MISSION AND HISTORY
Let's Circle Up (LCU) seeks to build relationships, community, and leaders through experiential, participatory, and collaborative restorative justice (RJ) education. Guided by RJ values and principles, our workshops and other group dialogue experiences empower us to practice RJ in everyday life with the aim of restoring damaged relationships caused by past harms, to the extent possible, and ending future harm.
Founded in Graterford State Prison (Pennsylvania) in 2007, LCU looks to facilitate individual and social change by raising awareness of harm's impact and the relational aspect of crime. We believe that when coming face-to-face with the real impact of crime and other harms, we will be inspired to live in ways that are more life-giving to others and ourselves.
Where it began...
Though LCU began in 2007, the roots of restorative justice (RJ) at Graterford Prison goes back to the early 1990s when Howard Zehr, Julia Hall, and others developed and facilitated VORP (Victim Offender Reconciliation Program). After only a few years, though, the political climate of the 90s led to VORP's end.
RJ returned to Graterford in 2001 through a seminar sponsored by the Pennsylvania Prison Society (PPS) that was coordinated and facilitated by Barb Toews and other practitioners. Charles Boyd and several other incarcerated men, as a result of their participation, became inspired to use RJ in an attempt to turn Graterford into a center for change. The collective went on to bring forth a number of RJ based programs. In 2006, however, PPS cut its restorative justice department, leaving the group without the external sponsorship required for a non-staff led program to function in prison.
A year later, in 2007, Charles, still believing in RJ's transformative power, met with Pastor Michael A. Meneses and others from Wellspring Church of Skippack to discuss the possibility of starting up a new RJ program at Graterford. After a few months of planning, they launched a pilot run of Wellspring & Friends Restorative Justice Workshop, which planted the seed that would blossom into LCU.
In 2008, after being introduced to RJ through a book of Howard Zehr’s and subsequently meeting Charles, Felix Rosado joined in the development of the Wellspring Workshop. Between sessions, Charles and Felix started meeting to refine the curriculum. Those discussions evolved to ideas of how to increase RJ's overall impact at Graterford. The workshop grew into what we started calling The Restorative Justice Project (RJP).
By 2010, demand for the workshop, through word of mouth, was increasing to the point that Charles and Felix were not able to travel anywhere in the prison without getting approached by men wanting to participate. That summer, in response to almost all workshop graduates wanting to know what was next, we created monthly alumni activities. Then in the fall, we started our Advanced RJ Workshop.
The relationships we have built - with each other; prison staff; outside churches, schools, organizations, and people; and every participant who sits in one of our circles - have contributed to this project's rapid growth. Haverford College's Center for Peace & Global Citizenship has provided our primary external support.
Since the summer of 2007, not a week has gone by without a facilitator in a room somewhere inside Graterford's wall and now Phoenix's fence saying "Let's circle up." We say it when first getting together for one of our sessions and when coming back from breakout activities. When we finally came around to naming ourselves, after years of the default Restorative Justice Project, it only took a couple discussions. The circle represents interconnectedness, unity, inclusiveness, equal voice, care, patience, and respect, among other values that guide us. Every LCU activity happens in a circle. To us, circle is not only a noun, but a verb. Circling up - a lot - is what we do. After thirteen years, what began as a workshop, then a project, is now a movement we invite all to join. Our name is that invitation.
At the end of 2017, we handed a certificate to our 1,000th Graterford alumni.
In the summer of 2018, over the course of five days, Graterford shut down and we were moved to the new Phoenix State Prison next door. We spent months struggling to connect across a dozen smaller units as opposed to four huge cellblocks; search for and find only some of our transferred materials; fight for limited room space; and conjure up new ways to recruit and get LCU up again. By the year's end, we were running most of our workshops and strengthening by the day.
We have now surpassed 1,300 alumni. Our hope is for people to form new circles in prisons, schools, churches, communities, and homes everywhere. We will not rest until the entire world is circled up. We imagine and work toward a world where people from across walls, fences, and differences can come together to explore the impact of harm and learn to live in more right relationship with one another, where we can transform our views of crime, justice, accountability, each other, and ourselves - one workshop, one circle at a time.