Tips: using circle with marginalized populations

From Kristie McLean’s extensive experience in applying The Circle Way within prison-based nonviolent communication workshops, with the formerly incarcerated in residence, she offers several considerations for using circle with marginalized populations.

 Tips: Using Circle with Marginalized Populations

  1. Focus on grounding, not language. Invite someone to lead a meditation, or ask participants to take a few deep breaths and feel their feet on the ground, spine tall and straight. Allow everyone to arrive from whatever challenging journeys they are on.

  2. Start with what’s working. Consider asking for a gratitude or celebration for the week as a check-in question. Realize that individuals who have suffered trauma can be easily triggered by a painful memory, and that stepping in too early, or before a safe container has been deeply established, can cause derailment.

  3. Recognize different types of contribution. While some individuals are readily articulate and verbal, others carry shame and insecurity around a lack of formal education, including reading and writing, limited or no knowledge of meal planning or cooking for potluck items and may display a consistent lack of follow-through.

    Learn to translate resistance and criticism into feelings and needs. Self-protection can be strong armor. A barbed challenge may open up stuck thinking and allow for necessary adaptations.

  4. Have food. I often hear comments like, “I know when I come to circles, I’ll at least have two meals this week.” Never underestimate how even a small meal may be the first food someone has had that day.

  5. Realize that not everyone feels safe in small groups. While introverts may find it easier to speak pairs or smaller configurations, individuals who are incarcerated may find close proximity alarming. Use sensitivity, and let people choose their own groups whenever possible. It’s fine to invite people to consider working with people with whom they haven’t yet connected, but be prepared and open to participants determining their own levels of comfort. 

  6. Resist the urge to fix or rescue. While those familiar with circle process understand this clearly, recognize that working with certain populations can illuminate clear and actionable needs that may demand attention. Have resource lists and mentoring options available outside of the formal circle, or consider hosting an activity where each person articulates a challenge and others ask him/her several questions to consider for personal action to move forward.

  7. Maintain good self care practices. Use meditation, journaling, exercise, time with friends or other strategies to keep your own mind clear and your spirit tended.


Kristie McLean is a circle practitioner, coach, documentary photographer and writer who creates safe sanctuary, deep taproots and beauty within challenging environments and communities who are largely overlooked. She is actively engaged in hosting work (The Circle Way, Non-Violent Communication, Emotional and Cultural intelligence, Appreciative Inquiry and multimedia storytelling.) She has spent more than 20 years profiling social issues such as child brides in Afghanistan, access to clean water in Kenya, Unexploded Ordnances in Laos, and conditions of garment workers in Haiti. Since 2010, she has championed a project in Ethiopia that supports women suffering from the childbirth injury Obstetric Fistula. Locally, Kristie is developing a re-entry program for formerly incarcerated individuals. She hosts weekly community circles, a “Community of Belonging” conversation series, and helped open the first-ever “Restorative Home” for 5 justice-involved individuals committed to living lives of non-violence and mindfulness.