The Origin of Our Healing Circles

November 16, 2018

During this season of togetherness and reconciliation we want to highlight the foundation of our very special Healing Retreats: The Circle Process.

Deriving from practices of Native Americans, First Nations, and indigenous peoples, the Circle Process allows for the formation of relationships, the honoring of voices, and the creation of unity. The process is, at its essence, a story sharing process, which brings together people as equals to have open exchanges about difficult issues or painful experiences in an atmosphere of respect and concern for everyone. It is called "Circle" because everyone sits in a circle. An item called a “talking piece” is used to ensure each participant gets uninterrupted time to share with the group; the person holding the object is the only one who may speak. The talking piece is passed from person to person, and everyone is expected to respect others and be sensitive to their experiences as they share their stories. The others listen openly, without question or judgment.

The key principles of the Circle Process are to: honor the presence and dignity and value the contribution of every participant; emphasize the connectedness among people; support emotional and spiritual expression; and give equal voice to all. Confidentiality is also key, to ensure openness and emotional safety. Furthermore, participation is voluntary; no participant is required to share unless they choose to.

The use of the Circle Process to help individuals in need has grown in recent years and is now being used in many settings, including neighborhoods, schools, prisons, workplaces, families, and marriages. There are many different types of Circles, such as healing, conflict resolution, community building, and celebration. Healing Circles in particular provide a safe space in which people who have suffered similar trauma can come together and speak openly about their trauma and leave feeling healed or on the road to recovery.

 Healing Justice is using healing Circles to address the harm wrongful convictions have caused to exonerees and their families, to crime survivors and victims and their families, and to others affected by these cases. These Circles are the foundation of our Healing Retreats, a signature program we created to bring harmed individuals together over a period of two or more days so that they can share their experiences with each other, bond over similar traumas, provide support to one another, and create lasting community. Our Healing Retreats were inspired by the lived experience of our founder, Jennifer Thompson, and designed by her in collaboration with restorative justice leaders and others who have lived experiences.

 We have hosted 9 Healing Retreats since January 2016, with 83 people having participated from 18 states and the District of Columbia. Through each Healing Retreat, our Healing Justice Family grows not just in size but in depth of emotional support and healing. Our mission and work come full circle this season with the deep gratitude we feel in working with such courageous and inspiring people and providing opportunities for healing to all harmed by wrongful conviction.


“The Circle really makes it easier to see everyone and feel what they felt.” - Daughter of Exoneree

“Great way to feel safe and supported” - Crime Survivor

“Most of the circle activities forced me to take a deeper dive into the issues I needed to address.” - Sister of Exoneree

“Being in the same space with like-minded individuals is incredible but the story sharing is so mind opening and healing” - Exoneree

"Never have I been able to share my story and thoughts in such a safe and caring space. To be able to sit with others and share my experiences was just incredible. The support allowed me to move forward in my healing process." - Crime Survivor

 “The power of these circles are unbelievable!”

 “My support family just grew by 25 people! This retreat has given me support beyond my imagination. Thank you.” - Sister of Exoneree


Rachel Anderson