, which marks the time and space of the Circle as special. In accordance with Native American tradition, participants pass a talking piece an eagle feather, special stone, or any object of significance to the group and may only speak when holding it. This means that everyone has an equal chance to speak their mind withoutbeing interrupted, and that others are encouraged truly to listen to what theyhave to say. (Sometimes it seems like deep listening is becoming a lost art inthis multi-tasking age.

The talking pieceslows down the conversation and gives space for people safely to express theiremotions. As Kay Pranis describes in The Little Book of Circle Processes: A New/Old Approach to Peacemaking, Because only one person can speak at a time and the talking piece moves in order around the Circle, two people cannot go back and forth at each other when they disagree or are angry.The talking piece spreads the responsibility around the Circle for respondingto and managing the difficult feelings.

Last fall I attended a four-day circle training at Roca, Inc., a national leader in circle practice. The facilitator explained that typical Western conflict resolution practice goes something like this: 1) Identify the problem 2) Find a solution 3) Try to implement the solution. Theimmediate crisis may be resolved, but the deeper issues that caused the problemremain untouched. In the peacemaking circle process, most of the time andenergy is devoted to building relationships and trust before the problem is even put into words. And it turns out thatstorytelling is a key part of this process.

In thefirst few rounds of a peacemaking circle, participants together defineguidelines for how they want to behave in circle. They share stories aboutthemselves, stories of joy, pain, and struggle, to explain why they feel thesevalues are important. Storytellingengages us emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, so we can absorb lessonsmore deeply than we might if they were passed down as advice from an elder orprofessional.

As theycome to understand each others struggles, people often realize that they agreemore than they disagree. When it comestime to talk about the actual conflict at hand, which is often in the last fewrounds of a circle, the issue may seem to have shrunk in proportion. In circle,participants find it easier to right the wrongs that have been done and torestore balance in the community, rather than seek revenge or punishment.

Peacemakingcircles can be convened just once or dozens of times around a single issue.They are being used in rural and urban settings and for issues as wide-rangingas gang violence, school fighting, intimate abuse, and workplace conficts.

Interestinglyenough, my filmmaking process has been mirroring the circle process. I havealways liked to form good relationships with my subjects before I beginshooting, but this film has been taking unusually long to develop. At first Iwas frustrated that I still didnt have a subject nailed down after observingseveral groups across the country (including a great middle school program runby Restorative Justice forOakland Youth; Father David Kellys violencehealing programs in Chicago; and Rocas youth work in Chelsea, Revere, and East Boston). But then it dawned on me that since building trust and definingshared values is so important to the circle process, there was no way I couldexpect to jump in and start filming right away as an outsider. I will have tobe an integral part of the circle from the beginning.

I have now steppedback and am working on developing relationships and building the necessarytrust to be part of an authentic peacemaking circle process from beginning toend. Im listening to a lot of stories and trying to share my own. My advisorCarolyn Boyes-Watson of the Centerfor Restorative Justice at Suffolk University reminds me of the wisdom thatGood things fear no time.

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