March 12, 2020

Student Blog: “Talking Circles” A Journey of Discovery and Understanding

The MSM Talking Circles Leadership Retreat is an annual winter weekend getaway for MSM students that fosters interpersonal communication, hones leadership skills, and generates conversations about diversity and social justice.

Earlier this year, more than twenty MSM students and a few staff members traveled to upstate New York for the Talking Circles retreat. Among the students taking part was sophomore jazz pianist Antongiulio Foti who shares details of his memorable experience.

Talking Circles: A Journey of Discovery and Understanding

by Antongiulio Foti (BM ’22), Jazz Piano

Discovery and understanding—these two words capture the spirit of the Talking Circles weekend leadership retreat that myself and twenty other MSM students experienced.

Discovery of remote places, of a different spatiality, of a new environment, of a fresh, tangible reality. Discovery of life experiences different from mine, and an understanding of the realities of people with very different pasts, shared freely within the Circle.

A ritual unique to Native Americans

What is a Talking Circle? Rooted in Native American tradition, it’s a rite where people come together for the purpose of teaching, learning, and (most importantly) sharing. The Circle itself is the emblem of equity, and everyone has the opportunity to speak when holding the “Talking Stick”. In the Circle, all points are equidistant and have the same value. There is no tip nor tail, no wrong or right side. Over the two days of this unique ritual, we took part in a variety of games and exercises designed to help discover the stories and personalities of our peers.

Leaving civilization behind

Early in the morning on the first day of the retreat, we left New York City and traveled upstate for about two and a half hours to the YMCA Camp Greenkill in Huguenot, New York.

The camp was set on a beautiful frozen lake, with miles of snowy forest surrounding us. In order to fully enjoy the peace and beauty of our environment, we had to give up a prerequisite of our life as inhabitants of the Western World in 2020: internet connection. This minor detail had a fundamental impact on our experience, opening the possibility for deeper human interaction.

After setting expectations for the next two days, we began our first activity called “The Meeting Clock”. Each person had a paper clock in their hands with other students’ names written in the place of numbers. We got the chance to spend a few minutes with each person on different topics. This activity allowed us to become familiar with each other, as many of us were basically strangers at the beginning of this retreat.

Exploring the foundation of our choices and desires

Things really started to get interesting when the next activity was brought up. We had to make a selection of things we couldn’t do without in five different categories: material objects, people in our lives, human rights, places we were attached to, and life goals. After selecting those five items, we were asked to progressively cut down our selections to only two categories. The process really explored the discovery of the self and the foundation of our choices and desires.

“Talking Circles has given me the chance to understand that behind every person we interact with, there is a world of stories, challenges, and tough choices that leave their mark on our lives.”

BM ’22, Jazz Piano

A recurring component in our activities was the use of square paper sheets that we used as canvases to write and draw on. In our first meeting that we had prior to the retreat, we drew pictures to describe the origins and meanings of our names. Each person’s name showed the differences in our backgrounds, with ancestries ranging from Ireland, Vietnam, Germany, China, Italy (my home country), and more.

In other “square” activities, we created drawings that represented where we were from and what past experiences have shaped us in a significant way. These moments were very profound, as it was a chance to understand and empathize with our peers who have gone through difficult life challenges.

Basketball, s’mores, and the beauty of the land around us

When we weren’t in the Talking Circle, we had opportunities to explore the area or play games. I was able to get closer to the other participants and rediscover my love for basketball. I’m an awful at it, but had a great time playing with the other MSM students. At night I discovered what s’mores are (I am European, sorry!) and played card games late into the night. This social time together made the whole retreat more genuine and fun!

One of the most wonderful parts of the trip was experiencing the beauty of the outdoors. I woke up at 6 AM on the second day, and enjoyed a moment of solitude, silence, and peace during a walk in the icy morning glade. It was more than magical!

Later in the day, Assistant Director of Student Affairs/experienced hiker/phenomenal basketball player Crystal Wilson led us on a walk to a beautiful waterfall among the snowy pines.

A world of stories, challenges and choices that mark our lives

During the last activity in the Talking Circle, we sat with our eyes closed and backs facing the center of the Circle. Five or six people stood in the center of the Circle with their eyes open while a narrator asked them to “touch the shoulder of a person who you trust, makes you laugh, is beautiful inside and out” and so on. We took turns in the center until everyone’s had been acknowledged. This exercise allowed us to manifest a good thoughts about someone without having to worry about the form of communication.

Talking Circles has given me the chance to understand that behind every person we interact with, there is a world of stories, challenges, and tough choices that leave their mark on our lives. The only way to fully comprehend each other is through respect and an open mind. I will carry these values with me throughout my life and hope that I can continue to share them with the MSM Community.