The goal of a community building circle is to help build trust, positive feelings, and a sense of belonging within a particular community or group of people.
What is a Community Building Circle?
A community building circle is a restorative approach to working with groups of people to build and strengthen relationships. Circles may be used to resolve a specific conflict within a community or group, or can be used more generally to create connection and understanding between individuals. Both types of circles are considered restorative approaches to working with people “because they help to restore a culture that is positive and healthy and safe.”
Where Community Building Circles Are Used
Community building circles were developed as a part of restorative justice practices, but have been effectively applied in social work practice with groups and communities as well, often in schools and residential settings. Group work is one of the hallmarks of social work practice, and has been effectively used to create connections between individuals with shared experiences, such as the loss of a child, or common struggles, such as battling addiction.
Community circles can be adapted to a wide variety of populations experiencing a wide range of difficulties. No matter what the context, the fundamental premise of a community building circle is to bring individuals together to form relationships with one another through personal narratives facilitated by a skilled facilitator, or “circle keeper.” At the end of a community building circle, participants should feel they have been heard, understood, and were able to connect to others.
Social Workers As Circle Keepers
With knowledge and practice, social workers can act as circle keepers, building on their group work skills to facilitate community building circles in various settings. A community building circle is an effective way for social workers to engage groups, especially in their early stages, to form substantial relationships with one another based on the sharing of personal stories. Circles might center on specific themes, or be more general. If circles are done regularly with the same group of people, topics and questions can become deeper or more personal as the group develops cohesion and trust.
Conducting a Community Building Circle
The following is a guide to conducting a community-building circle, with some examples for rituals, prompts, and questions. These examples can be adapted to suit the group’s needs, while the basic steps should remain the same.
Note: The ideal number of people for a community building circle is 10-12.
- All participants should sit in a circle, symbolizing equality and allowing all participants to see one another. The circle keeper sits in the circle as well, and comes prepared with a talking piece -this can be any object that will be passed around the circle to designate whose turn it is to speak.
- The circle keeper opens the circle with a short introductory ritual. (Examples: read a quote, pass a handshake around the circle, or simply welcome everyone present.)
- The circle keeper goes over the basic rules of the community building circle with the participants. These include: 1) Listening attentively to one another, 2) The person with the talking piece is the only person speaking (i.e. No interruptions), 3) There will be time to respond to one another at the end of the circle, so “cross-talk” should be held until the end, 4) Everyone can choose to “pass” by simply handing the talking piece to the next person.
- The circle keeper facilitates a conversation with participants about any additional rules they would like to establish to maintain everyone’s sense of safety and comfort during their participation in the circle. Rules can be suggested by anyone, but should be agreed upon by everyone. The circle keeper should remain open to all suggestions.
- The circle keeper might choose to include an “ice-breaker” activity here.
- The circle keeper begins the circle with a “check-in” round. The circle keeper holds the talking piece and asks a low-risk question or states a simple prompt to which all can respond. (Example: On a scale of 1-10, how are you feeling today? What was your best moment today? Or, what is your favorite movie and why?)
- When she has finished stating the question, the circle keeper passes the talking piece to the person next to her to begin the round. The talking piece moves around the circle as everyone responds to the question/prompt, or passes. When the talking piece returns to the circle keeper, she too responds to the prompt/question.
- The circle keeper opens up the space for “cross-talk,” allowing people to ask others questions, comment on what they shared, or otherwise respond to what they heard in the circle.
- The circle keeper continues the circle by asking deeper question that elicit richer, more personal stories as the circle goes on. The number of questions asked will depend upon the amount of people in the circle and the amount of time the circle will last. The circle keeper may want to suggest a time limit for responses.
- When the last question has been asked and answered, the circle keeper closes the circle with another ritual, which can be the same or different from the opening ritual. (Example: join hands for a moment of silence, go around the circle and say thank you to one another.)