PCSE Seed Grants in Action: A Note from Evan Okun ’13

In April 2013, the Patricelli Center for Social Entrepreneurship awarded five seed grants to Wesleyan students embarking on high-impact projects around the globe. Each grant recipient has been reporting on his/her work with blog posts and photos. Here’s the third and final report from Evan Okun ’13. Read his earlier posts here and here.


evanCircles & Ciphers is a remarkable organization. Through hip-hop infused peacemaking circles, participants become fluent in the principles and practices of restorative justice and circle keeping.  They cultivate empathy, literacy, and critical thinking; they learn facilitation, public speaking, and organizing skills; they network and connect with community leaders, learning how to be reliable and accountable to their team members.

Circles & Ciphers hosts programs in the Rogers Park community, Chicago Public Schools, and at a juvenile detention center.   At each location, youth leaders engage in critical discourse about a variety of topics, from vulnerability to mass incarceration.   Hip-hop songs are used as the entrance points to these discussions: after conducting an Invocation and Check-In (staples of all peacemaking circles), a hip-hop song is played.  After discussing the song and sharing personal stories related to the song’s content, participants engage in creative writing about the subject.  These youth are then granted the opportunity to record their art in a professional studio and perform it at art-exhibits across the city.

Recently, there has been a sharp increase in the number of Chicago-based institutions and youth service agencies seeking to explore restorative justice practices.  Circles & Ciphers plans to meet this need by creating a consulting group that will train youth participants to serve as contracted restorative justice practitioners.  This development will allow the organization to be a revenue-generating social entrepreneurship venture, while ensuring that youth leaders are financially compensated for their expertise.

For readers interested in Circles & Ciphers, our program will be presenting at Wesleyan University on Saturday, Febraury 8th (along side two veteran members of CeaseFire/Cure Violence, a Chicago-based violence-prevention  program).  The panel will be held in the DFC, starting at 1pm.  The goal of this event is to (1) three-dimensionalize gang/drug related violence that plagues lower income, minority neighborhoods across America, and (2) discuss community-based programs in Chicago addressing this epidemic.