After the brutal slaying of her teenage son, Janet Connors reaches out to her son’s killer to offer a chance for forgiveness. They team up with a group of mothers of murdered children to help young people in their community break the chain of violence and revenge.
CIRCLE UP is a call to action for reframing approaches to crime and punishment through the lens of restorative justice, forgiveness, and accountability.
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.
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 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.
Our goal is to use the documentary CIRCLE UP to help spread restorative practices wherever they can help people heal from trauma, resolve conflict, prevent violence, and build community.
The film – which exists as both a 69-minute feature and a 14-minute short – allows viewers to experience restorative justice through the powerful story of a group of Boston mothers who seek true justice for their sons’ murders. We envision screening the film at hundreds of institutions across the country where restorative practices are starting or taking hold:
· K-12 schools
· Juvenile justice facilities
· Probation / re-entry groups
· Survivor groups
· Faith-based communities
· Restorative justice organizations
· Higher education institutions (esp. criminal justice, law, etc.)
· Criminal justice conferences (for judges, prosecutors, probation, etc.)
Since the film can bring up deep feelings, we recommend programming that includes time for audiences to respond, such as a Q&A, panel discussion, or follow-up circles led by trained facilitators.
We are developing a customizable package for organizations that may include film screening rights, event planning support, promotional materials (posters, postcards, social media cards, sample emails, etc.), facilitators, curricula tailored to different communities, and an invitation to participate in our social media campaign around #forgiveness, #acountability, and #justice.
We are working with great partners for our impact campaign and seek additional collaboration with funders, community organizations, and regional or statewide educational or social service systems.
As a person of mixed heritage, I have always been fascinated by the ways cultural practices are hybridized or “repurposed” far from their original context to address social issues. When I first learned that Native American inspired peacemaking circles were helping prevent and respond to violence in multi-cultural urban settings, I was intrigued. I spent five years researching circle practices all over the country and then found my primary subject, Janet Connors, right near my home.
I was drawn to this Irish-American woman with a huge heart who learned to forgive her son’s murderers and work for personal and community healing. A lifelong community activist, Janet responded to her own trauma by drawing on what she had learned from native elders about restorative justice. Documenting her journey has been one of the great privileges of my life.
CIRCLE UP was a labor of love that took over five years to complete. I am now finding further satisfaction in seeing how the film’s story – which grew beyond Janet to include Clarissa Turner and a wider group of survivors of homicide victims – can help viewers in schools, prisons, faith-based communities, courthouses, statehouses, and community organizations experience what restorative justice looks and feels like.
If the film can save one life, or even prevent just a handful of vengeful acts, my labors will have been well worth it.
– Julie Mallozzi