Slowly Trusting the Circle
The Hispanic American Council in Kalamazoo provides advocacy and a range of services to help Latino community members who are in crisis. This support is vital for immigrants, many of whom cannot read or speak English and have difficulty navigating the system when they need services such as legal support or medical care.
A year and a half ago, the Council received a grant that introduced a newly challenging dimension to their work. The grant’s goal was to build community leadership through relationships based on trust.
The hope was that it this could encourage Latino residents to become active participants in creating their own future.
“We usually only engaged with our community members when they’re in crisis,” said Lori Mercedes-Santiago, Executive Director of the Hispanic American Council. “They come to us when they’re in crisis, we help them and they leave. Then we don’t see them until they’re in crisis again.
“So for this project we saw that we somehow needed to create ongoing trustworthy relationships. But this was something we had never done.”
Building trustworthy relationships wasn’t going to be a straightforward task.
Deeply embedded problems of cultural difference, fear, and low self-worth in the Latino community meant that the project required a unique approach.
Early on, Lori connected to Tom Beech, former President of the Fetzer Insitute and a longtime ally for Courage & Renewal work. He suggested Parker Palmer’s Circle of Trust approach as a possible tool for the Council’s new project. But Lori hesitated.
“I was skeptical at the beginning. I told Tom this ‘kumbaya’ approach is not for us, because our people are in crisis. But Tom was very patient, and he encouraged me to attend a retreat.”
Lori went to the Courage & Renewal program, but she still didn’t think the approach would work for her organization. In the absence of alternatives, she began interviewing residents in her community to better understand what they needed.
“During the resident interviews, patterns of despair and anger started to emerge,” she said. “But there was hopefulness too. We began to see that people wanted something out of the ordinary, a space where they could quiet all the noise, all the ‘experts’ telling them, ‘This is the plan I have for you.’ The more we did these interviews, the more the Circles of Trust started to make sense for creating that space. People had so much negativity and pain, so the need was for a safe, welcoming, and respectful space.”
As Lori began to feel more confident about the Circle of Trust approach, she was introduced to Thom Andrews, a Courage & Renewal Facilitator who also directs ONEplace, a management support center for nonprofits in Kalamazoo. Thom offered to facilitate the project circles.
Once again, Lori and her Council were skeptical at first. “We were cautious because Thom is not a Latino, he does not speak the language. But the Circle of Trust foundation was extremely appealing. So to make it more Latino-relevant, we adopted the Toltec Spirit based on the four agreements by don Miguel Ruiz.”
At the first circle session Thom began laying down the boundary markers (Touchstones) and explaining the nature of the circles. Thom would say, “We are all here as learners and teachers. I’m facilitating, but I’m also learning from you. I’m not an expert on your life. I’m not here to debate your truth.”
This non-patronizing approach was vital to the project’s success. “This community is used to an expert coming in, demanding their input, and then coming back with answers they think will work,” Thom explained. “In our sessions, I sat not as an expert with answers but as one learning and growing with them who welcomed but did not require their participation. It was a liberating experience for us all.”
With Thom’s careful facilitation, people began to feel this was a safe space where they could express themselves, where nobody would attack them for their opinions.
It was not at all what Lori had expected at the beginning. “I love it when people prove me wrong. It humbles me,” she said.
A Place of Belonging
By the second meeting, residents really began feeling the power of the approach. During one activity Thom shared a story about a military man who spent years as a prisoner of war. The other prisoners had lost all hope of being rescued, but this man did not. He was able to stay positive and survive because the man told himself, “I know that freedom is coming.”
After Thom shared this story, a Latina woman in the circle courageously spoke up.
“Us undocumented immigrants, we are prisoners too. I live in constant fear for myself, my children, my grandchildren. But I don’t lose hope because I know that before I die, I will be legal in this country.”
And everyone around her nodded and spoke their own version of feeling like prisoners. They shared their stories and there was a deep sense of personal connection, belonging, and respect.
After that second circle, people came up to Lori and said, “This is great. We need more opportunities like this.” And with each meeting Lori saw people returning to participate and bringing their friends along.
The change was beginning to happen inside each individual. In one meeting, the group was invited to share their reflections about a story in which a father chose to forgive his son’s murderer. To everybody’s surprise, one of the participants in the circle—an older Peruvian man who everyone knew as the gentlest person you’ll ever meet—became visibly enraged.
You could see the severity in the old man’s facial expressions as he announced to the circle, “I will never be able to do what that father did! Forgive someone who killed my children? I would kill that man.” Although the other community members were surprised to hear this, they allowed him to speak. After the circle, the Peruvian gentleman approached Lori and Thom.
“That really moved me,” the man confessed. “I didn’t know I carried that with me, that I felt so strongly about it. I see that it’s something I need to work on.”
Another challenging element for these circles was the cultural tension that existed between some Latino community members.
“Although we’re all Latinos sharing a language, we come from different countries and have different cultures. It’s not like we always get along. Central Americans have tensions with Mexicans, Puerto Ricans have tensions with Cubans, and so on…” explained Lori. It’s not unusual for tensions to arise between neighbors, so residents often keep to themselves. The resulting isolation and distrust only made a tough situation worse.
“You bring a very diverse group of people into a setting where they don’t know each other, and expect them to talk about deep stuff that deals with my inner self? That was a challenge!” said Lori.
But in the circles, an amazing thing started to happen. “Being introduced to this new way of building relationships, listening respectfully to everyone, not being forced to share if you didn’t want to, the confidentiality element… it was so crucial,” Lori observed. “In the circles we had a law professor from Peru, a computer engineer from Mexico, alongside people who did not know how to read or write English or Spanish. But everybody was at the same level when it came to the circle. Everybody felt respected.”
An older Mexican gentleman approached Lori after one session and said, “Thank you so much. This is the first time I feel accepted.” And he told Lori that he’d connected with the Peruvian law professor, who had agreed to teach the Mexican man how to read and write.
“You don’t usually see those kinds of interactions. People were leaving their nationality outside the door,” said Lori, remarking on how special this moment was.
Folkloric dancers at one of the Council’s community events
Inner Strength, Resourcefulness, and Creativity
The project’s end goal was to build community leadership, but how do you build leadership for Latinos, a community that’s constantly under fear of deportation?
“As Latinos, you get a lot of negative messages from the media. ‘You’re undocumented. You’re criminals!’ the media tells us. People are humiliated by these negative terms. They’re hanging their heads in shame. It leaves little room for self-worth among our Latino community members. So how do you build leaders from that?” said Lori.
“We believe that there is much to be learned from our community members and their unique stories of how they came to this country. We provide the space where their voices are acknowledged, and where their inner strength, resourcefulness, and creativity amplify as they share with the group their hopes and dreams and the many obstacles that they have been able to overcome.”
Throughout the Circle of Trust meetings, people revisited their journeys of making it into the country. Some people’s stories were incredible. One woman described being lost in the desert for three days trying to cross the border to the U.S. And at the time, she was six months pregnant. Her story amazed people. They encouraged her, saying, “You are stronger than what you give yourself credit for.” And as others shared stories of the trials and tribulations they’ve faced, a newfound sense of confidence—and camaraderie—started to emerge.
“Our Latino community members have the inner strength, resourcefulness, and creativity to overcome any obstacle,” Lori said with the fierce clarity of someone who wholeheartedly believes those words.
“And even though they are undocumented and have no control over the fact they may get deported… we still have this space where we can all dream together, right here.”
Little by little, people started bringing this truth into reality.
“Residents learned that they are not alone,” said Lori. “With support from one another, they are beginning to take ownership of their community.”
This has manifested in a number of ways. People are volunteering to support the Council, and they’ve launched community activities like Zumba classes, a youth soccer league, parenting support groups, art classes, book groups and more. It’s all resident-supported and resident-run. Before the Circles, these activities weren’t happening at all.
“The Council never had the space where we could know our community members as community members,” said Lori. “We interacted as clients and providers before.” Now, Lori doesn’t just see people when they’re in crisis. She sees them when they have energy and excitement about an idea.
“Through the Circles of Trust we have been able to build those reciprocal relationships with our community members. They come to engage the Council, not just ‘I have a need,’ but ‘I have a dream, this is how I see our community could be and here’s what I could do to help that.
“They see that their input is crucial. They feel comfortable enough to say, ‘Why don’t we do this? And I’m willing to lead that effort.’”
“We Got This!”
In May, the Council was having a large fundraiser and their tight budget created challenges. Lori was panicking over the cost of the catering and entertainment for the event when one of the Latino community members—a woman who had been to many of the circles—came up to Lori and said, “We got this.”
Lori remembers, “I told her, ‘No, no, you don’t understand. It’s very expensive, it’s a lot of work…’ and the woman repeated, ‘No, we GOT this.’ She recruited 12 other ladies from the community, and they took care of the catering and entertainment for the whole fundraising event. And she told me, ‘Do not worry about paying us. Let us do something to return what the Council has done for us.’”
Four of the people who participated in the circles are now lead coaches for the soccer teams. Three women from the circle are in charge of providing catering and entertainment for all community events. Two young ladies are engaging others in the community to approach the Council with their hopes and dreams.
Aztec performers celebrate their cultural heritage at one of the Council’s community events
Thanks to the Courage Circles, the Latino community is building an empowered new leadership among residents. With inner strength, resourcefulness, and creativity, they’re stepping up to create their future. They see that their voices matter.
“Our community is healing,” observed Lori. “A person must heal his own wounds— find out how past circumstances have made him stronger and more capable. Then he can use this awareness to help others transform frustration into a belief that they too can change their lives for the better. Our Courage Circles are the foundation of this effort.”
Looking ahead, the Council plans to invite more residents to the courage circles. Several agencies, including area law enforcement officers, have also expressed interest in being involved.
“It’s been a transformative experience for many,” said Thom. “One of our next steps is to work with agencies who serve the Latino community so that they, too, may see residents not as ‘people in need whose lives we save,’ but as ‘people we need whose lives we share.’”