Archive: Circle and the University of North Carolina

June 1, 2001
By Dr. M. K. Sandford

This post has been moved from its original location at and archived here, so you can continue to access it.

Our circle tale this month comes from Dr. M. K. Sandford, Associate Dean at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. This is a superb synopsis of a complex and moving year of circle work by faculty and administration working as the Race and Gender Institute. Thank you, M.K.

Early in the fall semester of 1999, one day after Hurricane Floyd devastated the North Carolina coast, Christina traveled to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to help us use The Circle Way methodology to facilitate the opening retreat of the Race and Gender Institute. Serving as Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, I had worked for several months with a faculty steering committee to plan the year-long slate of activities for the Institute. As participants and co-creators of this experience, we would spend the year together–meeting monthly, attending special events on diversity issues and probing the depths of our own thoughts and feelings about complex issues of race and gender.

Our expectation in setting the goals, structure and activities of the Institute was that participants would play important, future roles in promoting knowledge and awareness of race and gender issues in the classroom and in different work settings, across campus and throughout the community. In this sense, the Steering Committee viewed the Institute as a leadership development program which focused on diversity issues as vehicles for promoting personal and professional growth.

At the first full meeting of our membership in August, I suggested to my colleagues that we use The Circle Way circle as the foundational group process in our meetings together. They were open to my suggestion that circle methodology would help our group achieve a deeper level of understanding about complicated issues of race and gender while creating new connections and community among us. And, by the time the sixteen members of the faculty and staff gathered on a Friday afternoon for the two-day autumn retreat–each bringing an object for the center that served as a positive representation of their race or gender. They had also read some background information on The Circle Way.

As I sat down across the circle from Christina at the opening retreat, I remembered that as a scientist I had carried healthy doses of both curiosity and skepticism to my first The Circle Way circle–one that Ann had facilitated–on a summer evening, in 1995. I expected that at least some of my colleagues felt skeptical as well; yet, I remembered that on that night four years earlier, curiosity had quickly won as I found myself thinking, "What, if?" "What if," I wondered, "we could bring circle to the university?" "What if we could introduce our colleagues and students to The Circle Way methodology?" As the daughter of two retired College professors and one who has spent the last twenty years moving through the ranks of the academic hierarchy, as both a scholar and an administrator, I recognized that circle represented a paradigm shift in the way we do business, conduct our classes and relate to one another at academic institutions. What had impressed me so much during my introduction to circle was the potential power of the form to allow us to relate to one another, not through our degrees, titles or academic credentials, but simply and fundamentally as human beings.

So, as check-in began, and as Institute members started speaking of the significance of the items that they had selected for the center, I understood the skepticism about the process that some of my colleagues expressed. At the same time, I began learning what it means to really trust the process in knowing that the synergy of the circle works toward the highest intentions.

By the end of the retreat, I knew that we were not only off on solid footing for the year but also in the midst of a transformative experience, both as individuals and as members of the collective. Throughout the weekend we had moved deeper into story and our connections with one another in ways that served to unite our hearts and heads about complex issues of diversity. Working in small groups and for a relatively short amount of time, we also had used The Circle Way methodology to draft a group mission statement, group agreements and additional plans for the year.

As items were removed from the center, I could see just a glimmer that the impact of our year would have. Some colleagues said our opening retreat had given them a renewed sense of hope about our capacity to make a difference in the world around race and gender issues. Others expressed a profound sense of gratitude to the university for this kind of support and training. And everyone looked forward to spending the year working together. We met a minimum of once a month throughout the year and, in a way that exemplified rotating leadership, members of the Institute often helped to organize or co-facilitate these activities.

In between our regular meetings we attended a number of special programs that were organized by the College of Arts and Sciences to promote meaningful dialogue on campus about diversity. Together, we marked the 20th anniversary of a tragic event in Greensboro’s history–the shooting and killing of five demonstrators at an anti-Klu Klux Klan rally by members of the Klan and American Nazi Party. In council, we watched a video of the demonstration and its aftermath, including the funeral process and trials. Together, we viewed Greensboro, A Requiem, the docudrama that was written about the shootings and directed on our campus by an Institute member. Together, we had held council with students who performed in the play, and the playwright, Emily Mann. Together, we viewed an art exhibition portraying racial stereotypes, identity and body image and, after touring the exhibit, held council in the gallery to reflect on the impact of the artwork. There, in the midst of the powerful art work, we experienced a sense of collective safety as we discovered that the container we had created during the retreat would hold our ongoing work.

In May of 2000, at our closing retreat, we officially ended the Race and Gender Institute by becoming what one member called the "Greenhouse Circle."

From our group, The Circle Way circling has disseminated across campus in a variety of different ways. One member has begun a Race and Gender Institute in her home department, involving faculty, students and staff. Many of our participants are using the principles and practices of The Circle Way to hold class discussions about difficult or controversial topics. Several members are using elements of circle to hold staff meetings in their work setting. And, this past January, many members of the Institute received additional The Circle Way training on campus.

Recently, I met one of my colleagues from the Institute outside the Student Union building. As we chatted, she indicated that she’d just come from another meeting where, to her surprise, she’d found other alumni from the Institute. She told me that she smiled and felt more at ease when she saw them. She said, "It was almost like we could relax and just be human." I think back on the ways our lives were transformed by the Race and Gender Institute. My mind drifts further, back to the days when our ancestors told the first stories around campfires hundreds of thousands of years ago. I surmise that the first stories were spun around vital bits of information that were absolutely essential to their survival: the location of food…the availability of water…the nearness of predators…the keeping of the fire. And so it is now with the participants of the 1999-2000 Race and Gender Institute, the new practitioners of the "Greenhouse Circle." We will continue to tell our stories through the center, and each of us will help to tend the fire.