Professor Boyes-Watson has written an enthusiastic book about the benefits of this method – indeed more than a method, it is a philosophy. It is written in a very readable style, and has a remarkably thorough 18-page index. The author expresses her concern for the people involved by including many photos of young people and staff, and quotations from them.
It is characteristic that the ‘keeper’ (facilitator) of the Circle does not lay down ground rules: members of the Circle do that themselves, sometimes taking a long time over it – and learning lessons about relationships in the process. An organization using Circles is one that learns, Boyes-Watson says. Its core values are belonging, generosity, competence and independence – which in turn places responsibility on individuals for their own conduct. ‘You are loved, you are accepted, but this is what is expected of you’ (p. 46).
There are also four strategies for applying these values: streetwork and outreach, transformational relationships, peacemaking circles, and open opportunities. Once contact has been made through the outreach work, Circles are the essential way of working, 557 were held in one year. The way they are conducted is briefly described.
Circles are used for empowerment, but linked with accountability: mistakes are not punished, but seen as opportunities for growth, for learning how to live with ourselves and others. They are a space for healing; people who have suffered can ‘share their stories in a setting where they can be respectfully heard’ (p. 146). They are also used for managing the programme and solving problems, in place of hierarchy and bureaucracy which, as one official says, ‘doesn’t cultivate speaking up, bureaucracy cultivates grumbling’ (p. 191).
Contrary to the conventional, retributive idea of justice, a Roca worker says ‘I don’t think justice is winning. I think justice is healing’ (p. 223); and another, that ‘For me, justice means some sort of democracy, some sort of way of being without punishment – to me, that’s justice’ (p. 225).
This is a persuasive account of a dynamic, idealistic project, with potential to inspire great changes. It recognises the structural flaws in present-day society (though without dwelling on them). Circles can help people to cope with these, but to change them may take a little longer. Sometimes one wonders whether they always work as well as this; ‘In circles … people participate as full human beings. They speak from the heart’ (p. 193). Often, no doubt – but does it always work?
The other gap in this account is any mention of how the project, evidently quite well staffed, is funded. Clearly that is not the angle the author sets out to describe, but it would be surprising if money worries never impinged – or did Circles help to overcome those too? It is good to know, however, how the book itself was funded: by the generosity of a family which had benefited by the use of Circles. The book is recommended for anyone looking for a better, more humane way of living and working together in a programme, an organization, or ultimately in a society.