By Luke Hertzler – Horizon News and Features Editor
Jessie is an inmate at Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario. Life in prison can be pretty bleak, but she does have one thing to look forward to. Every month she gets together with women from outside the prison through a program called STRIDE (Supported Training and Rehabilitation in Diverse Environments). They talk. They support each other. They build relationships. And things don’t look so bleak anymore.
“[STRIDE] makes you feel like a real person…I may be in prison, but I feel the freest I’ve ever felt,” she said.
Programs like this one, called “circle groups,” have been popping up all over in communities such as school, workplace, church, and government. They were the main focus of the Intercollegiate Peace Fellowship Conference at Conrad Grebel University Feb. 16 – 18. Rob Ramseyer, Vice President of Student Development, and I were able to attend the conference and learn about the theme restorative justice.
Circle groups are not new. Ugandan tribal groups practice a ritual of reconciliation with each other called “mato oput,” a tradition of drinking tea made from a bitter root, when other tribes have killed their members (either accidentally or intentionally). Elders offer leadership. Parties tell their side of the account. Relatives provide compensation. Forgiveness occurs. People pray. Communities restore their relationships through symbolic actions. Lastly, the families share a meal together.
On Saturday, conference participants engaged in a more conventional circle group: an intentional conversation in which everyone’s voice is heard.
During this time, people went around the circle sharing about the experiences in their life that have made them who they are. As each person spoke, a rock was passed around in order to signify who the speaker was and maintain order and flow. Questions got deeper. Nobody was required to share, but those who did were able to tell their perspectives.
According to Rod Friesen, Restorative Justice Program Coordinator with Mennonite Central Committee, these circle times are significant because they emphasize care for others’ perspectives.
“All people should be treated with respect and dignity; each person has a piece of the truth,” Friesen said.
Julie Friesen, Director of Programs at Community Justice Initiatives, agreed.
“[We are to] listen without the need to respond.”
Over the course of the weekend, participants acknowledged the local land as the traditional territory of Canadian indigenous peoples through participation in smudge, a cleansing, smoky fire, and tribal song. Also a panel explained how restorative justice fit into their careers a discussion about the conference.
In all of these discussions, leaders referred back to the idea of a circle: both conceptual and symbolic, representing unity, equality, holism, cycles, connection and without hierarchy.
Jennifer Ball, a speaker with a PhD in Rural Studies with a focus in Sustainable Rural Communities, agreed.