Seeds of Change: Using Peacemaking Circles to Build a Village for Every Child

By Boyes-Watson, Carolyn | Child Welfare, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

Seeds of Change: Using Peacemaking Circles to Build a Village for Every Child


Boyes-Watson, Carolyn, Child Welfare


Roca, Inc., a grassroots human development and community organization, has adopted the peacemaking circle as a tool in its relationship building with youth, communities, and formal systems. Circles are a method of communication derived from aboriginal and native traditions. In Massachusetts, the Department of Social Services and the Department of Youth Services are exploring the application of the circle in programming with youth and families. By providing a consistent structure for open, democratic communication, peacemaking circles enhance the formation of positive relationships in families, communities, and systems. The outcome is a stronger community with greater unity across truly diverse participants. This article presents the theory and practice of peacemaking circles, the lessons and challenges of implementing circles in formal organizations, and the potential of the circle to support a strengths-based and community-based approach to child welfare.

Children and families thrive best when connected to a rich network of social supports, both formal and informal. Shifting our attention from poor children's deficits to sources of resiliency in their lives surfaces the crucial role of relationships that support and nurture children and families (Burger, 1994; Werner & Smith, 1992). For this reason, child welfare professionals are moving toward closer collaboration with communities. In transition from the traditional service paradigm, professionals are seeking to empower families as partners in a process that views the wider family and community as valued resources (Baines & Seita, 1999; Batavick, 1997; Saleeby, 1992; Seita, 2000). This shift is also evident in the field of positive youth development, which no longer conceptualizes adolescent development apart from a concurrent effort to promote communities in which many adults are involved in the lives of at-risk youth (Jarvis & Shear, 1997; Pittman & Cahill, 1991).

This sea change opens profoundly hopeful possibilities. Yet it also poses perplexing challenges. We may know it takes a village to raise a child, but if professionals are expecting to connect families with the churches, parent-teacher associations, or bowling leagues of yesteryear, they may search in vain. Over the last 20 to 30 years, community-based activity has significantly atrophied in neighborhoods across the nation (Putnam, 2001). Although this is true for wealthy and poor communities alike, the effect is far more consequential for poor children whose families are less robust and have fewer resources to shield children from the negative effects of community dysfunction. It appears that child welfare professionals may not only need to find the village for each child, but also, somehow, take part in building the village in the first place. The question is, how?

The Start of Something New

In 1999, Roca, a youth and young adult development organization in Massachusetts, adopted the use of peacemaking circles as a core strategy in working with at-risk youth and the local community. The circle process is a method for youth development, community organizing, emotional healing, conflict resolution, political dialogue, team building, collaboration, and organizational planning. At Roca, circles are integrated into all the work the organization does with young people, parents, community partners, local agencies, and its own staff.

The partnership between Roca and the Department of Social Services (DSS) began informally. As youth workers, Roca staff have long worked closely with local social services. Roca invited staff, including the director of the area office, to attend circles held at Roca's offices. The area director believed the process was valuable and immediately asked if she and other staff members could attend a four-day training held at Roca. As enthusiasm and interest in circle grew, the area director arranged for additional staff training at Roca and for Roca to conduct onsite training sessions. …

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