Part 3: A Conversation with Russel Balenger: The Founder of the Circle of Peace Movement

Celebration of the 300th meeting of the Circle of Peace Movement in 2016. Photo credit: Circle of Peace Movement

Written by: Sabrina Nur & Carrie Pomeroy

Part 3: Growing Community Healing 

In Parts 1 and 2 of our conversation with community leader Russel Balenger, we learned about how his childhood in Rondo and his family’s example inspired him and how he grew to become involved in criminal justice reform efforts and worked to connect incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people with members of the community outside the prison walls. In Part 3, the last installment of our conversation, he talks about his work with the Circle of Peace Movement and his dreams for the former Boys Totem Town site.

Russel’s personal and family experiences didn’t just inspire his involvement with JDAI reforms and InEquality efforts to uplift the voices of people impacted by the court system. His experiences have also led him to found the Circle of Peace Movement, an award-winning weekly community conversation that is now celebrating its twelfth year. 

The story of the Circle of Peace Movement started around February 2010, after Russel’s oldest grandson was shot twice during incidents of gang violence. Russ wondered if the violence would escalate and his grandson would end up dead from gun violence that year, like far too many other young people.

Russel decided it was time to invite concerned local families together to talk about solutions. For him, that meant taking the risk of bringing together families of gang members, even though many of them had been at war with each other for years. St. Paul’s Unity Church-Unitarian on Holly Avenue, a church Russel has had a relationship with for many years, agreed to host the conversations. Russel proposed starting with four circles and seeing what happened. 

At the first circle, families came in the door angry, pointing fingers and blaming one another. But gradually, after a chicken dinner cooked by Russel’s wife Sarah, tempers cooled and people started to relax.

“They ate,” Russel recalled. “They leaned back in their chairs. And we began to talk.” 

By the second meeting, Russel remembered, people had begun to take responsibility for their parts in causing problems. By the third circle, people who’d been at each other’s throats were hugging. And by the fourth, everyone agreed, “We have to keep doing this.”

Year after year, Russel has continued holding circles aimed at stopping violence and promoting racial healing, an effort he and Sarah eventually came to call the Circle of Peace Movement. One thing that Russel insisted early on was that police should be a part of these discussions. At first, people resisted because of bad experiences they’d had with law enforcement. But eventually, participants consented to police being present, and Russel saw many positive relationships grow between community and police. 

These days, Russel’s circles are open to anyone who wants to attend, not just families associated with gang members. Local high school and college students sit alongside judges and scholars visiting from other countries. Rondo elders who’ve known Russel for years come to the circle to share their stories and wisdom, as well as youth and adults reentering the community after being in detention or prison. No matter who shows up, as Russel always says, in the circle, everyone is equal.

Each circle includes a hearty meal cooked by Sarah (with help these days from a team of volunteers from Unity Church-Unitarian). Week in and week out, Russel calmly but firmly enforces the circle guidelines, encouraging people to wait their turn to speak, listen well, and speak with respect using I-statements. 

As of October 31, 2022, the Circles of Peace have met 615 times, coming together every Monday evening at Unity Church-Unitarian from 5-7 PM. 

When we asked Russel why he thought the circles had succeeded so well at bringing people together for so many years, he said, “Well, I think it’s what everybody wants.” The problem, he said, is that not enough people know how to start conversations like the Circle of Peace. To help more people become confident about holding peace-building conversations, Russel frequently offers circle trainings in the community, sharing what he has learned about how to hold spaces that feel respectful and welcoming to all.

Through his work with the Circle of Peace, Russel has forged many deep relationships with a wide range of people and community groups. One of the relationships closest to his heart was the mentoring connection he made with boys incarcerated at Boys Totem Town, a juvenile detention facility that operated from 1913-2019 in St. Paul’s Highwood Hills neighborhood. The facility had a long history of abuse and mistreatment of youth, epitomizing many of the problems that community leaders like Russel were trying so hard to point out.

Russel regularly held peace circles inside Boys Totem Town in its last few years of operation, getting to know the youth there well, and he eventually worked with Ramsey County to bring youth from the facility to the Monday night Circles of Peace, so that the young people could build an even stronger connection with community members and mentors in the outside world.

Russel said he had a vivid memory of visiting Boys Totem Town on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday one year and watching as the all-white guard staff opened up a gate to let him in to see the youth and then locking the gate behind him. The youth confined behind the locked gate were all Black, even though Black people comprise only about 11 percent of the population in Ramsey County and only about 6 percent statewide. Seeing that disparity illustrated so starkly solidified Russel’s conviction that the status quo was unacceptable.

Thanks to JDAI reforms, fewer and fewer Ramsey County youth were being sent to facilities like Boys Totem Town. InEquality and other community members and groups strongly opposed public officials’ attempts to expand juvenile incarceration, organizing a powerful effort in 2016 that succeeded in stopping a plan to build a new joint juvenile facility for Ramsey County and Hennepin County. As part of that effort, Russel and his allies at Unity Church-Unitarian led a campaign that resulted in 1000 postcards being sent to public officials to oppose building the new joint juvenile facility. 

By early 2019, as the number of youth put in juvenile detention continued to decline, Boys Totem Town housed only about a half-dozen boys, but it employed 42 people. By August 2019, the last young person confined at Boys Totem Town had gone home and officials had closed the facility.

Russel and Sarah Balenger receive Facing Race Ambassador Award in 2015. Photo credit: Minnesota Philanthropy Partners

These days, Russel is excited about the possibilities for the now-vacant site, which is located on 72 acres of forest and prairie on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, not far from the historic Dakota village of Kaposia. Ramsey County officials are currently considering a variety of proposals for the site, but Russel said he believes it can and should be transformed from a place of suffering to a place of healing. 

He dreams of seeing the site developed into a camp where youth impacted by the juvenile justice system and their families can address trauma and nurture strong relationships. Peace circles, gardening, habitat restoration, and recreation in nature would be major components of daily programming.

That kind of experience, Russel believes, could have life-changing impacts—just like his experiences visiting Camp Widjiwagan did for him decades ago.

Many people have told him that his dream could take ten years or more to realize, or that it might not happen at all, given all the other proposals being considered. Russel said he feels confident that the Boys Totem Town site can become a haven for peace-making and community-building in St. Paul—and that it can happen much sooner than ten years from now. 

What keeps Russel going in the face of obstacles and discouragement, he said, are his children and his grandchildren, who are all doing well these days.
“I just want them to see that thing that I learned,” he said. “Just go do it. Do it. Don’t sit around and figure out why it can’t be done.”