Women of the Peace Circle Initiative (left to right): Ann Nelson, Sarah Balenger, Maerine Givens, Sharrie Smaller, Brandi Ivy, Michele Wanless, Amicus President Louise Wolfgramm, Yesenia Murillo. Photo by Tami Mohamed Brown
Women of the Peace Circle Initiative (left to right): Ann Nelson, Sarah Balenger, Maerine Givens, Sharrie Smaller, Brandi Ivy, Michele Wanless, Amicus President Louise Wolfgramm, Yesenia Murillo. Photo by Tami Mohamed Brown
"What you do has an effect on other people's lives. I lost a son. I come because if I can help save a life, help a parent ... my heart is in it," said Sharrie Smaller, a member of the Peace Circle Initiative.

Communing weekly in St. Paul since March 8, 2010, the Circle brings engaged adults together to work toward breaking the cycle of inner city youth violence. The Peace Circle, an initiative of the organization Amicus, has the goal to rebuild neighborhood and family connections. Smaller described the importance of knowing the kids, talking and listening and changing the idea that no one cares-objectives shared by other members.

Using a practice from the indigenous community tradition-the talking circle-each individual is given the opportunity to speak in turn, passing an object around the circle. It's an approach adopted by organizations interested in alternate routes to conflict resolution, decision making and community building.

The majority of the initial circle members were women, mothers and grandmothers, but more men have gotten involved throughout this year. Participants are worried about their children's gang involvement, friends and neighbors looking for solutions to end the violence in their community, all seeking support from others who understand what they're going through.

"There were three shootings into my house," shared circle member Michele Wanless. "I couldn't sit around and watch it happen."

Among the group's priorities is strengthening relations between parents and law enforcement, with the chief of police and administration from the St. Paul Police Department coming into the circle for the first time in October. Meeting on common ground, police representatives spoke of their experiences growing up-some in St. Paul neighborhoods. Many told stories of their interactions with police; some related positive experiences while some addressed experiences in which lives were still being negatively impacted.

"I can feel a difference in people we're interacting with," observed Brandi Ivy, who originally came to the group to support her best friend, who was going through difficult times. "At home, I can feel it in my kids. It can be very powerful when people change dynamics. "

"There's this strength here that's hard to describe," acknowledged Amicus President Louise Wolfgramm. "I come back because it makes me happy."

"I keep coming back because of the caliber of people, and because of the problems we're living with," Ann Nelson said.

Circle member Maerine Givens affirmed, "This is a powerful group-each individual in it contributes. I call it my school."
While the Peace Circle project is focused on the Selby neighborhood in St. Paul right now, there is interest in using it as a model for projects in other parts of the metro area.

"There is such potential-such power to change community," observed Yesenia Murillo, who acts as scribe for the circle, recording the possibility to implement positive change.

"We glean so much from one another each week," Sarah Balenger said. "It causes a chain reaction when people begin relating to their families in a different way-it's contagious. Change can be made. We see parents taking back their homes and saying-this is not acceptable. People hopeless and frustrated can be energized, and that's what this group does. I see it getting stronger. The power found in the circle truly transcends."

Be A Changemaker:
To get involved in Peace Circles through the Minnesota-based, nonprofit organization, Amicus, contact
www.amicususa.org
612-348-8570