How peacemaking circles are changing King County’s juvenile justice system and staff from the inside out
“For me, I went to my intro to peacemaking about a year after my father had passed away. And I was close to last on sharing our object, and I had brought a picture of him and me from high school,” said Ashley Mareld, recalling her first foray into the practice of peacemaking circles. “I obviously broke down talking about it—a lot of times people get emotional in circle.”
“And then, well, it was interesting, because…” Her voice trailed off as she paused on the memory of that moment. “I think, because I felt really…raw and vulnerable having talked about it. But because I did, it still was healing. It was like laying it down in the circle, and being able to move on in a good way.”
“Before, I didn’t really talk about my dad without crying, because the first year is always hard after a parent dies, and I had never lost anyone so close to me… But it was a totally different experience than I had ever had before, and just talking about it in that first circle was really healing,” says Mareld, the Acting Juvenile Programs Manager for King County’s Juvenile Detention Division. “I was able to use that experience and share my own healing story when I was participating in circles with youth. And I don’t know if it helped them or didn’t help them—but that’s what circle is about; it’s just sharing your own story and laying it out there, and if people get something from it, they can, and if they don’t that’s ok, too.”
Mareld was one of the first to join what Juvenile Division Director Pam Jones calls the “silent movement” amongst juvenile detention staff and other King County employees who work in juvenile justice. In just the Juvenile Detention Division, 100 percent of supervisors and senior staff have done at least the Introductory Peacemaking Circle training, 60 percent of all the juvenile division staff have taken the introductory training, and 20 percent have gone beyond the introductory course with the Circle Keepers training. Jones is a little more than halfway to her goal of having 100 percent of the Juvenile Detention Division staff being trained in the Peacekeeping Circle principles and methodology.
The 100 percent goal may seem excessive considering that King County’s use of the Peacemaking Circle diversion program for juvenile offenders is still in its infancy. But Jones aims to use the power of the peacemaking method well beyond the confines of a handful of alternative sentences for youth. Her vision is one where peacemaking circles are the path where employees can rediscover healing, trust, and purpose amongst themselves first and foremost. “In order to have healthy kids, we have to have healthy staff. When we talk about trauma in youth… why would we think that’s different for adults?” says Jones. “So when staff come to work with a full bucket, as I call it, or even halfway full because they haven’t dealt with their own trauma, then they’re not serving our youth or our population the best way that they can. So we have to have healthy staff to have a healthy environment.”
Jones has a clear vision of how the peacemaking circles can improve the internal working of the division and break down barriers and build up relationships between staff. But her silent movement is still young, and hints of skepticism still go hand in hand with hints of mystery about the practice. “Right now, some people still aren’t sold on peacemaking, and that’s ok,” says Mareld. “I think people are coming around to the idea, but there are still some people who are like, ‘ya, that Kum-ba-yah isn’t for me,’ but really, that’s because they don’t know about it. They haven’t gone, and there’s some misperceptions, so we’re just gonna have to slowly change minds, and that’s ok.”
“After they’ve gone through it, they say ‘oh my god, this is the best experience of my life.’ And I say, well, part of the reason she (Pam Jones) sent you here is because you are part of the organization of change, and she believes in you. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here,” says Saroeum Phoung, the consultant who leads the county’s peacemaking training and has been using the peacemaking circle methodology for decades in community building and crime prevention efforts, first in Boston, and now in Seattle.
Phoung says, “The system change work is to promote a healthy organization. Healthy organization doesn’t exist [sic] if the humans, the individuals, are not healthy. So that’s why peacemaking is that much more essential—because healthy organizations need healthy people. And if you have healthy staff and a healthy, functional way of life, then you can promote that with youth, families, and everyone who is a part of that organization. So that’s why this work is more essential than just singing Kum-ba-ya.”
“And I’m so glad that Pam has prepared her staff to dance in this dysfunctional political time,” says Phoung. “I’m grateful to her and her staff and that they are doing circle work with the young people, because there’s a lot of benefit to this work.”
The proof for how deeply effective the peacemaking circle principles can be in addressing trauma, conflict and violence is in Saroeum Phoung’s own deeply moving story about how he came to peacemaking. A refugee from war-torn Cambodia, Phoung came to Boston in his early teens with his family, but the trauma and violence didn’t end with the move to a new country. The racism, economic hardship, and violent crime in Phoung’s neighborhood drove him to the gang life in his teens. Phoung himself has committed violent crimes and spent time in prison before finding solace and purpose with Roca, Inc., a Boston-area non-profit that does youth outreach and restorative justice work.
“I feel like I’ve been through in my own life lots of adversity, challenges, conflict, tension, and trauma. And doing this work helps me understand that basic fundamental—that healing is part of human life, it’s part of the essential human race. Because if we continue to perpetuate this way of life, there is so much great suffering coming our way that we’re not prepared for,” says Phoung. “But that’s why it’s a lonely job sometimes, to know that peacemaking is the way. Because we’re so addicted to conflict. Deeply addicted, like opium or coke, like a drug—we’re deeply addicted as a human species. And so am I. I love conflict. I have to do a lot of my own fighting internally to not be in that place. And it’s not an easy job. Fighting myself is never going to be a win or lose, because either way I still suffer.”
Part of Phoung’s teaching is that peacemaking is not a one and done affair, and those who come to it looking for a quick fix for the justice system, for their workplace, or for themselves personally, will not find it in the peacemaking circle method. Phoung himself can attest to the ebb and flow of peacemaking and conflict because he himself spent years floating back and forth between outreach work and the street life. Especially in an adversarial human system that has conflict built into its very core, like the American justice system, relapse and falling back into old habits are a natural part of the peacemaking journey.
“It’s a discipline, like any martial art, or art in general. It’s a discipline and practice,” says Phoung. “Sometimes I fail miserably, sometimes I’m great, and sometimes I’m just ok. So that’s why I say, if I’m at 51 percent today, then I’m moving towards the right direction. The discipline tells me, you’re ok, you’re human, and you did the best you can. Now, when it’s below 50, and there are many days like that, you know, it’s a struggle, because we’re living in a very conflict driven world, where conflict is seen as normal and ok.”
Phoung is a slight but fit man with the Zen-like presence of a Buddhist monk. His languid voice and calm demeanor can instantly quiet a room and draw you close with the refreshing coolness of a mirror-still alpine lake. It’s only natural that some people may conclude that his peacemaking training must have some kind of underpinning mysticism or strange and exotic faith lurking in the teachings. But for those who have experienced the Introduction to Peacemaking training and embrace the mindset of power sharing, selfless listening, and peacemaking, they find no hocus pocus; just mindfulness and a call to listen more and connect better with other people.
“When I was first introduced to it, ya, I was skeptical. But then it turned out to be the opposite of what I thought it was going to be,” says Juvenile Detention Officer Robby Delgardo. “I think it’s added patience and added understanding.”
Delgardo was inspired enough by his first experience to take the next step and volunteered for the Circle Keeper training. “I think it’s helpful, it works. You know, I think just talking period is a good thing. I don’t have a personal issue with anybody, so I’m not using it to work stuff like that out with anybody, but being able to talk about things and really listen, it’s always a good tool,” he says. “And the more you use, the better, right? You gotta practice. To me, it’s sort of like church. You know, you go to church on Sunday, and you feel great on Sunday, like you can conquer it. But then you get into your week, and things happen, and that feeling fades. So you gotta work at it, put your mind to it, and remind yourself every day of what you learned and remind yourself of that feeling, not just on Sunday.”
Even for those who are more reserved, there are still lessons and techniques that are fruitful in the peacemaking training. “There are some aspects of it that I really appreciate… I do like the idea of walking in another person’s shoes, and listening is always good,” said Juvenile Detention Officer Adam Hoppis. “I can see where it can be useful for our youth. It’s teaching you how to be empathetic and how to listen. Though I wonder if we have enough time with most of them for it to have a real impact. And, in my opinion, is this something that can substitute for detention? No. But incorporating some of it into what we do here? Yes.”
For Pam Jones, that’s enough. She says her goal has never been to force people to accept some new religion or faith or sing Kum-ba-ya. It’s simply to explore a different way of connecting with other people that’s focused on empathy, listening, and collaboration, so that people can rediscover what inspired them to work with youth, and show up better and engage better with their co-workers as well as the youth in their care. “But it had to be built on trust, and this common goal and understanding that together, this is a team running the show, not Pam,” she says. “It was really cool. Once they started believing they were setting the agenda, I could really feel things shifting. Once they grasped it, they really could feel how they were empowered, without having to rely on top-down directive.”
“I mean, yes, King County Juvenile Detention Division is using peacemaking as part of the County’s overall alternative sentencing model,” says Mareld, “but Pam has been implementing peacemaking as a way to promote organizational change. To promote empowerment from within staff.”
Mareld says that even if the peacekeeping training simply results in gaining fresh perspectives and a few new friendships, a benefit is still gained. “I think for some staff, it was really good for them to spend time hearing other people’s stories, because we don’t do that in society, really. We don’t spend time to really hear other people out,” she says. “I think for some people there is a comradery that forms between people who went to the circle groups together, because you’re sharing your story, as well as hearing other people’s stories. When I went to intro, there’s another staff person who went, and before, we didn’t really have the opportunity to talk with one another, but now every time we see each other we’re like, ‘oh, circle buddy!’ and there’s that extra comradery.”
Mareld’s experience is not unique. “There was also one of the prosecuting attorneys in my circle group,” says Delgardo, “and we knew each other before, but, you know, just kind of a passing thing. But now after that shared experience, we have a great relationship, we say hi every time we see one another, that sort of thing.” “What Pam and her staff are doing—it’s never been done on planet earth,” Phoung declares. “Now, there are a lot of people who do amazing programs, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to take that credit from them. But to change the institution itself in this depth—there’s no one in the world who is doing this. I mean, sending 60 percent of their staff for three day training in peacemaking? No, the traditional system is, ‘I tell you what to do, and you do it.’” “But this is empowerment, this is about sharing power, and ownership and accountability. So when you talk about innovation and system change, I think it’s way long overdue,” says Phoung.
“I think a lot of people forget that being in this place and being in detention will cause some trauma… people are coming through the door and dealing with trauma on a daily basis, and that’s staff and kids,” says Jones, “So in order to create the best and healthiest environment, I have to work on staff first. They have to be able to identify their source of trauma. And we don’t ask staff to spill their personal lives to us, we don’t ask that. Because it’s also about trust, and that doesn’t come overnight. They need to believe that they’re not going to be judged by what they share, and that people are genuinely interested in and care about them—genuinely.” “So it really is about building healthy staff. They’re able to find their purpose, and feel comfortable that their being heard,” says Jones. “I mean, really, that’s it.”