Our story with circle
By Nina Burrowes
Often when we gather in circle we use storytelling as a way of having a different kind of conversation. It helps us avoid dominant forms of conversation that too often centre our opinions. Instead, storytelling invites us to centre our experience.
So let me tell you the story of circle, for me as an individual, and us as an organisation.
Gathering in a circle to have a different kind of conversation has been an energy in my working life for many years. From the time that I started stepping out as an independent researcher I felt isolated as a professional and had a strong need for connection with my peers. I also felt dissatisfied with our standard ways of gathering. The expert at the podium. Presenting data on how the world is. Data made more powerful by our magical ability to remove ourselves from the very thing we are studying. An encounter that privileges information over connection. The person with the PhD over the people in the audience.
I was often the expert at the podium in these situations. I invariably left these events full of doubt about the value of what just happened. My sense of loneliness and isolation unresolved. Coupled with that was a sense that if I’m always the one doing the talking at what point do I get to learn?
I had so many questions. I had a strong desire to simply gather with colleagues and trust that the space and time together would lead us in a valuable direction.
In 2016 I tried to meet this desire by starting an online space for therapists and support workers called ‘The fire circle’. The aspiration was to create a space for the questions and thoughts we don’t usually have time for. How does the sector resolve the isolation that clients may feel when we centre 1-2-1 therapy in the work? How do we make space for conversations about the politics of the work in a world dominated by clinical protocols and pathways? How do we make space for our own healing work and can we do that in community with each other? The online home I built wasn’t sustainable. I had plenty of desire to make it work, but I lacked the relationships. It’s hard to break out of isolation on your own.
Fast forward to my next adventure in building: The Consent Collective. An idea that did eventually find a way to sustain itself and grow well beyond what I was able to provide it as an individual. When I was creating this new organisation it was a rare moment in time when I had a bit of money. Most of my previous ideas had been born with a budget of nothing. Now I had a bit of cash, and I decided to invest that money in branding. For me, branding felt deeper than corporate ideas of market identity. It felt more personal. More essential. I love colour. I love design. I felt a strong desire to give this idea an identity it could grow into.
When I found some branding people to work with, my brief to them was that a fire circle needed to be at the heart of the design. A circle of different people coming together. A circle where the difference was as clear as the circle they had gathered in. I wanted something that felt both ancient and modern. An identity that would fit in at a music festival, or in a more corporate environment. And so we have our Consent Collective circle of people. Original designs from our designers. Simple, and yet with depth. A circle depicting more difference the wider the circumference stretches.
The fire circle I asked for, with a more difference as the circle widens.
Much more recently, we sat down to help these individual characters have their own identity: Courage, Connection, The Builder, The Healer, The Shadow, The Phoenix, Balance, Growth, Abide, Bliss, Hope, Wisdom, and Gratitude. These are the energies that cover our van and our Consent Collective clothing.
The individuals in our circle holding their own identity, proudly covering our van
So far I had the circle, but not the process. I had nothing readymade in my life to guide me here. I’m sure all of our ancestors gathered in circles around fires. Our modern ways of heating spaces no longer make this a necessity. But in the time where fire was the primary source of heat my ancestors would have gathered in a circle to share the heat and perhaps knowledge in the form of stories too. But whilst there is a genetic line between those ancestors and me, there was no cultural line that had kept these practices alive. There was nothing in my wider culture that I knew of, nothing in the lessons I had been taught through formal education, nothing gifted to me through parents and grandparents that gave me any kind of legacy to draw upon. There was no process as part of my cultural inheritance.
But a process found its way to me nevertheless. It arrived thanks to Layla F. Saad. In 2018 I was doing some personal anti-racism work. In her booklet (and now published book) ‘Me And White Supremacy’ Layla cites ‘The circle way’ as a process for safely gathering in groups to hold what can be difficult conversations. I got a copy of the book. I had found a process.
In The circle way Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea share the knowledge they gathered over many years of experimenting with a process of holding circle. In their book they describe how circle can help us gather as a community or organisation to make decisions, to connect and to share. This wisdom is only available to me today thanks to those communities who have honoured these processes and managed to keep them alive as part of their cultural tradition. It is always with this gratitude that I step into circle.
Whilst it was me who found the book, it was Cynthia who reached out to The circle way and enrolled in their training program. Through The Circle Way we became aware of another organisation ‘Healing circles global’. A community of people who hold circle purely for the purposes of healing, starting with circles for people living with cancer but growing to hold circles on a wide range of themes from grief to race. As a consequence of Covid-19, Healing Circle Global’s efforts to be truly global were accelerated as they moved their work online, making circle available to people across the world. This was how I was able to do my training with them. In Healing Circles Global, we encountered a not-for-profit ethos and an organisation determined to make circle as widely available as possible at no fixed cost to those attending, or those willing to train to become circle hosts. We found an organisation that honoured and shared. Not only had I found my process; now I had found the beginnings of a community who were willing to hold me and us in that process.
And so here I find myself finally able to create the kinds of spaces I’ve been looking for for years. We have an extensive project holding circle on ‘Healing from injustice after sexual violence and relationship abuse’ that is touring the UK at the moment, but we have also held circle on boundaries, pleasure, healing from white supremacy and have plans for more. Like other organisations, we try to find a balance between using a process that honours its roots whilst also shaping a process that works for our purpose. We also try to find a balance between making circle freely available, and working in a way that makes the work financially viable. In our gender-based violence sector it is also important to make sure that labour, especially caring labour performed by women, is a labour that gets proper financial compensation. We’ve chosen to find our balance by making our public circles on healing from injustice free of charge. But charging if an organisation wants us to hold circle as part of their investment in their team.
We won’t always get the balance right. We’ll lean one way too far and then the other. We’ll encounter challenges as well as moments of ease. But if I’ve learned anything so far from the circles I’ve held and participated in, it’s that circle can hold all of these tensions without necessarily needing an immediate resolution. This is a process. A deep, powerful, soulful and sometimes messy one that I am so grateful to have discovered and so proud to get to share.
If you're inspired to hold circle yourself then we wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. We invite you to walk this path, and we recommend you walk slowly, in community, and with the spirit of honouring and sharing close at hand. To help you with that please find a community to support you in your practice. There are more than a few out there, but like us, you may want to get some support in your learning from The Circle Way or Healing Circles Global.