Circles of Change – An In-depth History

At its founding, central to Spirit in Action’s views on movement-building work were two broad aims: 1) the creation of an infrastructure of organizations, networks, and leaders sharing common values and visions, and 2) encouraging the belief, among both activists and the general public, that deep and lasting change that orients society and its circles-of-change-photos-1institutions toward our highest values is possible. Spirit in Action’s Circles of Change Program, which convened small groups in communities across the country, was an important vehicle for finding and practicing approaches for building a diverse and broad-based movement for change.

Founded in November 1999 by longtime grassroots organizer Linda Stout, Spirit in Action came into being as a response to the call of political activists to think strategically and creatively about the current health and effectiveness of the progressive movement. A number of studies and assessments of the progressive movement and its impact have been conducted, including Peace Development Fund’s (PDF) 1999 Listening Project with social justice activists, Harvard University’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations’ 1999 convening of nonprofit practitioners, and the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s examination of the right’s funding strategies. Guided by these studies and her own decades of experience in the grassroots movement for social justice, Linda Stout identified four critical needs for the progressive movement stepping into the twenty-first century:

  1. A clear and positive message to convey the movement’s values and work to a broader audience. In PDF’s Listening Project, the comments of participants could be summarized as, “Social change advocates are always talking about what we are against rather than what we are for.” Fear of an “enemy” is often used to try to mobilize action in social justice organizations. Fear and opposition have not proven to be effective tools for sustaining a movement over time and increasing its membership.
  2. A connection to heart, community, culture, and spirit. The Listening Project’s summary of recommendations for strengthening the progressive movement included attention to “a cultural and spiritual component (that) nurtures and strengthens us in the struggle.” Many of the Hauser Center participants “talked about staying with their work because they are ‘idealistic,’ because the ‘work is directly tied to spirituality’ and to ‘conversations with God.’” While activists may share these beliefs in small ways, the day-to-day demands of their work often drown out these quieter inspirations. The result is that many activists are denied a tool critical to sustaining them through the challenges of their work.
  3. New ways of working that repair fragmentation and create connections. Although grassroots activists share similar visions and values, there are a number of issues that fragment the movement and inhibit effective work. As noted by Listening Project participants, many groups are devoted to working on single issues in their community, and activists do not feel they have the time or resources to make connections across issues or geography. Participants in both the Listening Project and Hauser Center studies spoke strongly about how the continued existence of oppression (racism, classism, and homophobia, for example) in the larger society, and in the social justice movement itself, creates divisions, weakens organizations, and deprives the movement of critical people talent. Finally, many activists talked about how turf issues and competition for funding create divisions.
  4. Time and support for doing visionary and “big picture” thinking. Both Listening Project and Hauser participants talked about taking time to reflect on longer-term issues and to develop visions for the futures of their organizations and the movement. They valued their participation in these studies because it gave them that time for reflection. As a result of these studies, as well as the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s report on the right’s funding of think tank organizations, activists in grassroots groups debated the need for their own think tanks and other research projects. While people supported the need for such vehicles, they also sought to have this work grounded in grassroots reality rather than controlled by a specific intellectual or academic center. Activists offered ideas for floating “think tanks” or periodic conversations.

circles-of-change-photos-4Circles of Change began as an experiment to create ways to meet these needs. Initially, Spirit in Action invited a small group of political and spiritual activists from across the U.S. to become facilitators of Circles in their own communities. In a series of training sessions, they shared ideas, built community with one another, and created a pilot curriculum for Circles of Change. After running six-week pilot Circles, facilitators gathered again to reflect on what they had learned about the work of Circles and movement building.

They laid the foundation for a 13-session Circles of Change program lead by an expanded pool of 27 facilitators. These 27 Circle facilitators and leaders modeled the vision of broad diversity for Circle membership:

  • They ranged in age from their 20s to their 60s, they were ethnically and racially diverse, and they described their spirit perspectives in many different ways.
  • They worked on a wide range of issues in their activist lives, including: women and girls’ empowerment; Colombian solidarity; prison reform; environmental activism; gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender civil rights; educational reform and student empowerment; cross-border organizing; college campus organizing; cultural activism; antiracism work; and anti-corporate globalization activism.

circles-of-change-photos-6By 2005, 15 official Circles of Change had been run in five states: California, Massachusetts, Washington, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. A number of Circles continued past their official sessions, and other kinds of circles were formed, inspired by Circles of Change.

Facilitators used a range of activities designed to engage the whole person, including discussion, experiential exercises and contemplation, ritual, play, art and community meals. The facilitator played a critical communication role by reporting questions, insights, and successes of each Circle session. As Circles came to a close, facilitators and staff worked with members to decide whether to continue or conclude their Circle experience.

To read more about the first years of the Circles of Change program click here to read the “Circles of Change Transforming the Way We Do Change” report published in 2004.

The collective wisdom gathered from these Circles formed the foundation for the Spirit in Action Facilitating Circles of Change Curriculum Guide, published in 2005. The four main sections of the Circles of Change curriculum guide embodied the understanding of the core strategies for building a broad-based movement that achieves transformational social change.

These core strategies continue to evolve from the insights and understandings of those who are using them. The four core strategies were:

  1. Connecting with Spirit. Acknowledging spirit is a conscious recognition of our wholeness, interdependence, and interconnection to all life on earth. Integrating this understanding of spirit into social justice work brings forward what inspires and sustains us.
  2. Healing from Divisions: Building a Diverse Movement. Being in diverse community is essential to making broad-based change in the U.S. To enjoy the privilege and responsibility of being in diverse community, people are called to recognize that we share both a common humanity and particular social identities, which accord power in unbalanced ways. Bridging this power divide is at the heart of healing divisions.
  3. Collective Visioning for a Positive Future. Vision is a foundation for action. The work of visioning has an intrinsic connection to action for change—a continuum that includes personal change work, relationship and community building, and direct political action to enact systemic change. Collective visioning supports the work on all these levels. As we work to change ourselves, create our concrete images of a positive future, and vision collectively, we are taking steps toward change enacted on a societal scale.
  4. Action for Deep and Lasting Change. Action for deep and lasting change exists along a continuum that includes mass demonstrations as well as supporting the psychological, physical, and spiritual health of activists. Circles serve as a space for doing the less dramatic forms of activism, such as self-care, trust and relationshcircles-of-change-photos-2ip building, and the examination of strategy and development of new change tools.

The Circles of Change continued as a project of Spirit in Action through 2009 and included the Circle Leadership Network (CLN) which was established in 2005 to support and develop the leadership of the facilitators of Circles of Change. Spirit in Action’s Circles of Change help drive several major community-building initiatives including:

  • Northeast Louisiana Delta Coalition, Tallulah, Louisiana. Spirit in Action was engaged to lead the Coalition’s community visioning process and through that process, the group decided to transform the youth prison into a community college and learning center as a critical first step in improving the region’s future. Much of the coalition’s energy was subsequently spent in guiding legislation through the Louisiana legislature, and two resolutions were passed that forwarded the conversion process. In fact, this represented the first time, in the history of the U.S. that a state legislature passed legislation mandating the conversion of a prison to a community college. The youth prison site is now the home of the Louisiana Delta Community College.
    Rethinking New Orleans’ Schools (Rethink), New Orleans, Louisiana.  Under the guidance of a cross-regional “Elders Circle,” a collaboration of New Orleans community organizers, activists, graphic artists, architects, media experts, and educators came together to find a way to bring New Orleans youth into discussions about how to rebuild the city’s schools. The challenges that faced the community long before Katrina, including racism and poverty, had become visible in the aftermath of the hurricane as never before. Rethink was established to bring together young people to develop a vision of what their schools could be; depict their concepts in art products and architectural models; and create a video documentary of their experiences and vision for the future. They used the visual materials as the backdrop for a highly successful national news conference, and they met with several key school and government officials. Rethink continues today as Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools a youth organizing and leadership development organization that uses participatory education and action research to build organizing and leadership skills of New Orleans youth. (

From its inception, the Circles of Change program impacted and made real change in the lives of communities, organizations and individuals across the country. Hundreds of people were active in the Circles of Change program as participants, facilitators and leaders. Circles of Change always focused on engaging activists in the work of connecting spirit and social change. This work brought together people in a wide range of fields, including community organizers, nonprofit administrators and service providers, students, teachers, journalists, social work professionals, medical care providers, counselors, religious leaders, and individuals in a myriad of other settings and occupations. Despite their widely diverse backgrounds, Circles members shared a commitment to fostering collective action towards justice, peace, and planetary sustainability. While clearly valuable as a professional development and organizational capacity building strategy, Spirit in Action’s Circles of Change was vital in providing pathways to sustainable, whole community transformation.

Out of the Circles of Change work, Spirit in Action went on to create projects like the Education Circle of Change, Progressive Communicators Network and We the People: Working Together.