Particpants from the Widening the Circle Symposium
answered the following questions:
1. What is important about learning circles?
2. How could you demonstrate to supporters/funders that a learning circle
3. How can organizations and government support learning circles?
4. What are the impacts of learning circles on individuals
1. What is important about learning circles?
An increased understanding, I think, can lead to a more peaceful society.
Well, people in circles, too, they form like
a family relationship. And, like, in a larger setting, you know, a
lot of them would just shrink down into a corner or to the back of
the room and not be visible. Whereas, in a learning circle, it’s more of a family setting where everyone
has equal opportunity to share what’s on their mind and not
feel so afraid of speaking out.
I think it also keeps you connected with the
world. You’re outside
yourself, and even though that safe circle you’re in, it gives
you a little view of the world beyond that circle.
I think in the circles you can grow. Without
there’s so much pressure sometimes in an ordinary school. I did
it for six months, and after, I sort of decided to quit. So, because
I was pressured into doing things I never have done, and I was
kind of scared, too.
It’s reciprocal, too. You know, each member of a group brings
something to that group. They’re talented in many ways. And so
they bring their skills and talents to that group and someone in that
group will learn from them and also, you know, reciprocate what they
can bring to the group.
It won’t allow isolation.
Well, everybody brings their life experiences. That’s what a learning
circle, from my view, is, life experiences from everybody. Everybody’s
a teacher and everybody’s a learner.
I just wanted to follow up on the term “vulnerable”. Because
I think one of the things a learning circle does is allow you to be vulnerable.
So you don’t necessarily have to come in that vulnerable, but you
know that you bring it, you can say, “I’m not really sure
that I want to be doing this,” and “I’m not sure I
can learn this.” But then the groups says, “That’s
o.k., that’s a perfectly valid response.” So it’s
not eliminating vulnerability, it’s allowing it . . .
I think, too, just accessibility, and having, like
available and knowing that it’s out there. And then, like, for
us having partnerships and sharing our resources so that we can actually
make something happen, so there’s an action associated with what
we’re doing as well.
One more thing that I’ve noticed, outside
of all these other things, is . . . I think it helps keep your mind
active, and you connected and involved with . . . mental health.
2. How could you demonstrate to supporters/funders that a learning circle
I think you have to be able to list the accomplishments
of a circle for supporters, because supporters want to know how something
works. They don’t care how it’s structured so much as how
it works. So you have to make sure, presenting to a supporter, to list
the accomplishments of a circle . . .
The interest. And attendance.
Getting your community involved.
One tool that I like is to kind of have a questionnaire
at the beginning, and then, like, maybe six months, or later, like
. So you can kind of . . . It helps people to see themselves and see
how they were when they came in and then later on, but it also helps
to, you know, gather information to prove how a group, how successful
a group has been. I’ve also
experienced something very interesting, and I think I did share this
with Tracey. There was, with one of the groups, the HATS groups, we used
the self-efficacy scale at the beginning and then six months later. And
what happened was the results, like later people had their self-esteem,
not their self-esteem was lower, but they were more aware of themselves,
of who they were, so they were aware of the fact that they could accomplish
more, so it didn’t change in terms of . . . You know, if you use
the . . . when you analyse the questionnaires, it didn’t change,
it actually showed that people were at the lower level . . . than what
they were when they came in. But then, we were worried . . . It was so
interesting. And what happened was that people were more aware of who
they were and what, where they would go, they were more self-confident,
so then their goals were much higher. So you had to use another tool
to prove that, you know, well the group is actually working. But it was just
so interesting to take people through all these exercises. And I
learned a lot from that process.
I have some hard bit of trouble with evaluation,
maybe because for over twenty years I run a program when evaluation
was a key word, you know. You evaluate things to death. And I always
was very uncomfortable, and continue to be. Because I found I was part
of support groups for families with people with, facing horrible circumstances.
And . . . many times a person coming into a support group, and it was
kind of a peer support group, and half way through it, or at the end,
was more in turmoil than they had been when they came in. Because all
of a sudden, maybe the person was given permission to be, because of hearing different things
you never knew. And, of course, like you said, you have to put these
happy face on those things to the funders, unfortunately, because you
don’t want to put the programs in jeopardy, and then, I started
relating to myself, I’m many times at a point in my life, because
I do a lot of diaries and journalizing, and I sound . . . “Oh,
you know, I’m happy, contented woman going around.” And
then there are the times, if people were to read those journals, just
says, “Oh, God, what’s wrong with her?” You,
know, “She’s not a happy soul, and she doesn’t know
what, her right from her left.” And I find, many times when
you face the stormy period, which I call, those are my stormy periods
. . . In groups, also, if there are stormy periods, many times you grow
after that. But to anyone in that, you are at the bottom of the barrel.
But that doesn’t mean you cannot climb again, or, you know, whatever,
when you are ready for it, or the group is. So these things of evaluations, “I
come in here, and then I progress today, and then I’m up
there and up there.” I just find these a way to . . . What
we have been doing is fooling the funders. Because they make us fool
them, you know? . . . But it’s like we are on this vicious circle
of . . . the way we evaluate things. . . . But something should change
In a somewhat similar vein, I guess, in that
our circle takes place in a multicultural community where there’s a lot of transients.
So a big part of it is always welcoming new people in, so that the circle
is never the same, kind of thing. And I think, too, there might be individual
successes, but the circle itself is kind of continuing on with . . .
its key thing is to be accepting and bringing in. And we have probably
close to fifty percent turnover in the apartments on a regular basis,
maybe every year, and . . . So the challenge is there are new people,
a lot of new people all the time. And I think they find it a support
. . . but to know whether you could say, “Oh, success!” Other
than just, anecdotally, people want to come.
I was just going to say, I think for me, I feel that
I need to learn how to articulate those things to the funders. Because,
well, right now, I mean, we say it, but that’s how where they are at. Their agenda
is, like, they want the happy faces. And they want to show that, you
know, numbers, and it’s all about quantities and not quality. And
I think that it would be very, very helpful if we’d have ways,
kind of learning circles . . . articulate these situations. ’Cause
that’s my experience, too, and that’s part of what I was
referring to earlier on, is that. People become more aware of what’s
going on, and of themselves, and then, you know, it seems like their
self-esteem is lower, and their self-confidence, and so on, and then
articulating these things, I think, would be very . . .
If the government wants to know what we’re doing and how we’re
doing it, why couldn’t we invite them down here to see what we
do and how it’s done?
3. How can organizations and government support learning circles?
A big enough space. A welcoming, accessible space.
Increasingly, as you know, churches and schools often
get crunched in terms of money, they’re often having to charge people for the use
of space, and libraries are open fewer and fewer hours, and . . . So
there’s something to do with, like, those public spaces being available
for community groups to start up new initiatives. But I think it’s
I think for some groups, there is a real need for facilitation . . .
You could have something called a community adult educator who would
be available to any community group.
The way I support our local groups is I just
listen to them. I’m
just a resource for them. They pick up the phone if they need anything,
if they’re having trouble finding a speaker or they’re having,
they don’t know where to start, they can’t find a place to
meet, then they call me, and I’m their resource, and then it’s
my job to give them the tools to make that happen. So I think, you
know, I support my groups. But I need support for myself.
I think learning circles coming together and sharing
as well is a great support. I mean, just being here together and being
able to share everything that we bring to our learning circle and all
that we’ve learned,
that it’s just an amazing kind of support.
I have one more thing. I was thinking, when
you’re talking about
money, one of the things, too, is, like, if there’s seminars or
workshops or something going on, a lot of time you need to send one or
two people, and the group doesn’t have . . . if they’re
not out ongoing raising funds for that kind of thing, they would
need money for things like that. So that that person can become a
resource as they come back.
I think it’s important also to have a pool
of human resources available to your groups. At times you might need
expertise, and, in a certain area, and, you know, being able to develop
a partnership . . .
I think there’s need for start-up money for small, for learning
circles, and I think there’s a need for more public awareness of
the concept. We’ve been doing our Multicultural Women’s Group
for years, and we’ve been a learning circle, and we didn’t
put that name on them, and we didn’t . . . you know, and so it’s, you
come to a different level when you start to identify yourself as a learning
circle, and so it’s kind of a really important, I think, to
have a greater awareness.
The other thing about money, too, is, for young women,
I think you always have to make sure there’s childcare money, because you prevent
people from being able to participate if that’s not taken care
I would add to that, especially for the rural
programs, you know, transportation money. I know in our group . . .
a number of people said, “We just
wouldn’t be here . . .”
There is a lot of misconceptions still about what’s a circle .
. . My friend this morning called me, and she said, “Oh, could
you talk to me,” and I said, “I have to go, I’m . .
.” and I told her a little bit about this circle. And she said, “Oh,
not you again. Are you guys holding hands? . . .” She’s
quite, you know, she’s a normal woman, you know? . . . She sees
these things, she doesn’t see the learning part. She sees the support.
When she said that, I think what she meant is that she sees the support
part that a learning circle provides, but she doesn’t see the learning,
the growth, the other part. And I was thinking, she’s not unique.
I’m sure she’s not unique. She’s very much what other
people also think about learning circles, that there is . . . this one.
So I think somehow it has to come to the public that a learning circle
is this and that and much more, because I don’t think everybody
understands the concept.
I was just going to say that, like, often, like
groups, regardless, groups are perceived as support groups, like adult
support groups. Like you go, if you have a problem, you can go. Like,
it’s for problems,
like, for people with whatever problem, and they go by that theme. Versus
the, all the dynamics. So I think it needs to be more . . . Like the
dynamics need to be promoted, and people need to understand more. And
if Paul Martin was to come here, the only thing that I think I would
say was, well, maybe offer him a seat and say, “Well, just join
the circle.” Because I think that’s what we need, is
not to explain anything to that particular person but be able to kind
of, you know, have the opportunity that I had today, and that we all
had, and I think that’s the best way to learn is to be involved
in part of it.
4. What are the impacts of learning circles
on individuals and communities?
I have attended a lot of healing circles, where
people share many abuse issues that they may carry. And the way that
it’s helped me personally
and the way I’ve seen it impact on community members is you gain
a lot of self-confidence. It’s a circle where people share,
and that circle is respected, where nothing leaves that circle. So
it also helps build trust for those who may find it hard to trust.
And I think from a, also from a personal level, it helps you to grow
and have more confidence to be able to move further in whichever
life path you choose to move on.
The main thing I find out of the whole thing is that
beside me learning myself I’m also teaching other people . .
. I find more respect for myself that I can get to the people in the
circle. And they can replace that back to me . . .
I learned that they don’t pressure you, so I started to realize
that one of my goals was to get into groups. So I . . . I’m
one of those people that had to learn that.
Even though there might be seven different languages
being spoken in the group, the communication increases and people help
each other to understand and there’s a feeling of commonality that kind of grows,
that the human condition is bigger than, you know . . . Somebody’s
from Afghanistan, somebody else is from Jamaica and somebody else is
from Bangladesh, or whatever, but when people start to talk
about their families or their wishes or their concerns, it’s very
much a common feeling. It’s a good feeling about humans.
We had . . . someone who was approximately around 19 years old and then
we had people who were in their fifties, and how the listening . . .
to watch the 18 year old be so intent on what the 56 year old was saying,
and then reverse, you know, that factor was amazing, the respect there
but also the interest . . .
It breaks down some barriers, and maybe, in our situation, helps alleviate
some racism, because people start to know each other on a personal level.
I think it also helps create a bigger support network for the participants
and the community, as well as for yourself, if you may need it.
Many times we just become so, through life, so self-involved,
you know, our worries, our illness, our family members, whatever. So
your world becomes, at times, smaller. So it’s true, when we reach out and
go out there, then you say, “O.K., my problems matter . . .” but
sometimes you put things in perspective, if nothing else.
We came together through a common thing, which
was elderly abuse. A group of people just started to find that other
seniors in the community were dealing with very difficult situations,
and then they wanted to do something about it, but they didn’t know what at that time,
what they could do. So I think they did a most amazing thing, was that
they decided to come together as a group, and they started looking at
different ways of addressing some of those issues. And then they kind
of developed a safe zone, where people could talk about themselves and
talk about their experiences. And from there, they moved into action,
into thinking what can we do. And most of the people that were part of
that group . . . some of them had never . . . like, had no formal education.
Never went to school. And they thought that, you know, that there was
very little that they could do at that time. But by coming together,
by working together, they realized that they could actually do a lot
of things. And one of the things that they identified was theatre, through
the use of theatre. And then, because language was still a barrier for
communication, they thought that, well then we can just use body language.
So they started preparing these little, short, these short plays, about
the problems that they were seeing in the community, and then they would
go to places and they would engage people in discussing those issues
and coming up with possible solutions to the problems, so all of a sudden
they became popular educators. And it was an amazing experience, because
people in the group, they became aware of a lot of things that they had
that they didn’t know. And they also became more self-confident,
and then their self-esteem went up, and then they start going to all
kinds of places, including at colleges and universities, and we have
a quote, Tracey used that, from one of the participants that says, “I
never sat in a school bench, and today I was teaching a university class.” And
it is true. Like, I mean they brought in their experiences, which are
unique, and there’s no way, as you know, me as a worker, anybody,
could share that type of experience with a class. So it was really interesting.
So that’s my experiences, one of my experiences, with learning
circles, is people coming together, we can discover amazing things
I become, as a member of the circle I work with, become more and more
aware of how you have to read body language and understand body language,
and how important it is to communicate in that way.
Where I work, there is a, most of the ladies,
they don’t speak
English. And we all does body language. We explain to body language.
And now become they can speak, because they’ve been coming eight,
nine months in the program. And now they speak little bit – little
bit English, and they are not isolated at home, and we’re proving
that . . . they come to the sitting room and they share their problem,
and everybody . . . when you are at home, you don’t feel like
everybody have same problem. And when you come to the circle and
in this community centre, then you talking . . . and everybody have
the same problem.
The people within those groups take ownership of
what is going on in their community. And, like if there was a need
we had within the Native Centre, they’re all right in there to get their hands dirty, to
work together, so that the common goal is worked at, and they continue
those things, and they all come in with their creativity and all their
talents and their life skills and . . . They’re the ones that drive
what goes on in those programs. And learn with each other, from each
other, and joke with each other, and they become such a tight-knit group
of people. Like, they can tell each other a lot of . . . You know, there’s
a lot of humour in groups, and there’s a lot of, you know, someone’s
having a difficult time; they rally to work with that individual,
or within that family. So I find that we are able to take care of each
other in our community. We get lost in the system sometimes, because
of the mainstream being so large and . . . So they know that, coming
to the Centre, there’s that support there.
It builds strength within yourself as an active participant, in terms
of being able to make better choices, healthier choices in your own life,
and getting rid of that anger that may be inside you or the sadness,
where you have a safe place where you can do that . . . And the communication
improves . . .
There’s like a reclaiming and a reconnecting with the history
of our people, of our families, of our community . . . Through the awareness
that’s being created, you know, by exploring family history is
not only are you impacting community by identifying and naming and recognizing
who your family is, but it seems to go much deeper than that where it’s
like waking our people up. It’s like shaking them awake .
. . Reconnecting who we are as families within a small community . .
I’m seeing a bigger picture.
There were a lot of stereotypes about intergenerational
communication, and so on, like lack of respect and all these things.
And people realized that, often, the cause is the fact that people
don’t know about
each other, right? So coming together, they were able to share
. . . one of the scenarios that came out of it was just this simple scene
in the TTC . . . inside a bus where the youth comes in and, you know,
the seniors kind of stay behind in the back and not having a seat and
no one giving them a seat, that type of . . . We’ve all seen it
for sure. So they worked around . . . overcoming that, and one
of the things that the youth said was that, well, “Never thought
about it. You know, we’re so engaged into our thinking, we’re
just talking to each other, that . . . often we don’t even see
it.” So they became more aware. And that . . . I mean that
was, I think, a great impact, that, by coming together, by talking to
each other, we know about each other and we kind of make those changes,
and then those things become just natural and organic. Like, it’s
not a big deal any more . . .
I was amazed at the things that people, the learning circles have been
able to bring together and solve. And I think there seems to be no limit
on what, when people are focused on one thing together, what they can
accomplish together as a small group. Just amazing. I think we could
take care of all the world if they would just leave us alone.