“Resilience Circles” – Interview with Sarah Byrnes, Co-Director of New Economy Transition (NET) New England by Willi Paul, Planetshifter.com Media
Willi: Are Circles becoming a ritual for some?
Sarah: I haven’t heard it put this way! But I’m sure some folks would resonate with this language.
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Interview with Sarah by Willi
Localization is a critical guide in permaculture. What does this mean to you?
In Resilience Circles, place is really important. People want to get to know their actual, in-person neighbors, and the characteristics of the environment where they live. Re-engaging with people and place is also a core value of the broader “new economy” movement. At the same time, a lot of people doing social action in Resilience Circles understand that we live in an interconnected world. They’re tracing back the causes of injustice and hardship and realizing that corporate control of our democracy is a root of many problems. So a lot of Circles have gotten involved in the national movement to overturn Citizens United, for example.
What does the circle symbolize?
In Resilience Circles, we usually sit in circles. It’s reflects the way we relate to each other as peers – we can all see each other, and each person is visibly included. There is a learning component in Circles, but we primarily learn from each other instead of from books or an ideology. Our stories are the basis of the learning, and the basis of the relationship-building.
What are your base values?
The Resilience Circles network is diverse and people bring a lot of different values and experiences to it. A core idea is to value each other — and ourselves. If people are suffering because of this tough economy, they may internalize a lot of shame and guilt. They may blame themselves. Hopefully by joining a Circle, they come to understand that this economy isn’t actually designed to serve people, that it values profit over people.
And this can loosen the sense of shame and people can begin regaining a sense of self-worth. And of course, the purpose of a Circle is to create a new sense of security that is based in mutual aid rather than reliance on the corporate economy, so hopefully by relying on other people, the fear of economic insecurity can lessen.
In addition to valuing each other and themselves, many people in Circles highly value the natural world around them. For example, one group is working hard to protect the local bees by engaging in an educational campaign about which lawn treatments kill bees. They knocked on doors all around their neighborhood. Many groups value local food and farms. They join CSAs or even start community gardens.
What are the most common personal security issues facing us as planet?
I think it depends on what you mean by personal security. Many folks in the US are struggling to make ends meet, and we need higher wages and more meaningful livelihoods for people. We need dignified work, as Catholic Social Teaching puts it.
But security also comes from a whole other range of invisible things in our lives – from clean air and water to neighborhood and civic organizations to your local government picking up the trash. So many systems need to function to ensure our security—from health care to banking to agriculture and food. And many of these are not well supported or resourced as they should be.
This is even more clear in poorer parts of the world that have borne the brunt of colonialism and so on. Basically, people create security together, and in a world that increasingly values (some) individuals over communities, security has eroded.
You say that Circles can bring “mutual aid and community support.” But there are many degrees of economic security – from poverty to the rich. Do you typically have all types of folks in one Circle?
There has certainly been a range of people participating in Circles, though within each Circle, there may be less of a range. It’s great to have diversity, because people from different class backgrounds bring different strengths, skills, and experiences. But as we know, we’re very segregated, and building cross-class relationships can be a challenge.
Tell me how you define “neighbor.”
Personally, I do like the colloquial meaning of this term – that your neighbor is someone who lives near you. I think rekindling these kinds of place-based relationships can have a huge effect on people’s lives – and potentially also our social movements. Many people from older generations lament a time when we all knew the people who lived within close proximity, and had a lot of informal social time with them.
This is a kind of social network that no longer exists as much, and isolation has skyrocketed as a result. Isolation is a terrible epidemic, impacting everything from health to happiness to our ability to create social change.
So I like that meaning, but I also like the meaning Jesus gives the word “neighbor” in the story of the Good Samaritan. That a neighbor is any human—we’re all one family.
You see the process as ‘part of a larger effort to create a fair and healthy economy that works for everyone in harmony with the planet.’ Give us some examples from a successful Circle?
We are going to hold a webinar featuring stories from two successful Circles on Nov 18 – I encourage everyone to join! (Register) The meaning of success really does vary widely, and that’s the beauty of it. One example is the group in Portland OR who has been meeting for 5 years and has really become a core support group for each other. They know each other so well and they’re there for each other in good times and bad. Another great success was Connie Allen’s group in Maine that focused on helping each other live with limited income. You can read about that here.
Another great success story comes from Maryland, where several Circles formed and disbanded, but many people in them continued to know each other and formed lots of other kinds of groups as well. They participated in “house parties” with different movements– particularly the Move to Amend movement—and connected with a widening group of people that way.
They ended up starting a Transition Initiative and getting their town to pass an ordinance supporting an amendment to overturn Citizens United. I like this story because it shows that your Circle doesn’t have to last forever in order for it to be a “success.” And it also reflects the reality that people move in and out of things over the months and years, and that’s normal and natural.
Are Circles connected to the DIY and Transition movements (or others)?
Yes definitely. Resilience Circles doesn’t have its own agenda, so members borrow and incorporate from other streams. We did a webinar with Transition US a while back about how these two approaches work together (see it here). Lots of Transition Initiatives have used both approaches successfully, including my own here in Jamaica Plain, Boston. There is also a lot of overlap with Move to Amend and the New Economy movement.
Part of your outcome seems to be inspirational? One participant mentioned his congregation in a story. Is there also a spiritual benefit to Circles?
Most Circles have been based in congregations, often UU or UCC churches. Churches like hosting them because it’s a potential way to meet new members of the community. It can also be a way to support under-employed folks in the congregation. And there is a long history of church-based mutual aid societies, of course. The Resilience Circle approach borrows from that tradition.
There is no explicit spirituality or religion in the Circles. They have diverse memberships – people are Jewish, Christian, agnostic, secular, etc. But people do make connections between the values of the Circles and their own religious or spiritual values (as I have in this interview!).