A gang-related fight took place on the sidewalk across the street from one of a regional domestic violence shelter’s facilities on the night of October 18th, 2014 in Chelsea, Massachusetts. A mother who had arrived at the regional Emergency Housing safe home the night before she lost her life. The organization responded only to find the local police and the state police uncooperative and unwilling to allow any additional staff to enter the premises, or to allow any of the people in the vicinity of the shooting to leave the grounds. A co-Executive Director spent the night standing outside the building communication with staff on site via the phone. All families on site were kept inside the apartment where the mother lay dead and uncovered for five and a half hours. The mother’s children also were kept inside the premises. The message was clear, the police-driven process was paramount to the grief and shock of the children who lost their mother, and to that of the families and staff who struggled to try to keep the mother alive. The organizational leadership held no value or importance when compared to what is touted as the precise and scientific effort to define what happened and who did it. Eventually the police left, the children were relocated and so were the rest of the families.
Luckily, that Friday evening, the domestic violence organization had finalized a two day introductory circle process with a few other domestic violence organizations in the region. Their response was to offer support in the arduous task of relocating five families and three completely traumatized children. Other partners made their presence evident as they worked to find additional psychological support for those families while working to maintain the safety of the three children who had lost their mother. The media began to show up on the grounds and began to quickly post pictures of the building and the staff on their websites and live news shows. The storyline was clear “Mother seeks safety and finds death.” It was tragic, salacious, and profitable.
The local City Manager was moved by this storyline and quickly sent off a community wide email lauding the work of an organization that is focused on addressing the needs of young adults who are criminals as the promise that would solve this issue while thoughtlessly confirming that the victim was working with the local domestic violence shelter. He confirmed that the shooting and death took place on the shelter premises. To any active predator, the City Manager handed over the type of information that can get survivors of domestic violence and organizational staff killed. Soon, city councilors began their political spin getting face time with the media and repeating that this mother was in fact in the regional emergency housing program. Beyond the loss of life, the organization was forced to shut down the Emergency Housing program for a while also because of heightened concerns for the staff’s bodily safety. It is not an unusual occurrence for staff of domestic violence organizations to be threatened by people who are upset about necessary restraining orders, child custody and child support battles, divorce and immigration procedures, etc. Many of these people are repeat offenders with gang affiliations, access to weapons, and the ability to disappear in an instant. The risk cannot be overstated.
The leadership of the domestic violence organization organized its networks with other organizations and the media to denounce the City Manager and to also get the news networks and newspapers to edit out sensitive information from their reports. Despite all these efforts, the City Manager, having made his pronouncement of success did not address his carelessness. Nevertheless, between Friday night and Monday morning all families and children had been accommodated and a response plan was put in place by the network of domestic violence organizations. What was left to do, was to figure out what the appropriate organizational and community response should be in order to recover the community’s collective sense of well being. Circle process was used as follows:
- Respond to the loss of life and to its impact on the individual members of our team. Community members would spend time in circle with any staff members who felt ready and able to participate. Overnight and part time staff would be paid for the amount of hours they would have worked during the time it took to implement this community response process. One set of questions that would be examined related to the impact of the shooting and the loss of life on individual community members. The other related to what needed to happen in response. Careful notes were taken and follow through was critical throughout this process. No decisions were made without the group, and all actions were driven collectively. The people hosting this process understood that in crisis, pre-existing structures and assumptions are broken and so new order needed to be discerned and built by individuals in communities in order to “take ourselves back” from the violence.
- Respond to the impact of loss of life on our premises. As predicted, once the group processed the impact of the shooting and loss of life on its sense of purpose and well being, it became critical that it focus on “taking back our place.” Circles were used as a way to hold conversations about what it meant to work in a place where there was a shooting and loss of life as a consequence. Given the diverse viewpoints, religious and spiritual practices represented within the staff and community members, it was important to allow for individual ways for people to “take the space back” as well as to create collective ritual to reaffirm people’s right to be in the space where the loss of life occurred. It is difficult to describe all of what went on for the group as it began to enter the space where the loss of life occurred. One of the recurrent comments was that the space did not feel the same, to say the least, and so folks had to find individual and collective ways to redefine that space. As the person who gathered the mother’s family’s belongings, all I can really say is that the experience was unsettling and challenging and that it helped to have the support of my colleagues in the packing up, moving, and relinquishing of those belongings. For others in the team, it was important that “taking back our space” entailed prayer, song, food, laughter, and even dancing. This is so, because culturally, grief is handled very differently from culture to culture and so it was important to create the space and flexibility to allow for that, to be present, to witness, and to partake in people’s ways of grieving, honoring, and channeling the uncertainty and pain visited upon the community by a bizarre turn of events.
- Respond to the community’s need to respond to the loss of life. As the media’s ineptitude began to inform others about what had transpired, people from the community and other partners began to reach out and ask for ways to contribute and take care of staff and affected community members. This was a task that needed to be managed while the organization grappled with its own sense of incapacitation. The group decided to host a community open house that would allow for circle process and for mingling. Two spaces were set up, one for circle and one for mingling to allow for people to flow in and out of circle. Community partners brought service dogs, offerings of flowers and food, toys and other donations for the children who lost their mother and also for the group so we would take care of ourselves. At the top of the hour, the group began a round in order to allow partners to express their thoughts and to process. Then, at the end of each round folks were invited to mingle or stay in the circle “room.” Domestic violence survivors were invited to join the community event and to help set up the space and welcome folks who were visiting. The community event lasted four hours. At the end of those four hours, the staff sat in circle to process the community event. The group was in awe of people’s generosity and grateful also for the community’s ability to be present with unthinkable and unspeakable grief.
- Engage with other partners in the effort to normalize day to day operations. The day after the community event, the entire staff attended the annual domestic violence breakfast held by the local domestic violence task force. Then, the group returned to the shooting site and discussed the event. That marked the end of one week’s worth of processing and responding to a tragedy that struck the very heart of the organization’s commitment to create safety and well being in partnership with survivors of domestic violence.
- Transition into a new paradigm of organizational operations that integrates the experience of loss of life and the lessons learned from that difficult process. The group continued to begin and end each day in circle process for weeks after the events of October 18th. Since then, the group has resumed its work with survivors through emergency response, community based and transitional housing initiatives. It renovated the safe home and has strengthened collegiate relationships through the development of staff behavioral agreements. Currently, it begins the week with a revamped staff meeting done in circle process and it ends it with a “check out” circle. The group continues to deepen and grow this work locally, regionally, and nationally. It has been said in the circle that the group has faced the unimaginable and that it has survived an attack to the very core of its spirit as a group of people who stand in the world with a clear commitment for peace and for the restitution of our loving communities. The group is clear that circles is a practice that can help communities handle anything that comes their way and that it should not be reduced to the status of an activity or a strategy, but rather a ubiquitous practice through which communities are reminded of both their fragility and their greatness.
Whether this group will have the type of vision and discipline of thought and behavior to truly incorporate the principles of circles into its very DNA through its management processes and by strengthening its currently nonexistent community accountability processes remains to be seen. Circle process is an ideal way to respond to crisis and it can also be used to make meaning in the aftermath of crisis, to anchor changed behavior and to continually inspire ongoing quality improvements. However, without strong leadership and vision, circle process can quickly become dessicated. When circle process is implemented within strictly hierarchical organizations, strong leadership is necessary to ensure fidelity, transparency, and accountability.
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