I read Jone Johnson Lewis’ Circles of Humanity: Being Human Together last week in preparation for my monthly Restorative Justice Circle practice. I found it clear, concise, and enormously helpful.
I’ve been active with the Ethical Society of Austin for several years, and have waded in the shallows of involvement with the national organization, the American Ethical Union (AEU). Apart from the personal relationships I’ve built, I find ethical humanism fits well with my own ethos of how to move best in the world. In 2023, AEU began offering training in leading Restorative Justice Circles. I was curious enough to join the training. The training was great in terms of a history and theoretical foundation for Restorative Justice Circles, but left me feeling overwhelmed. Jone Johnson Lewis’ book was probably mentioned at that time as a resource, but it didn’t penetrate into my conscious mind. I stuck with the training. Now 7 months on, I feel much more confident of my ability to lead a community building circle, but still under-qualified to lead a circle whose focus is conflict resolution or restorative justice. My focus has also changed from, “how can I help my community to manage conflict?” to, “how can I help my community become more connected?”
Jone’s book is focused on a community-building practice. She draws from a number of traditions and practices, including Restorative Justice, but it is not a workbook for a Restorative Justice practice. Circles are an opportunity for a community to focus on a specific topic, to share their thoughts and experience, and listen to the thoughts and experiences of others. It isn’t a debate or discussion, but a sharing. The purpose isn’t to arrive at an answer or agreement, but to build trust and connection.
Over the time that I’ve participated in the AEU’s circle keeping practice, I’ve noticed that though the small group of us who gather every month don’t know each other well, we’ve become better at listening to each other and having conversations rather than disagreements. We all came in with an intent to learn and practice a skill. We haven’t become friends, but when we are together, we have become a community. It’s been a good reminder for me that friendship and community are not the same thing. A good community will have overlapping shared values and appreciate the many different perspectives its members bring. A good community allows us to be human together.
Another important aspect of community-building that Jone’s book addresses is sharing leadership and responsibility. Jone’s book is written with the intention that any community member can lead a circle discussion. She emphasizes that all community members have a role in maintaining the integrity of the circle. I feel like I can hand Circles of Humanity to a member of my local community and assure them that they have the tools to lead a circle discussion.
This is a great practical tool. If you are looking for more of the whys than the how-tos, this might not be the book for you. For transparency, I will say that I have attended various programs where Jone was a presenter or discussion leader, but we don’t have a personal relationship.