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Circle Up!

I don't know exactly what it is, but when people sit in a circle, stuff happens. Good stuff. Stuff that needs to happen. Stuff that inspires. Stuff that we remember. Stuff that changes our lives.

In the past month, I've sat in a circle three times in three different cities, and each time I had an experience to remember – an experience that was transformative for each person who sat and listened.

In Asheville, North Carolina, after our standard presentation that accompanies our book signings, Stephen and I were pleasantly surprised as a time for Q&A turned into a time for storytelling. Having greased the wheels that transport our stories of social change, the group decided to move their chairs that were in neatly organized rows into a circle. We then sped quickly down the freeway of motivation as we heard stories from people who were fighting to make the world a better place.

We heard the tales of one woman's crusade to publish letters to the editor to educate her neighbors and community members about the need to pass pending clean air legislation. We heard the frustrations of a 16-year-old as he wished his classmates would be more responsive to his pleas to recruit teen volunteers. That was followed by words of encouragement and concrete ideas from a lifelong educator, also in the group.

There, in a local bookstore was a circle of hope.

A few weeks later, while discussing New Day Revolution with a group of 20- and 30-somethings at a church in Indianapolis, Indiana, we again got into a circle. After the same presentation about why the need for small, actionable steps is critical when it comes to making a dent in our largest social ills, we again heard stories of ordinary individuals on the front lines of making a difference.

We heard about the young woman helping other women start businesses nearby and abroad. We heard about the family who went to Cuba simply to learn of the needs in order to tell those stories to anyone who would listen back home. We heard of the young woman who pledged with a group of others to not buy anything new (save for food and necessities) for an entire year, and of the young man working tech support who made it his mission to be friendly to every caller.

There, in the fellowship hall was a circle of progress.

And last night, while speaking at the monthly gathering for the Green Campus Initiative at Harvard University, I saw it again. After sharing our approach to social change and how we motivate individuals to act in light of that, I heard stories of involvement and commitment from the next generation.

I heard about the young woman who realized climate change was the issue of her lifetime after trying to jog in the smog that engulfs Shanghai. I heard of the young men motivated by listening to leading advocates share the realities of global warming. I heard from people who didn’t want the beauty of their native Colorado and Maine to disappear at the expense of our consumption. I heard about the moments of epiphany and wonder that motivate so many to do so much good.

There, in a collegiate meeting hall was a circle of inspiration.

Circles make us all feel equal. We attend so many meetings and events (churches are the worst about this) where everyone in attendance is facing the same direction. A special guest or teacher or pastor or expert then talks for a given amount of time about a certain topic while everyone faces in his or her general direction. There is a clear leader and clear followers, a clear connoisseur and clear novices.

Not so in a circle. In a circle, there is no head or tail, or upper or lower class, no winner or losers. In a circle, we are all free to share. In a circle, our stories matter. In a circle, the sum is greater than the parts, as our collective wisdom can be tossed out into the great yearning middle, where our curiosities hover above us, waiting to be satisfied by the ideas and suggestions and inspiration of everyone participating. In a circle, everyone gets what they came for.

There's the circle of life, peace circles and story circles. This ancient symbol and social tool is still valuable to us today as we seek to save the world.

In a recent interview for a newspaper in Nashville, I was asked where I get my inspiration. And while there are many prolific individuals who inspire me to do great things, the last month has inspired me like never before as I sat among equals and listened to great stories of real life, real inspiration, and real change.

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