CIRCLE UP is the story of a grieving mother, the men who murdered her son, and the unexpected relationships they create to prevent more violence.

Janet Connors’ son Joel was murdered in Boston by four young men on a tragic winter night. She sits in the courtroom, a muted spectator, as the trials devolve into slander and theatre. Three of the men make a plea agreement but the main perpetrator – the man Janet believes stabbed an 18” knife into Joel’s heart – walks free on “reasonable doubt.”

Janet realizes she needed to make her own justice.

She seeks out two of the men who killed her son. But instead of exacting vengeance, she looks for humanity. She fights the bureaucracy to become the first person in Massachusetts to hold a victim-offender dialogue through the corrections system. When one of the murderers is released from prison, she calls him to her son’s grave.

“The only way to make up for the life you have stolen is to live yours in a good way,” she tells him.

He does what she asks. Meanwhile, Janet joins a homicide survivors’ support group that helps families make meaning out of their tragic loss. She meets Clarissa Turner, whose son Marquis was shot point blank as he walked to visit his girlfriend and children. Clarissa found it in her heart to look the perpetrators in the eye during their trial and forgive them for their crime.

For Janet, Clarissa, and the other survivor moms, real justice is not about punishment: it’s about about preventing more violence.

The mothers begin working in schools, prisons, and social service agencies to help people hold themselves accountable for their actions. Learning from Native American elders, they incorporate traditional peacemaking circle practices into their work.

After a teen is shot and another stabbed by a rival gang, teachers at Boston’s Margarita Muñiz Academy overhear students talk about taking revenge. They ask Janet and Clarissa to hold a circle. “Revenge is my justice,” says one boy at the beginning. “I just can’t lose another friend. I can’t.” The mothers share their vision for another kind of justice – one in which people treat each other with humanity and together address the deeper roots of violence.

The mothers meet regularly with the boys for an entire school year and witness real transformation.

Janet’s willingness to forgive earns her crucial trust from AJ, one of her son’s murderers. This bond helps her convince him to counsel the Muñiz boys on how to prevent a split-second impulse from sadly changing their lives forever. Circle Up follows Janet, Clarissa and AJ’s shared commitment as this Boston community heals and “circles up” around other kids in trouble.

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