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Circles: Restorative justice, community building, and more (#1114)

Topics/tags: Grinnell, disjoint, short

A few years ago, Chinyere Ukabiala, Grinnell’s ombuds, was exploring other modes of handling conflicts and resolving offenses. She suggested that the campus consider restorative justice practices. One that seemed particularly appropriate to the Grinnell community was the restorative justice circle. We’ve since had experts visit campus to discuss these approaches and to train people to lead circles. Chinyere also took a sabbatical to explore these issues in more depth, a sabbatical that unfortunately got cut short because of the pandemic.

This fall, the Office of the Ombuds office has sponsored a variety of circles intended not so much for restorative justice as for community building. In a typical session, we get broken up into small groups with a designated leader and then talk through a variety of questions relevant to the state of the College and the state of the world.

I will admit that I was puzzled at first: I think of the circles first as a way to address conflict and offenses and had not realized that Chinyere was considering other uses. But I know I learn things when I go to campus events, and I respect Chinyere highly, so I went. While I was put off by the lack of transcription, I appreciated the event. And I learned that circles can be used for a variety of purposes, including community building.

How do these circles build community? First of all, people from a variety of backgrounds and situations on campus are encouraged to participate: There are administrators, faculty, staff, students, and even the occasional alum. The circles give us a chance to hear about each others’ experiences, concerns, and successes. I’d tell you more about the particulars, but circles are confidential.

The circles take time: About sixty minutes for the circle itself along with another twenty minutes for preparation and ten minutes of debriefing. But it’s time that I find worthwhile. I’ve met new people, heard some common concerns, and discovered other perspectives on a variety of issues. I feel more connected to campus after each session, and I’ve broadened my understanding.

Mostly the same people show up each time, with a few changes. There seem to be comparatively few students and faculty (relative to staff), and comparatively few people who identify as male, or who I identify as male. That’s not to say that there aren’t a wide variety of experiences; the staff also come from many locations on campus (and off campus, since folks from the Old Glove Factory participate, too) [1], and even ignoring that, people of the same gender and similar position may still have very different experiences and opinions.

I wish more members of the Grinnell would participate. Community circles provide an important mechanism for building community on campus and to help us better understand others or at least some of the experiences of others. There are benefits to individuals and to the campus as a whole.

I’ll need to consider ways to encourage others to participate or to consider participating. I hope that the College will help ensure that staff can attend my treating the circles as one of those things that are automatically accepted as paid time away from your job [2]. As I said, I think greater participation will benefit both participants and the College.

I’d also like to see some focused circles; for example, I can see some benefit to a restorative circle with ITS and CS. I believe we respect each other, but I know that CS feels injured by ITS and I expect that ITS has had negative experiences with CS. Maybe I’ll check in with DaveR about it.

What should you take from all this? If you don’t participate in circles, I hope you consider attending one. If you supervise others, I hope you’ll support them in attending one. If you coordinate circles, I hope you’ll remember time restrictions on campus; community time is officially 11:30-1:00 on Thursday.

Oh, I suppose you’ve also realized that I’m out of practice musing, and my muse is out of practice inspiring me. Don’t worry; it should get better.

[1] To be honest, most people seem to be participating from home, so most people are off campus. Perhaps I should have said from different offices.

[2] If I were a better person, I’d know the formal term.

Version 1.0 of 2020-12-27.