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Talking circles are changing conversations around social justice and discipline in Iowa City

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Catholic Worker House: Practicing Restorative Circles

1414 Sycamore St, Iowa City — Saturday, June 2 at 10 a.m.
Starting June 2, these workshops will be held every first Saturday of the month

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren

Update: The opening of this article has been adjusted for clarity.

Resolving conflict, community building, increasing accountability and healing harm are often cited as intended outcomes for holding restorative justice or peacekeeper talk circles. Schools, diversion programs within the criminal justice system, workplace disciplinary programs and others will hold these reflective gatherings as alternatives to punitive approaches. The circles can provide a space to relate to a social problem or hash out interpersonal issues.

Last fall, the Mediation Services of Eastern Iowa (MSEI) created opportunities for locals to learn how to lead one of these peacekeeping circles. The circles are guided by four basic rules:

  • One speaker at a time — no interruptions.
  • Speak and listen with respect.
  • No words that harm or hurt.
  • Speak honestly.

MSEI teaches that these mutually-agreed-upon encounters, facilitated by experts, can lead to effective resolutions.

“As a person experienced in mediation, I experience the power in people being heard, and circle as a process where everyone [has] equal opportunity to speak,” Annie Tucker, executive director of MSEI, said.

Some form of circle practice is common among indigenous communities around the world. The Hollow Water First Nation on Lake Winnipeg has played a critical role in demonstrating the philosophy and power of circles to address harms in communities. In the 1990s, Canadian First Nation people began teaching the circle process in order to address mass incarceration of Native peoples, considered another form a genocide.

Since then, restorative justice talk circles and other remedial practices have grown in non-Native communities. The practice has also been adopted in response to mass incarceration of African Americans.

“When non-Native people, including many people of color, experienced the power of the circle process to address harms and conflicts, they began to use the process with other non-Native people and in other areas of life as well,” Tucker said. “The Frogtown-Summit University Circle in Saint Paul, Minnesota, for example, operated for many years to keep young African-American men, ages 18-35, out of prison and on a good path.”

Tucker brought to Iowa City the Minnesota-based circle keeper trainer Kay Pranis, who taught two three-day series. These circles build a skill that is too often missing in efforts to resolve conflict — genuine communication.

Tucker says the circles have sharpened her intent to listen to and hear people. “It’s also deepened my interest in having a powerful open question that helps people get to what’s at the heart of the matter for them,” she said.

“In a circle that uses a talking piece, it’s only when you’re holding the talking piece that you can talk,” Tucker explained. These talking pieces are traditionally natural objects, such as feathers or wood pieces. “The rest of the time, your role is to listen and trust that when you get the talking piece you will know what you want to say or you will pass. And that is different from most conversations, where you are preparing to elbow your way in.”

It appears the practice of making space — that is, time — to listen alleviates the anxiety or impatience that can arise when people worry they will not be heard or understood. Removing that fear in and of itself helps participants to engage more openly. I believe this greater openness is also enhanced by the act of witnessing, both for the witness and the receiver. Research about mirror neurons supports the idea that witnessing acts of empathy promotes empathy. The kind of modeling of empathetic listening that often happens in restorative justice circles is amplified by group process.

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Laura Cottrell, principal at Northwest Junior High, has led circles in the community and for her teachers. She has also co-led two circles for Midwest Telegraph’s Urban Retreats — usually one- or two-day retreats based on contemplative and experiential practices that focus on healing community from the effects of racism.

Cottrell said she is attracted by the concept of the circles because she finds the idea of collective accountability really powerful. “We are not just looking at a person who has done harm as a cancer in society, but as a part of the solution to the harm that they caused. And together as community we can figure out what that is,” she said.

MSEI circles have been held for teachers at Kirkwood Elementary, Tate High School, Southeast Junior High, Northwest Junior High, West High and Liberty High School. Tucker points out that “experiencing a circle is the standard first step in a school considering restorative practices. The teachers get to experience how a circle works.”

From there, the participants get to decide if and how they will incorporate circles in their communities. Right now efforts are underway to provide more training so that this powerful resource is more widely available.

Lore Baur teaches middle school children and uses circles in her classroom, in addition to co-hosting a circle with Lynn Ahlers at Catholic Worker House (CWH). Her middle school students are prone to conflict, Baur said, but she finds they often lack the communication skills they need to resolve it. Within her circle, she said, the focus is on “listening underneath the conflict.”

“We find out what is the value that’s important to the other person, the non-controversial essence. When there is no conflict, we all value support. The conflict is about the strategy of how to meet the value.”

Manifesting Justice is project by the Midwest Telegraph and Little Village, examining positive interventions into white privilege, racism and other obstacles to more effective social justice organizing and community building. The column seeks ways to broaden conversations about change so that they are more inclusive of marginalized communities, and to provide more consistent context from which to understand the conditions, concerns and solutions originating in these communities. Children, immigrants, people of color, poor people​,​ rural and working people are often included in this category.

Damita Brown, Ph.D., is the founder of Midwest Telegraph, leading urban retreats that focus on healing communities through anti-racism and allyship. She is also the founder of Freedom School 360​ which, thanks to the support of the Beloved Community Initiative, will be offered in Iowa City for the first time this July. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 242.


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