Circles of Women, or Cultural Animation in the Wild

The Gathering of Women's Circles, photo: Magdalena S Panifiłowa

Women take seats in circles mainly to listen to each other. It turns out to be enough sometimes. A so-called cultural event does not necessarily have to be more complex. Moreover, as many people involved in education and cultural animation, I purposely do not use the term “cultural” to describe my work since I perceive culture broadly and I do not want to perpetuate the division into “cultural life” and “everyday life”. Quite the opposite, I care about making visible what often stays invisible when we talk about culture, and, in this way, about making room for people practising cultural animation in the wild.

Why “in the wild”? Because they act simply and quietly. The first impulse is when you discover something valuable for yourself, the next step is propagation – passing it further. Wild cultural animators intuitively choose for themselves meadows outside the gardens of the institutions. A question arises: is it good?

I’d like to introduce one of them, however, I am sure there are many more. What makes them stand out? For sure, it is consistency and long-term activity. Besides, one result of the meetings they held, often not visible at the forefront, is relationship building, thus focusing on the group process. What they also have in common is working at the grass roots, which means creating something from the scratch in a place where it was absent before. And, at the same time, they are characterized by some kind of invisibility, resulting from the fact that they function outside of the institutional context.

Magda Nina Sławikowska, together with Barbara Etna Moszko, have been summoning and keeping the Circle of Women in Poznań. Women meet once a month. The meetings are free. The only cost, shared by all the participants, is for the room rental. We talk about what the circles of women are and how the co-creation of such circles looks like.

Kinga Mistrzak: Why a circle?

Magda Nina Sławnikowska: Because in a circle we are all equally important, we are equal. Everybody can give and take. A circle doesn’t have a leader, a superior. There is a “nurse” or a person keeping the circle – a woman who summons the circle, prepares the room, takes care of the right conditions. The role of the keeper is also to open and close the circle and ensure that the previously established rules are followed. However, she also takes a seat in the circle in the same way like everybody else and she benefits from it in the same way, sharing her experiences.

What are the rules?

I think the most important rule is that women should have a sense of security. This is why we decide that whatever appears in the circle, stays there. In my opinion, women’s stories should not go outside the circle, not even in a changed anonymous form.

There is an object called a “talking object” circulating between women. It can be anything: a stone, a shell, a piece of wood. A person holding it can speak. Everybody else is listening and that one person is speaking. In fact, when you hold a talking object, it does not mean you have to talk, but that this is your time. Whether you speak or stay silent is completely up to you. A person holding the object knows that no one will interrupt her, even if it is going to be a story with long breaks for silence. In our circle in Poznan the object is passed from hand to hand, one by one. There are, however, also such circles where the object is put in the middle and the person who would like to speak reaches for it.

Why do you say you “take a seat” instead of “sit” and “summon” the circle instead of simply “hold a meeting”?

I associate the word “to summon” with the fact that something has to be discussed and decided. And we “take seats” like the elderly used to do. In Poland the circles were initiated in the 1990s, when three representatives of the elderly came here from the United States: Mattie Davis-Wolfe, Danuta Ogaoeno Mette and Joan Halifax. They were the first to teach the Poles the rules of the circle. And then the movement was continued by Tanna Jakubo-wicz-Mount.

How do the meetings look like?

Usually we have something similar to an altar in the middle where there is a candle and where we put other objects important to us. Every woman can put something there, sometimes they put money, often pictures of their ancestors, and something to eat – so that we can help ourselves. At the beginning of the circle we invite “qualities”. Everyone summons what she needs. For example, someone can invite courage, and someone else can say she invites four directions for support (north, south, east, and west). Every direction has certain qualities, e.g. east implies connection to the ancestors. We also invite the elements, some women summon spiritual leaders. Then every woman can speak and after that she passes the “talking object” further.

Isn’t it an excessive psychological burden for you, the person keeping the circle? Do you take responsibility for the wellbeing of all the women present at the meeting?

No – my responsibility is to provide a space for difficult emotions which have the right to appear. The role of the keeper is to ensure there is space for everybody’s speech. Women come here with various stories. Taking care of the space means that, for example, when the atmosphere becomes dense and it gets harder and harder, I suggest we move around for a while and breathe deeply. Still, I’d like to stress that it is not a therapy. The circle’s role is not to give advice, no one tries to get a woman out of any situation. Sometimes, when the circle ends, I feel there is a need to talk. When a woman comes with a very difficult history I want to check she’s leaving in one piece. However, the circle is not intended for solving problems.

Then what is the circle intended for?

I have the impression that when we take seats in the circle, when it lasts, something amazing happens. Sylwia Wojcik calls it a “female spirit of the circle”. This is some kind of a special creation, typical for the circle that was summoned at a given moment, somehow hovering over it. And there is some magic in it. Simply the fact that we are in this safe space makes some things heal sometimes, so to say. It is hard to say anything else about it. At times one of the women will sigh, start crying or rise her hand to signalise that the story being told concerns her as well. Sometimes it is enough to change something when you tell your story and you see other women reacting to it. You discover you are not alone and what you say can influence others. This is why I think it has a healing effect.

The altar created by women sitting in a circle, photo: Magdalena S Panifiłowa

Does nature have any special meaning to you?

Some circles take place in the forest. Assemblies of the circles – the annual meetings of women of different circles in Poland – always take place in nature. During the circles summoned in forests there are various ceremonies involving trees, rivers, and meadow plants. Some women admit they feel a strong connection with nature, and in some strange way, they feel the life flowing through the non-human beings.

What do you get from taking a seat in the circle?

I feel that taking a seat in the circle helps me find my strength. I know these are big words, but I have the impression that that’s how it is. When I have a chance to be in a friendly atmosphere, with the attention focused on me, and I know I can talk about myself from deep inside, then I feel something inside me is growing stronger. In my opinion, these two conditions are very important: the attention of the listeners and the awareness that this is my time. What is also significant is the cyclicality of the meetings.

Sometimes I see that a woman who takes a seat in such an atmosphere once a month seems to be soaking up with something – with every circle she becomes more brave, more open. I see the changes taking place in women, how their fear to speak up is gradually easing off, and a person who, at the beginning, was afraid to speak among strangers, starts to talk about herself.

Does this have anything to do with any religion?

The circle is non-religious and does not exclude anyone. It is open to people of all faiths. I am non-religious myself – I believe in a higher power I have no name for, and certainly not in a religious way. There are shamanic aspects, although it can have different meanings for different people. To me, a shaman is a person with a strong connection to the spiritual world, but at the same time, having his or her feet on the ground.

Have you ever had the impression that there is something strange about taking a seat in the circle?

When I took a seat in the circle for the first time, I had already known a different quality of listening, thanks to joining Nonviolent Communication1 a few years before. But I do have a feedback from women coming to the circle that it is all new and a bit strange. They often mention how difficult it is to listen patiently because they really want to comment – but the circle’s formula encourages you to refrain from commenting. Then, when it is their time to speak, it turns out that what they wanted to say impulsively before is no longer important. For some women it is a huge change in how they build their relations with other people. They find it surprising what happens when they learn to control that first impulse to speak.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I feel that various things circle back and return to you. I miss deep relationships with women, I miss being in a multigenerational community of women, I miss women being together in difficult situations. Imagine going into labour and your mum, sister, grandma, neighbours, cousins being with you – you are not alone in the hospital. And imagine that at that moment it does not matter how many times you argued, you go into labour and you need us – anything else is not important. Where does all this longing come from? I must have it written in my DNA that this is how it used to be and that it was beautiful.

Yes, I miss it too, and I hope there is a bond between women that is stronger than superficial relations and while you can argue and break that thread of everyday interactions, you can’t break that strong bond, which is like water lines, flowing deep underneath the earth, beneath the mundane everyday events.

Yes, and that brings me back to the Nonviolent Communication, to that belief there is a deeper language, that when we blurt something out, we do not always mean it at the moment, and that we can speak angrily, and, at the same time, suffer deeply inside and cry with pain.

What is also interesting is looking at culture through the prism of Nonviolent Communication, i.e. thinking about which needs are satisfied by culture, taking into consideration the list of human needs created by Marschall Rosenberg. In my opinion, it is primarily the need of belonging, and I have the impression that the grass root activities of the “wild” animators, such as yourself, satisfy that need. Thank you.


Would such meetings establish themselves on the ground of public cultural institutions? Could discussions, lectures, and exhibitions be intertwined with circles of women, meetings of the society of urban housewives, or senior citizens clubs? Can the institutional gardens be slightly more overgrown, wild, like backyard gardens? Who would visit and who would avoid them then?

The topic of our conversation was the circles of women, so, in short, meetings based on empathetic listening. It could be said this is the simplest cultural event possible. Something like the most fundamental element of all the more complex cultural creations. I have the impression that examining such small “cultural entities” closely can change the perception of the more complex events, arousing uncertainty as to whether the strength of what is the simplest, normal, and wild, is not lost in their complexity.

Magda Nina Sławnikowska has been associated with the Nonviolence Communication Association for 10 years. Since 2015 she has been a member of the circles of women and men, and since 2017 she has been a co-founder of the Poznań Women’s Circle.

Kinga Mistrzak is an cultural animator, cognitive scientist and curator of social projects. In her work she seeks various forms of contact with art and tries to take advantage of the bond-forming character of this search. Currently she works as an educator and cultural animator at the Arsenal Municipal Gallery in Poznan.


1 Nonviolent Communication (NVC) – a communication method based on the assumption that all people have the same needs, but different ways of satisfying them. On the list of needs we can find e.g. a need for respect, creativity, ease, or belonging. An essential element of the method is so-called empathetic listening, i.e. discovering what feelings, needs and requests are behind a given message. NVC was created by Marschall Rosenberg.


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