COVID-19 has changed how we do many things. With social distancing measures in place to combat the spread of the virus, organisers of gatherings that involved face-to-face meetings have had to rethink their strategy of operation. In Melbourne Judy Greenberg and Cheryl Wood, two experienced Creators of Peace (CoP) facilitators, took on a request to run a Peace Circle online for the very first time.
CoP is an international women’s initiative started in 1991, which challenges women everywhere to create peace at every level of society. Creators of Peace Circles are small community gatherings of women who work together through a series of discussion prompts designed to deepen their friendship and understanding of their peace-creating capabilities.
Transitioning from face-to-face to online
The Circles are designed to work on a face-to-face basis, often as a weekend residential workshop, relying on the interaction between participants and facilitators to guide the process. Conducting it online for the very first time had its challenges.
‘As this was a new venture, we agreed that we should keep the number of participants to six and see how it evolved. However, by the starting night our number had grown to eight! In addition, l had messed up the Zoom connection and our time was reduced to one hour, not the expected two! It was an exhausting beginning!’ recalled Cheryl. She also recalled how she soon realised that her facilitation skills relied heavily on sensing the reception of her input and that her body language was an important component of every Creators of Peace Circle. Judy too found herself challenged by not being able to be face-to-face with participants and felt herself to be on a steep learning curve when it came to the digital technology requirements needed to conduct the event online. ‘Changes had to be made and new things had to be learned overnight!’ said Cheryl.
Recreating the Group Atmosphere
The group met once a week for two hours over a period of seven weeks. To recreate a physical group atmosphere and signify a dedicated and sacred space, at the beginning of every Circle participants lit a candle in their respective homes and at the end ceremoniously blew out the candle. After each weekly session, follow-up exercises were given on the week’s ‘gathering point’ or thematic reflection, to encourage participants to think about the discussion during the week. The facilitators hoped that this would help to keep the momentum of the circle going through the week. At the beginning of the next session participants were given the time to share any reflections or actions. ‘It was also a great way for us as facilitators to be part of the process and share what our experiences had been,’ said Cheryl. ‘As it was online, we used crayons and self-expressive drawings quite often. This was in contrast to always talking or using language to communicate our feelings or what we were experiencing,’ she elaborated.
Unlike physical Circles, which usually meet over a couple of days in a single weekend, Cheryl felt that the new online environment, which enabled conducting a Circle online once a week over a period of time, was very effective. ‘I have always favoured meeting once a week, as this gives space to reflect on the discussion related to a particular topic or gathering point and this gave us the opportunity to trial it,’ she said. Being within the confines of one’s home during the Creators of Peace Circle also had many practical benefits for participants as well as facilitators. ‘When the Circle had finished for the evening, you were at home—you didn't have to travel home!’ said Cheryl, recalling the time saving and convenience this had brought her.
Despite the challenges, Cheryl felt that this online event was the most meaningful Creators of Peace Circle she has been involved with, after having run many over the years. Participants’ accounts reflected this. Maryam Mohammadi, a participant of Afghan origin captured the impact of this Circle in her feedback form: ‘The connections I have made in this circle with you all is something I would never dare to make in the outside world…once you feel you belong to a place or group, you can reveal your true self without fear…I had nothing to hide and I knew in this space I am safe.’
'Once you feel you belong to a place or group, you can reveal your true self without fear.'
Julie Calasso from Brazil, who is living currently in Melbourne, echoed her thoughts, ‘I was honoured to be part of this group and moved by all of our stories. Now, I have a list of insights that I gained from you during this time to digest…it is my choice to create or destroy peace, inner peace or peace with others…I can decide how to deal with what is happening…it is my decision.
Bringing Back Physical Togetherness
At the same time the lack of physical togetherness, a common complaint during these times of social distancing, was not something that could be completely overcome. ‘If given the choice, I think the first Circle, or at least one face-to-face session during the weeks would be a good change and would build even stronger bonds among those participating,’ said Cheryl. ‘We were looking forward to meeting face-to-face but the situation with COVID-19 has not allowed this to take place as yet,’ she concluded. - Parveen Muhammed
‘It was magic to see the power of telling our own stories.’