In early 2010, St. Paul was witnessing an increase in youth violence and it hit close to home for Russel and Sarah Balenger. Russel is the Senior Vice President in Charge of Programming for Amicus, but in this case he was just a concerned neighbor and grandparent.
Russel and Sarah reached out to other concerned neighbors, asking them to join them in a circle talking about ways they could help ensure that they never needed to attend another funeral for a son or grandson lost to violence. They asked for a commitment of four weekly meetings at Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul. After that, Russel conceded that if the participants didn’t feel they were making progress, everyone could stay home again on Monday evenings.
The Circle grew and persevered, adding more neighbors, and representatives from other groups with a stake in ensuring safe neighborhoods. St. Paul Police officers joined in circle with boys from Ramsey County Boys Totem Town. Macalester students offered their perspective alongside the perspectives from young men from the Evening Reporting Center. Each week, young sat next to old, black next to white, passing the talking piece and listening. On Monday April 30, 2012 the Saint Paul Circle of Peace celebrated their 100th meeting in the most appropriate manner possible. More than 40 members sat in circle and spoke about what the experience has meant to them. It’s apparent from those who saw the early days of the circle that, over time, they’ve gotten better at expressing their thoughts and more willing to offer the truth that they see.
Here’s a bit of what they said:
“This started from the love that we feel and the fear that we felt for our children.”
“People said that things had changed. Things are bad and that we didn’t have community anymore. Well, here we are.”
“When things are falling apart, the Circle is the kind of glue that can pull things together.”
“It’s a cool place”
“We get such a wide spectrum of faces and voices. That can only produce good.”
“It’s a way to share perspectives with the rest of the community – the ENTIRE community.”
“We tell our stories. We hear each other and we’re changed by our stories.”
“I feel privileged and humble to be here every week.”
“I used to think that talk was just talk. Through this I’m learning that communication IS action.”
“This is a model of dialogue we can use to promote peace – not just here, but elsewhere – in the city, the state and the country.”
While the words “community,” “peace” and “healing” were spoken often, circle members acknowledged daily reminders that the world outside wasn’t always so peaceful.
They were concerned about recent violence, including shots fired at one circle member’s home. Young men spoke about wanting to live peacefully, but not knowing how to put their guns down when their rivals still have theirs.
“You fight and make somebody lose, they want to fight you again,” one young man said.
Circle members responded that it’s not always easy or safe to take responsibility for one’s action.
“You have to make up your mind that ‘I’m going to be the one to take the violence out of the situation.’ I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. There are going to be people who don’t get the message, but in as much as it depends on me, I choose peace.”
Circle members added that if young people feel trapped, they should reach out to others in the community for help, and they could start with those in the circle that night.
“How did we get here?” one circle member asked. “We know how we got here. We turned our backs. Now we’ve got to turn around again.”
It’s not just a task for this neighborhood in St. Paul. It’s a task for every neighborhood that has felt its soul being ripped apart by violence. It may be the beginning of a movement – circles in community rooms across the city and the country. People talking peace. It’s a dream, but 100 circles in Saint Paul say that it’s a dream that can come true.
Still, as Russel points out on every reminder email for the circle, despite our progress, “We have work to do.”