Connection is key to new MAPE Circle Project beginning in January

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2020 has been a year like no other: we saw a pandemic that affected every aspect of our lives, deep political divides and demands for real and lasting change around civil rights and equality following the killing of George Floyd. For many, 2020 has been a year of disconnection. As we enter 2021, a new MAPE project is offering new opportunities for members to come together and connect.     

The idea for the MAPE Circle Project came about this past spring after the pandemic forced most state employees to work from home instead of their agency offices. Check-in calls to members showed many were feeling alone in the new COVID-19 reality.

“There was some discussion on ways to help people to connect to each other. We’d been trying to bring Circles to MAPE for some time. We’ve been so disconnected through COVID-19. We really wanted to give folks a place to come and make a connection with other people and start to rebuild a sense of community, even if it was virtual,” Region 19 Director Lynn Butcher said.

“It’s our way to try to deal with this new reality and find value in it. We see a lot of potential in the Circles as ways to build teams and help resolve conflicts,” she added.

Connection is at the center of Circles. Circles are a formal and ancient form of meeting that fosters conditions for healthy community and respectful conversation where one person speaks and the rest listen. The Circle process has been practiced by many cultures for thousands of years. Across Minnesota today, Circles are practiced in classrooms, correctional facilities, neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, court systems and other community locations.  

The MAPE Circle Project was piloted earlier this year and more Circles will be offered beginning next month. MAPE Circles are planned for Jan. 13 and 27, Feb. 10 and 24 and Mar. 10 and 24. Sign up in the portal.    

Sarah King, Local 1001, is the Restorative Justice Coordinator at the Department of Corrections (DOC). Restorative justice recognizes that crime hurts everyone: victims, offenders and the community. It creates a process to involve those who have a stake in the offense to work together to make things as right as possible.

King facilitated many Circles for the DOC’s Minnesota Circles of Support & Accountability (MNCOSA) and Integrated Conflict Management System (ICMS) programs before they were recently discontinued. She facilitated some of the pilot meetings of the MAPE Circle Project, “There was positive feedback from participants in our MAPE Circles. Generally speaking, participants seemed to enjoy having a space apart from their normal day to speak about what was on their hearts and minds – whether it was work-related or not. There was a lot of laughter and resonance of shared experience amongst people who were complete strangers 20 minutes before.”

“It is difficult to name all of the ways Covid-19, and other events of the past year, have impacted our personal and professional lives. Whether we’re working from home, have been redeployed, are worried about lay-offs and budget cuts, or are working on the front lines – Circle is a way for us to show up for each other in a supportive, meaningful way,” King said.    

Local 1002’s Nancy Riestenberg, an education specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education, said Circle is one of the practices in restorative schools’ arena. “It suggests a kind of equality, there is no beginning or end to circle, everyone is on the same level.

You have a group of people that want to get to know each other, plan, learn things.”

Circles provide a safe, supportive space where people can talk about sensitive topics, work through differences and build consensus.

“You have a visual aid when it’s your turn to speak. The talking piece goes around in order so you know it’s your turn to talk, you can talk or pass, it’s all very transparent. For some kids, it takes away a certain amount of anxiety; they know when they can talk, or not talk if they choose, and they don’t have to worry if the teacher will call on them,” Riestenberg said.

Laraine Mickelson is a state program administrator coordinating the Integrated Conflict Management System serving staff within Direct Care and Treatment. Before going to the Department of Human Services (DHS), she spent nearly 30 years working for DOC as a case manager and developed restorative justice programs.

Mickelson admitted while it may be more common to facilitate Circles in-person instead of virtually, she did find some surprises among those participating via Zoom, “What we didn’t expect to find is that some participants feel safer saying what they’d like to say because they’re speaking from their homes or private offices. In some instances, staff found resolution more swiftly. I was also surprised by how quickly people could say what they were trying to say.”

“I see people gaining connection and they’ll be able to really find support thru the challenges they’re experiencing with COVID-19 and beyond. I think there’s a desire from the team to offer these Circles past-COVID-19, people are finding that this is a valuable time to come together and share. What is it like to be a state employee? What is it like to problem solve outside of my agency team? Members want to address challenges and find support,” Mickelson added.

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