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Martin Wright: Review of Peacemaking Circles & Urban Youth: Bringing Justice Home

April 30, 2009
Peacemaking Circles & Urban Youth: 
Bringing Justice Home
, by Carolyn Boyes-Watson.  St Paul,
MN:  Living Justice Press, 2008.  280 pp. ISBN
978-0-9721886-4-7 pbk.

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.

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.


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