On Circles with Laura
Growing up my dad had one rule. You can never, ever say the words “I told you so”. I grew up thinking those words were the most egregious and hurtful thing you could do in an argument. Rubbing in that your opinion, idea or perspective, is more valid seemed to me to be the most self-righteous and self-serving thing you could do. But damn does it feel good. I mean come on, we have all been there. We get invested in our idea, our belief and need others to see it our way. Whether it is an argument over the right way to make a hard-boiled egg or the right choice for the president, it feels good to win. To prove someone wrong. To be right. When we have evidence to back up our opinion or perspective, the feeling is pure triumph. Proof. Victory. That is the feeling of “I told you so”. I think my dad was on to something though. “I told you so” is fleeting, and leaves a bitter taste in your mouth.
I run a sleep away summer camp called Stomping Ground. My partner and I started the camp 5 years ago. We had spent a few years traveling around looking for innovative spaces working with youth. Summer camp was not only the most fun and inviting space it was also the space that was doing the most innovative stuff. Eventually, we figured we should put all of the knowledge and advice we had collected to work and start a camp. The first summer we ran one week and convinced 23 of our friends to come volunteer as staff. The idea was we would trust kids at an unparalleled level. We wanted to trust them to make their own decisions and write their own rules. We wanted our trust in them to inspire them to trust themselves. 64 kids showed up for that first week of camp. It was a total nightmare. Actual chaos ensued. We barely slept and I left the week feeling defeated and demoralized.
I went into the summer feeling idealistic about the possibility of creating a space where we could prove to the world that kids were more capable than they thought. That a community just based on trust world revolutionize the way we think about education, learning, and youth development. I was convinced that our expectations of children were what was holding them back. That the majority of schools valued dominance, control, and compliance more than, connection, learning, and community. I still believe this.
However, it turns out that putting a bunch of strangers together for a week with very few systems in place is not an effective way of creating community. Five years later Stomping Ground is still based on trust. We are constantly fiddling with the systems that make camp work. I hope we never stop revising, editing and just plain scrapping our systems. Often the way we know something is not working is through a conflict between campers, staff, or camp leadership. It is in this disconnect, the discord, that we find the innovation to iterate and build new systems. Of course, we have a system for this process of addressing conflict and disconnection. It is called the circle system. Over the last few years, the circle system has become the cornerstone for how we create connection, it is a conversation tool that facilitates perspective taking and builds radical empathy.
The first summer, where it actually felt like the world was crumbling around me, I witnessed a moment between a few of the oldest boy campers that has forever changed the way I think about community, conflict, and connection. This moment is the reason why camp still exists and why I believe that small communities like camp have the power to change the world as we know it.
It’s Thursday, we are 4 days into this wild experiment and the oldest boys cabin is at each other's throats. Eight boys, ages 12-15 can’t agree on the color of the sky let alone what time to go to bed, appropriate language to use in the cabin and what the hell they want from this week of camp.
At one point one of the boys says something extraordinarily offensive to another member of the cabin and it feels like we are seconds away from a physical fight. Jack, my co-director and chief ‘systems’ officer, decides to pull all of the boys into the office for a change in scenery. Not knowing where this will go, and feeling scared by the lack of control, it would have been easy at this moment to totally take over, find someone in the group to blame and to exile that person in hopes of re-establishing a norm, a sense of order. Instead, Jack decides to wait. Once no one is in physical danger, can we work this out? Luckily there is a young man in the cabin group, lets call him Preston, who takes over. He lays out some ground rules, gets his thoughts out in the open, expletives included, and then does something extraordinary, he asked for his aggressors perspective. The boys go around the room airing their grievances from the week, clearing the air and working through all of the past “hurt” that had resurfaced. Things like their lack of security and safety at home, their parent's painful divorce, their experience with bullies and their own insecurities. A couple of hours later the boys are still sitting, calmly around a conference table. Preston gets up, offers a fist bump to his former enemy and says. “That's it. We leave no more beef, if you have more to say, say it now.”
That few hours was a raw, real attempt at restorative justice. I know it seems like Restorative Justice is a buzzword. A new fad, out to fix public schools and reform our criminal justice system. But I think it is more than that. Restorative justice offers our generation an opportunity to believe in the power of humanity and human connection in an equally ancient and innovative way.
Our world see conflict as wrong. Something to be ashamed of, to lock away. Our justice system is built on the phrase “I told you so”. You were wrong and you should pay. It is common to promote zero tolerance and punish violence with more violence. We are so afraid of the disconnect that comes from the conflict that we have created a system that normalizes and enforces that disconnect, essentially numbing us from the pain it causes because we don't see another way out.
In small communities like camps, schools, and workplaces, what if we started looking at conflict as an opportunity to innovate? What if we first recognized the disconnect, and then create systems and tools to use in conversation to see from another's point of view. I think that these tools for conversation have the power to connect us in a genuine lasting way. Small arguments about the best directions to take to get from point A to point B, to big arguments about the best way to parent.
Conflict is a unifying human condition. Everyone encounters conflict. We are afraid of conflict because it threatens our connection with others. Everyone deals with this threat in different ways; we form habits around conflict management that come from our past experiences and are reinforced by the friends we choose, the life partners we pick, and even the way we talk to ourselves.
After that first summer of camp, I took a deep dive into conflict management systems. It seemed much easier to regulate conflict with hard-line policies and rules. Should we employ a 3 strike system? When should we send campers home? What is crossing the line? Where is the line? None of this fit with our original idea to trust kids.
When I first came across the concept of Restorative Justice I thought it was too ‘woo woo’. I struggled to understand how just changing the structure of a conversation could create real change in attitudes, opinions, and truly alter perspectives. I wanted to give my counselors at camp an answer, a formula or an acronym, something to plug and chug and rely on when emotions get in the way. But, I quickly learned that is oversimplifying the process. A turning point in my understanding was watching kids at camp just work through stuff. Giving kids and staff the time, permission, and encouragement to “talk it out” and promising to keep them there if they are willing to have those tough conversations, gives a platform to work out some of the kinks and build a system that makes sense for Stomping Ground.
Outside of camp, there is a quickly growing body of evidence that proves that this stuff clearly works. In Rochester NY there is an organization called Roc Restorative. This district-wide program trains young people to respond restoratively to the conflict in their schools. By arming young people with the tools to listen to one another and encouraging the administration to gives kids an opportunity to talk before jumping to consequences, suspensions, and other punitive discipline policies, Rochester has seen a 40% decrease in the suspension rate in the last 5 years. Jess Norquist is a social worker in the Rochester City School District and has been instrumental in getting students, faculty, and administrators on board. Jess is fearlessly empowering a grassroots movement to change the system from the bottom up. Other communities are seeing these results as well. Oakland schools have been a pioneer in the movement. In 2006 they piloted one of the nation’s first comprehensive restorative justice programs. During the first 2 years, suspension rates plummeted by 87 percent. Violence decreased and teacher retention rose. By 2010, Oakland adopted restorative justice as its official policy and has invested in funding and staffing to make it work.
Each school is implementing the systems differently and to varying degrees of success. I spent this last year in a school in the North Bronx mentoring kids in the seventh grade. I witnessed teachers and students struggle to adopt “restorative policies” and practices that felt top down and didn't make sense to the community. I realized that there are a few essential ingredients in creating truly restorative spaces. It all starts with reimagining what the goal is. Instead of trying to get to “I told you so”, we need to focus on healing harm, mitigating future harm and building community.
Circles are also used as a conversation tool to celebrate a team's victory in a dodgeball game, to set the tone for the week, or generate ideas for a group performance. The same guidelines apply and we learned you can’t have one without the other. Associating a circle conversation with just conflict makes it negative, but finding ways to use the format to build a community about shared experiences normalizes the format and makes it easier to employ it when big feelings are on the line.
Punishment, shame, and blame are not working. The United States imprisons more people than any other developed country. If the total prison population in the country was a city it would be the 5th largest city in the United States. Lives wasted, families destroyed and communities left feeling more disconnection and destitute because of, “I told you so”. This disproportionately affects black and brown communities. There is a disconnect, a cycle of violence that has been systematically oppressing parts of our population. I don’t feel qualified to tackle this. I feel demoralized and confused by it. But I do know that maybe my small community can provide a different model. Prove that practice seeing conflict as an opportunity for innovation and connection creates more confident kids and connected communities.
The implications for changing the way we think about conflicts are huge. Moving from, “I told you so”, to seeing conflict as an opportunity for innovation and connection has the chance to change the world. But it is going to start small. I don’t believe the change starts with the government, the rule makers, or the policy holders. I think that it is the smaller communities, the summer camps, churches, schools, book clubs, and families that can spark the change. We can start to see the communities we are all a part of as petri dishes for building connection and innovation through conflict.