Community Learning Exchange

The Transformative Power of Circles

The modern world is full of straight lines and right angles. Children go to school and sit in rows, looking to a teacher at the front of the room for instruction. Adults attend meetings and sit at long rectangular conference tables. We tackle agendas, schedules, and to-do lists from top to bottom.


This wasn’t always the case, and it still isn’t in some communities. Since their beginnings, Native American and tribal cultures have convened within a structure that values authentic listening and building trust in community. It brings people together side by side and acknowledges that each voice has something important to contribute. This structure is the circle.


Victor Jose Santana has been using circles to bring people together during the past 14 years. He has held circles in a variety of settings, with people of all ages and backgrounds, and he has seen the power they have to transform the people who participate in them.


In 1999, Santana began working as a program director for Roca, Inc., a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization that helps disengaged and disenfranchised young people move out of violence and poverty. It was through Roca that he received training on holding peacemaking circles, studying with First Nations leaders from the Tagish Tlingit tribe in Canada and other renowned international restorative justice leaders.


Not psychotherapy, but therapeutic


“I don’t think anyone was using circles in Massachusetts at the time, at least in the Chelsea and Boston area,” he says. “I started to do practice circles with young people, communities, and families. I found it a really effective way of communicating and addressing the deeper issues of conflict. Circles aren’t considered group psychotherapy, but a lot of folks find them therapeutic.”


One of Santana’s earliest circles was held for young male refugees from the Sudan, to support them and help them integrate into the community. Soon, he began using circles as a conflict resolution tool within organizations, groups and individuals.


Circles are both intentionally structured and organically evolving. As a facilitator, or “keeper,” Santana interviews participants beforehand to discover their intentions and expectations for what will come out of the circle process. Once the circle convenes, it follows a structure that sets the tone for deep listening and sharing. Symbolic objects are placed in the center of the circle to remind participants of their shared values. The circle opens and closes with a traditional ritual, such as a song, a prayer, or an inspirational quote. Everyone contributes to stating values and guidelines at the beginning of the Circle to create a respectful space for all participants. At this point, a talking piece begins making its way around the circle.


“When you have the talking piece, you have the opportunity to speak without interruption,” says Santana. “If you don’t have it, then you have the opportunity to listen. There’s usually a prompting question that initiates the circle. Sometimes people just talk, and sometimes I have to keep asking questions in order to get the circle moving in the right direction. If I feel that people would be more comfortable drawing, or using art, then I do that because art making empowers people. It helps them tell their own story, and it helps them organize their thoughts. Some folks are just not verbal, so language can be a barrier.”


Circles can be “a true test of patience,” according to Santana, because they require participants to listen fully to what other people are saying, usually without the chance to respond directly. They must wait to speak until the talking piece reaches their place in the circle.


The beauty of circles is that they can be used in a wide variety of contexts. Santana has held circles with as few as two people and as many as 30. The circles have taken place in nonprofit and community environments, as well as in corporate settings. Santana has had very young children, teens, and adults participate in the different circles he has facilitated, and topics have run the gamut: immigration, sexual health, trauma, trust building, brainstorming, family unification, and conflict resolution. Sometimes a circle will meet just once, and sometimes it will meet on a regular basis over a period of months.  


The universal power of circles


Santana says that participants can feel the power of meeting in a circle. “I think that there’s something that happens when people come together, and when they come with pure intentions and vulnerability,” he says. “You’re always a little exposed when you’re in circle. You’re not behind a table, and people are sitting next to you.”


“Circles truly engage all of your senses, from an opening that includes quote and some sage, to drumming, to talking,” he says. “There’s a tangible energy when people are together. It’s like when you get on a roller coaster with a group of friends, and you get off and you’re just looking at each other like, ‘We just went through something amazing.’ You have this bond. You go on this ride and you’re just different afterwards. You’ve connected with people, and you’ve learned things about them that you otherwise wouldn’t have.”


Santana gives an example of circles he held with police officers, social workers, and youth to build positive relationships among them. “We found that when the young people were in circles with police, they just tended to do better. It changed their attitude. If they sat in a circle with an officer, by the end of the exchange, the young person had a different attitude toward officers 99 percent of the time. When they’d see each other in the street, they had more respect and understanding for each other; it felt like they were less likely to do things to spite the officers, and the officers had more of an understanding of the young person’s history. The young person may have had the same attitude toward police overall, but there was at least one officer that they knew and trusted.”


Exchanging fistfights for circles


Santana left Roca for a few years to run trainings in Miami, Florida, and returned in 2008 to help launch Roca’s Immigrant and Refugee Initiative. At that time, Roca had been involved in the Kellogg Leadership for Community Change initiative, out of which the Community Learning Exchange grew. Over the past four years, Santana has participated in five CLE gatherings around the country.


One young woman from Chelsea, MA, accompanied Victor to a CLE gathering in Utah. She had never before left Chelsea, where she had grown up exposed to poverty and serious violence. Due to the cumulative traumatic experiences she’d had as a young person, she didn’t trust adults.


“She was a tough, tough cookie,” says Santana. “She had a hard time getting along with folks but really wanted to make changes.”


“It was beautiful for her to attend the CLE,” he says. “It opened up her world. Sometimes she would be a little abrasive, and people just held her, and loved her, and accepted her. She began to trust people more. Prior to the CLE, she had never let an adult hug her, and she was 19 then. That was a really powerful experience for her and all the people that knew her. She connected and she began her healing process.”  


“After the CLE, she got better at controlling her feelings and verbalizing how she felt,” says Santana. “She started to self-regulate. When she had a really hard time, she’d request a circle. To deal with conflict with someone else, she used the circle instead of her fists. She exchanged one thing for another.”


‘We are all our own experts’


Earlier this year, Santana left his longtime position at Roca to begin his own consulting practice using circles. Through VJS Consulting, he has held circle trainings in locations around the country, and even internationally. He has worked with an indigenous women’s network in Austin, Texas, academics at Lesley University, restaurant/hotel management and staff at the Harvard Faculty Club, and stakeholders in different nonprofits. He has consulted with the Peace Commission in Cambridge, which is collaborating with schools to incorporate circles into their practices, aiming to use restorative justice with students instead of punishment.  


Santana offers coaching and support to people who have taken his trainings on holding circles and are implementing them in their own communities. In addition, Santana develops curriculum and does training around trauma. Currently, he is developing trauma training for youth workers in the City of Boston.


“Lately I’ve been focusing on teaching people how to lead trauma-informed circles,” Santana says. “With everything that happened in Boston these last two weeks, I’ve had a lot of requests from people wanting to know how to address topics like this in a circle, or how to respond to someone who has disclosed a traumatic experience and is struggling in their personal and/or professional lives.”


Santana says that his CLE experiences have influenced his approach to working with groups by infusing them with collective leadership.


“When it comes to gatherings, it’s usually one person presenting,” says Santana. “What I really appreciated about CLE was the attitude, ‘We’re all our own experts, and all have things we can learn from each other, so why not provide opportunities for the learning to be across all ages, all races, all ethnicities, all communities. The CLEs I’ve been a part of have included young people, community leaders, academics...the range is really big.”


“I think that by taking that collective approach, people are more engaged, and they own the work more,” he says. “That’s how CLE has changed my work. I’m learning how to stand back a little bit more and let the learning happen together.”

Learn more about Victor Jose Santana and VJS Consulting.

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