Creative Response to Conflict: Restorative Circles

In 2021, Paxwork supported Creative Response to Conflict (CRC) to hold virtual restorative circles for women impacted by incarceration in a number of ways. CRC professionals understand the role systemic racism plays in mass-incarceration. Restorative circles for women support them as they reenter their communities after incarceration. CRC has decades long experience in this field and is working with the women in small group settings, as well as women and their children. The groups focus on empowering the members towards a smooth re-entry. Weekly support groups encourage leadership to emerge from within these groups, empowering members to become leaders.

Sample Virtual Circle for Online Restorative Circles

Creative Response to Conflict’s 2021 Project Report

We use our restorative practices format, which includes mindfulness, community agreements, agenda review, check-in, go-arounds, and closings. At the end of our session, if we have time, we do a second, brief mindfulness activity, often connected in theme to the first. The structure remains important for ongoing buy-in, comfort in consistency, and strengthening relationships. The circle, with its regular structure, becomes a reliable place where sharing and trust increase. Participants know they can bring their stress, frustrations, re-entry challenges, and difficult interactions with family, friends, and co-workers to the circle each week, confident they will have a safe, supportive, and confidential place to discuss and process their feelings.

Participants are given the opportunity and encouragement each week to develop greater self-knowledge, empathy, and communication skills. The circle is a space to regularly practice deep listening and problem-solving. The groups regularly demonstrate their growth in these areas.

Participants from both the re-entry group and the Thursday group decided to join restorative circle trainings we taught in the spring. One class was our fee-for-service “Peace Restored” and another class was “An Introduction to Restorative Justice” funded by American Arbitration Association. They got some new insights into the circle process and expressed interest in exploring more advanced topics.

Thursday Night Support Group

We continued to hold the support circles for woman impacted by incarceration on Thursday nights. There are 5 members and sometimes their children (spanning ages 4-17) will join the Zoom for a little while to connect with those whom they used to see in-person and sometimes to celebrate birthdays.

It has been especially moving to have the participants show interest and empathy not just to their fellow participants but also real caring and concern for the facilitators and circle keepers.

Some themes have been loving-kindness for self and others, nonviolence toward self and others, appreciating the positive moments, and gratitude during adversity. Participants are always encouraged to return to these exercises on their own. They are reminded the more they do these exercises, the more they will benefit, the easier it is to reach a state of relaxation, and the better equipped they will be in handling stress and difficult feelings. We sometimes  play upbeat music at a low volume when participants first tune into our Zoom, to set a welcoming and encouraging tone.

The group remains focused on mutual support and the participants continue to voice their appreciation for the circles in this period of ongoing social isolation. All but one participant has had Covid and all have recovered. Half of the children have also had Covid. Over the last 2 years, everyone has lost close family members and friends. At times we mainly functioned as a bereavement circle. Many participants were initially adverse to the vaccine, so we had discussions about how they work and why they’re important. By the fall, everyone but one family got fully vaccinated and boosted. The unvaccinated family all got Covid and have since recovered. One member was so traumatized by her near-death experience that she regularly discusses her anxiety about contracting the illness again. She has become extremely nervous about being out. While anecdotal, the disproportional impact of Covid on Rockland’s people of color is clearly evident, as we hear stories from our participants about their communities.

The discussions are mostly about how everyone is doing personally, dealing with their own illness or that of their families, their concerns about Covid and its implications with work, children in school, and housing. The uncertainties about testing, vaccination, travel, gathering with loved ones, and the fears about the newest surge have all come up, with participants sharing strategies and information. We forward important emails we receive to the group with updated information on food, Covid, housing, and other important community needs.

Policing and racial injustice have regularly been a source of anger. When a new incident about racism is in the news, there is typically a delay in discussing it, most likely due to fatigue from daily injustices and racism. But once one person brings it up, everyone has strong feelings and opinions to share, and it’s evident how much racism is impacting each participant every day of their lives.

As a result of the circle-keeper training she attended, one participant started to facilitate some of the parts of our Thursday Circle. At first, she started with reading the agenda and community agreements and has since moved on to facilitating the go-around questions. The mindfulness activity has been a particular challenge for her as she initially did the exercise very quickly and with a directive approach. But with some feedback, she has improved greatly and once she even improvised a beautiful creative visualization for which she received praise and appreciation from the whole circle. Recently, she facilitated the entire circle! She has expressed interest in facilitating additional circles.

My Mother’s House Circles

These restorative circles were to support participants who are in a transitional house in Queens, NY, having recently been released from Taconic Women’s Prison. Between 5-7 women attended the circles, and Gabrielle Hill and Liz Roberts were the circle-keepers. In these circles, we helped participants develop a foundation of trust and mutual support. The prompts and affirmations focused on vulnerability, learning from mistakes, patience with oneself, gratitude, and transformation. Sometimes we got up to shake out tension and stretch, and we danced one time.

The women connected a lot on the subject of motherhood. Women in this group are all mothers and two of them lost their children to foster care when they were incarcerated and had to fight to get them back. Everyone agreed, as mothers, there could not be a greater attack on a human being than taking one’s child from them. Yet the “correctional” system dehumanizes these women while they are incarcerated and robs them of their children. A system that deprives and distresses people to that extent, cannot also be improving anyone’s quality of life.

We also addressed conflict resolution and systemic oppression, particularly racism. We talked about how we manage these hard conversations with respect for one another and we agreed on the importance of remembering people’s opinions are not personal attacks. One of the participants said she was so glad we had begun these conversations. She said, at first, she felt very uncomfortable and didn’t like it. And then she realized it is not something she is used to talking about except with certain people she knows well. In the end, she was grateful we were having these conversations, however hard they were.

We worked on what we do and don’t have control over, and how to manage negativity we experience from others. The women were willing to go deep and be vulnerable. They experienced personal defeat and diminished self-worth due to the harm caused by oppressive systems, and, we worked to create a space in which they empowered themselves, could heal, and would be heard.

One of the women who participated in the circle-keeper training said it was so “cool to see the backstage” of the circle process and said she now understood it from a circle-keeper’s perspective. She felt empowered after the training and said she might want to work toward becoming a circle-keeper. 

The participants really opened up to each other. The women discussed things like balancing their strong desire to move ahead (to independence, reuniting with their families etc.) with not wanting to get overwhelmed. One participant, after time in the women’s prison, is transitioning from female to male and is impatient for their surgery. He then realized he had to stop pestering the doctors and trust it was going to come. One participant said she was struggling and needing to find patience with herself about re-entering back into society. She understood she was going too quickly and burning herself out with so much pressure. Another said she was trying to understand her anger and pull herself back from volatile situations.

During an affirmations round, one woman said, “I’m having trouble because I’m in a negative place right now. I’m trying to find a job and my anger is in the way of decision making.” Gabe, our circle-keeper, said affirmations shift our thinking and then shift our actions. We discussed how we’re taught anger is bad but can be used as a vehicle to hopefully encourage us to express our feelings. Another person said “Anger is part of human nature. To be penalized for it is ridiculous. I respect my anger and don’t allow it to consume me.” The participant who was feeling challenged by the exercise came up with “I work on my anger management and 12 steps. I walk away when I need to get my anger under control.” At our next circle, this woman said she got a job and was super excited. She said “I’m getting there with boundaries. This weekend people came to me for advice. I usually try to fix it but I left it alone and it worked better.” Later she said, “I have a beautiful side but I hide or block a lot of me” to which another participant responded, “When we’re trying to put our lives back in order, it’s like a garden. We can make things nice but if you don’t care for it weeds grow.”