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Have you ever noticed how seemingly unrelated things connect?
Last week I attended an event in an ongoing series of VisionHolder calls sponsored by Craig and Patricia Neal’s Heartland Circle. This week’s event was an evening with Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea, co-founders of PeerSpirit, Inc. and co-authors of “The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair.” I have enjoyed several of these events in the past year, and this was no exception.
After opening the circle, Ann and Christine spoke about how they began using circles as a forum for teaching and conducting meetings, how they met and began working together, and some of the key facets of circle work. (Maybe “facets” isn’t the right word, since circles don’t have facets. Hmmm. How about points?)
Anyway, some of those points included the idea that the circle is the molecular unit of democratic practice; all members have a voice. They can remove divisions and do not allow differences to divide people. Anger can be expressed, if it is directed to the center where it can just be deposited and not directed across the circle at someone else. And when we focus on the issue we are gathered around today, “the sacred comes into the room.” (I thought this was a particularly moving idea; it was not about religion, but about something “entitled to reverence and respect.”
I was also struck by Christine’s description of how she began using circles in her teaching. She realized that her students were also teaching her and each other, and I was struck by the connection to Paulo Freire’s emphasis on the teaching model of “teacher-student and student-teacher.” (I am re-reading his book, “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” for the first time in 30 years, and I am struck by the timeliness – or timelessness – of his thoughts, as well as how he has shaped my thinking.) Connection Number One.
Then on Friday I attended the annual conference of the Bay Area Organization Development Network (BAodn). For the first time the conference did not follow the traditional model with a keynote speaker and pre-defined sessions with expert speakers. Instead, the conference followed the “Open Space” model. There was a facilitator, but there was no set agenda and there were no “expert speakers.”
Instead, we convened in a circle (ah, Connection Number Two) and the facilitator, Lisa Heft, explained to us how the day would proceed. Anyone who had an issue or question they would like to have addressed in a session could come to the center, create a placard, and announce it to the group. They then selected which of three one-hour time slots they wanted their session to be in. When those who had created sessions were done, they were assigned meeting stations to convene their circles. (There it is again.) Then we began the first session and participants went to the session(s) of their choice. Each group was asked for a Note Taker and the notes were turned in at the end to be compiled into a Book of Proceedings that will be distributed to all participants. At the end, after all sessions were complete, the facilitator reconvened the great circle and each person had an opportunity to share a reflection on the day.
This was quite an interesting experience for me. It was somewhat uncomfortable, at least initially, for those who are more comfortable with Structure – even if they admitted it was only so they could resist that structure – but there was no Chaos. Every person’s expertise and desire to learn had a place; and all perspectives were welcome. The only barrier to being heard was one’s own barriers to speaking. There was a lot of sharing and learning and exposure to new ideas or tools, and I was struck by how many people said they found themselves having, and sharing, surprising insights.
I wonder about my recent experiences with these learning circles. They are not, at their core, new; as Ann and Christine said, such circles are archetypal, part of our cellular memory: Humans have been gathering around fires since there were fires and humans.
But why are they getting attention now? I wonder, is it just me paying attention? Or is it that at this point in time we are realizing that many of the “experts” have been wrong, or dishonest, and our answers have to come from each other – and from within?
It seems to me that these circles are like Four-Way Stops, which someone once said were one of the great examples of Civilization. Why? Because everyone generally agrees to abide by the rule without enforcement. There is the opportunity for Chaos, but it is avoided.
I wonder. And I look forward to doing more circle work.
What about you? Care to join me?