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 very different communities were using a Native American tradition – the peacemaking circle – 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 without being interrupted, and that others are encouraged truly to listen to what they have to say. (Sometimes it seems like deep listening is becoming a lost art in this multi-tasking age.)

The talking piece slows down the conversation and gives space for people to express their emotions. safely 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 responding to 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. The immediate crisis may be resolved, but the deeper issues that caused the problem remain untouched. In the peacemaking circle process, most of the time and energy is devoted to building relationships and trust before the problem is even put into words. And it turns out that storytelling is a key part of this process.

In the first few rounds of a peacemaking circle, participants together define guidelines for how they want to behave in circle. They share stories about themselves, stories of joy, pain, and struggle, to explain why they feel these values are important. Storytelling engages us emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, so we can absorb lessons more deeply than we might if they were passed down as ‘advice’ from an elder or professional.

As they come to understand each other’s struggles, people often realize that they agree more than they disagree. When it comes time to talk about the actual conflict at hand, which is often in the last few rounds 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 to restore balance in the community, rather than seek revenge or punishment.

Peacemaking circles 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-ranging as gang violence, school fighting, intimate abuse, and workplace conficts.

Interestingly enough, my filmmaking process has been mirroring the circle process. I have always liked to form good relationships with my subjects before I begin shooting, but this film has been taking unusually long to develop. At first I was frustrated that I still didn’t have a subject nailed down after observing several groups across the country (including a great middle school program run by Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth; Father David Kelly’s violence healing programs in Chicago; and Roca’s youth work in Chelsea, Revere, and East Boston). But then it dawned on me that since building trust and defining shared values is so important to the circle process, there was no way I could expect to jump in and start filming right away as an outsider. I will have to be an integral part of the circle from the beginning.

I have now stepped back and am working on developing relationships and building the necessary trust to be part of an authentic peacemaking circle process from beginning to end. I’m listening to a lot of stories and trying to share my own. My advisor Carolyn Boyes-Watson of the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University reminds me of the wisdom that ‘"Good things fear no time."

Author: Julie Mallozzi

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