“Circles of Voices” Airs Diverse Opinions

Once a month on an early Saturday evening, a small but powerful vocal transformation is taking shape in Baltimore. At a time when the players on the national scene are brazenly sowing division and putting all minority communities in danger and our local Baltimore streets are rife with a record number of homicides, a new space is quietly being born. A now and future safe space. Its birth pangs are not always pretty, as it entails connecting people who do not occupy the same space in any way in the city. This connection and the dialogues which follow are raw, complicated, painful, at times deeply traumatic, and they require an amount of courage, openness, and humility which call forth all of our inner and collective strength in order to face.

But there amid the welcoming soft lights of the multipurpose Impact Hub space on North Avenue, diversity consultant J.C. Faulk is facilitating a circle of dialogue which just may be the model for a ramp way out of the Trumpian darkness and through the knotted morass of our systematically segregated and homophobic Baltimore history. And the LGBT community needs to be a part of this connection.

Faulk’s “Circles of Voices” stated goal is to “methodically build systemic structures that respect diverse voices, those at the top, at the bottom and around the edges, and to elevate anything or anyone that brings people together.” Evenings spent in the fold of the Circle means joining a group of diverse Baltimoreans – different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, incomes, religions, ages, and life experiences– who agree at the outset to a certain set of guidelines. These include listening without interrupting, showing respect, being and letting be, and giving others immunity– the space to make mistakes and grow during the evening. The topics are deep and fundamental and cut to the heart of our individual and collective systems of life organization, and the ingrained racist, sexist, and homophobic power structures which dictate so much of our lives.

“I believe that you have to create discomfort in order for there to be change,” says Faulk, who brings forth that discomfort in safe and remarkable ways as he leads discussions and workshops on potentially polarizing topics such as race, equity, identy, gender, justice, punishment and redemption, and the role of police and police conduct, to name a few.

On a recent Baltimore evening, the Circles of Voices subject was gender-based violence. As is often the case, J.C. had invited a guest co-facilitator, in this case Savannah Badalich, who created a White House-recognized campaign, 7000 in Solidarity: A Campaign Against Sexual Assault and who uses media, technology, and community organizing to fight gender-based violence and discrimination. Ms. Badalich led a discussion on gender and sexual identity and then broke the group up into smaller circles, where the discussion dissected the phrases “act like a lady” and then “act like a man”– the prejudices, expectations, limits, and shackles of these societal terms. Next, the question “How has gender-based violence affected you?” was projected onto the screen, and the group was asked to answer this question, out loud and honestly, to everyone present. The women went first, forming an inner circle with their chairs with the men outside in a larger circle, and afterward the groups exchanged places. The specific instruction was to speak just to the members of your circle, as if the members of the other gender were not even present.

What unfolded, with the women was a powerful dialogue of violent assaults and the painful, often shame-filled aftermath of gender-based assault from all sides of the coin – victims of assault from childhood and from the present as well as mothers and adoptive mothers of assault victims, enlightening the far-reaching effects of such assaults not only on the victim (high rate of suicide attempts and shattered trust toward the world) but also the multi-layered ripple effects and changes on the families and communities of these altered and painful lives. The women were brutally open, honest, and told their stories in matter-of-fact but resonant voices, and the circle seemed to physically expand with pain, empathy, and acceptance with each story.

Once the chairs were rearranged, the smaller number of men present became the inner circle and were asked to answer the same question. Even with one man bravely sharing his painful story of sexual assault as a child in a profound and raw way, many of the other men found it almost impossible to answer the question directly. Powerful and differing emotions were unleashed as they were forced to speak out loud after being witness to the weight of the pain which had been released by the voices of the women before them. With emotionally-frank prodding from Faulk several were able to express the pain and anguish they felt recounting their experiences of helplessness as they had witnessed their mothers or sisters being the victim of assault at the hands of a man.

As I participated in this evening, I felt so heavily that as incredibly powerful and transformative as this dialogue was, there was something missing – the gay and transgender voices. There was a transgender woman present who shared that she did not feel the need to speak to this topic, and I myself as a gay woman have not been the victim of gender violence – so the palpable chance for gay an transgender addition to the spoken circle of experience was not there. And more of us need to be there.

Faulk believes that until “the least heard of us is cared for, and until all reasonable voices are attended to, none of us can be free or absolved of responsibility. We create a synergy that continuously infuses a sense of bonding across difference, which can be called upon in times of great strife and intermittent societal unrest. It can also be the energy that drives our day-to-day interactions.” We need to consciously be a part of this conversation in his Circles of Voices, so that our voice can be attended to, cared for, and an integral part of a transformative future forged together with other voices of peace and equity.

Get to know more at CirclesOfVoices.com