Harold Gatensby began to use circles in the context of restorative justice in the 80s. Since then, circles have been used within the field of restorative justice to address harm in communities by engaging perpetrators in processes of accountability. Much has been written about circles in the restorative justice field. However, the use of circles in restorative justice efforts has become dominated by White professionals employed by criminal justice institutions that have little to no exposure to indigenous ways of thinking and of being in community. There has been little to no attention paid to issues of oppression, race, power, and privilege in the application of circles. This is highly problematic given the fact that communities of color are disproportionately at risk of engagement with the criminal justice system. Circles in restorative justice are now the tools at the disposal of unrepresentative institutions to implement processes that can easily become oppressive to people of color. I know this because I often run into people of color who refuse to sit in circle process as a result of past experiences of cultural appropriation, misuse of power, misunderstanding of the core philosophies and mechanics of the process, and a general sense of lack of psychological safety.
Restorative justice practitioners now are also implementing circles in schools, another highly contentious field where disciplinary processes are disproportionately driving young people of color out of school and into the prison pipeline. The same dynamics around power and privilege are also happening now in school environments. Administrators and teachers tend to have little to no understanding of indigenous philosophies and practices, or power, and of privilege.
As a result, MassCircles collaborates with restorative justice practitioners but does not hold to the notion that circles are a restorative justice practice. On the contrary, MassCircles believes that circle process is a governance process that can be used to support the contribution of all community members in all of the aspects of life in a community: governance, problem solving, addressing harm, celebrations, learning, grieving, sharing, visioning, healing, etc. We believe that restorative justice practitioners who implement circle process must engage in thoughtful, meaningful, challenging, and difficult conversations about race, oppression, privilege, and power in their practice. Furthermore, we believe that if they are not doing so, they cannot implement circles with fidelity.