N 1996, the city of Springfield, Illinois, fired a black police officer.
Relations got tense between the black and white communities, with charges
flying back and forth. It was a mayor's nightmare. But then the mayor got a
letter from a constituent. Had Her Honor ever heard
of study circles as a way of bringing the community together?
Mayor Karen Hasara had not, but the idea intrigued her. She spoke to
colleagues in other cities and learned they'd had success with study circles.
That summer, she attended a US Conference of Mayors meeting, where the
mayor of Lima, Ohio, received an award for the pioneering study circle
he had started. Suddenly, it seemed that everywhere she went, people were
talking about this thing called study circles.
No, they're not groups of heavy-breathing law students getting together
to pore over torts and civil procedure. Study circles are an organized
way of bringing citizens together to discuss a predetermined topic of
community-wide concern, from race relations to criminal justice to youth issues, from
development to education to recycling. The circles are one of the most
democratic institutions in public life today, recruiting average citizens--some
of whom have never even voted--to get involved in civic issues. From a handful
of people meeting in Woodstock, Connecticut, on land use to dozens of groups
meeting throughout New York State on criminal justice, study circles are
raising the level of civic dialogue throughout America.
S in Springfield, study circles usually form in response to a problem,
or the fear of a problem. Says Paul Aicher, 74, "Study circles are a
non-advocacy way for a community to become involved and energized and transformed around
an issue." Aicher should know. The founding father of the study circle
movement in America, Aicher began it all out of his house in Pomfret,
Connecticut, in 1989. But the inspiration for the movement came from several experiences
much earlier in Aicher's life.
First of all, in the mid-1950s, he joined the Unitarian Universalist
Church of Evanston, Illinois, where he met the Rev. Homer Jack, a prominent
UU minister whom Aicher calls "the person who most influenced me." Jack,
a social activist who marched in Selma among other places, eventually left
parish ministry to head social justice efforts at the UUA's Boston headquarters.
Later, he worked at the United Nations, where he cofounded the World Conference
on Religion and Peace. In the 1970s, Jack got Aicher involved in refugee
resettlement and other human rights issues. Over the years Aicher, a
metallurgist who founded his own company, was increasingly drawn to social activism,
particularly the nuclear freeze movement. In 1982, he sold the company,
Technical Materials, Inc., of Lincoln, Rhode Island, and moved to Connecticut,
where he founded the Topsfield Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group
dedicated to improving public life. By making grants to community-based
groups, Aicher supported his two pet causes: the nuclear freeze and affordable
housing. But he wanted his efforts to have a more local focus. The grass-roots
level, he knew, was where where most change happened.
Then he remembered the peer-led discussion groups in which he'd taken
part during the 1950s, after his undergraduate years at Penn State. In
Chicago, he'd led groups for the American Foundation for Political Education,
and later, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he took part in a discussion
project sponsored by the Foreign Policy Association. Communism was the
big worry then. The discussions were fast and furious: What causes war?
Was American foreign policy effective? Russian foreign policy? Yet Aicher
found it all very frustrating. "There was no way of having a dialogue,"
he says. "It was purely adversarial. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to
have a program where it wasn't just the good guys versus the bad guys?
We could get all kinds of people involved.'"
HE study circle idea wasn't exactly new. It came out of the Chautauqua
Assembly, started in New York State in the 1870s. Initially conceived of
as a summer school for Sunday school teachers, the assembly soon morphed
into the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, which was designed
to give people with limited formal education the chance to learn from each
other in small groups. At one point, more than 15,000 home study circles
were meeting all across the US to discuss social, economic, and political
With World War I, the format largely died out in the US. But not in
Sweden. Officials from the Swedish temperance movement had visited the
US and come away intrigued by study circles. Because Sweden had an undereducated
rural population with few opportunities for formal schooling, the study
circle format caught fire there. Twice, Aicher went to Sweden to learn
about the Swedish program. What he saw impressed him: ordinary folks coming
together to discuss issues and in the process becoming more engaged and
productive citizens. In 1989, he was ready to launch his own study circle
project, turning an old blacksmith shop on his Connecticut property into
the Study Circles Resource Center (SCRC).
The center's first product was a discussion guide for public discourse
called Crisis in the Gulf, about the Persian Gulf War. Soon, race
took center stage, with the Rodney King police brutality verdict in Los
Angeles. In response, Aicher's center published a guide on race relations
called Can't We All Just Get Along? Both guides were promoted and provided
at no cost to community and church groups and colleges that the foundation
had had previous dealings with. They were used in hundreds of discussion
groups, particularly in churches. At this point, the center, with a budget
of a mere $200,000 a year, was simply providing study guides, but soon
it would be more actively encouraging the study circle movement.
The turning point came when the racial guide captured the attention
of activists in Lima, Ohio, where the mayor wanted to work on race relations
in the predominantly white city of 45,000. Following the Rodney King verdict,
Mayor David Berger had invited a dozen leaders of diverse faiths to a joint
press conference. Many of the leaders didn't know each other, forcing Berger
to face just how serious the racial divide was in his city. He organized
a clergy task force and, working with Ohio State University, introduced
study circles to Lima.
From a handful of participants studying race issues in 1992, Lima to
date has had more than 4,000 participants talking about race, violence,
and youth issues.
Meanwhile, the SCRC has grown from Aicher and his idea to a staff of
14, from a group whose database had 10 names in it to one crammed with
40,000 names, from a group with a budget of $200,000 a year to one with
a budget of $1.7 million--all of it from the Aicher family. Today, the resource
center helps out 190 study circle programs all over the country. Thirty-seven
states have community-wide programs, and two--New York and Minnesota--have
statewide study circles.
OW do they work? Are they just wonky, do-gooder programs where like-minded
people get together to solve the world's problems and pat themselves on
the back? Not if they're successful. Aicher's ideal study circle is a diverse
discussion group made up of people from all walks of life. And study circles
don't defer to the power structure. Civic leaders may or may not take part
in the discussion. In fact, preferably, circle participants are those who
have heretofore been left out of the conversation. They also must differ
in gender, age, jobs and neighborhoods. "It has to be a diverse coalition,"
says Aicher. "It has to represent the community. This is not elitist."
A group typically has eight to 15 participants, is led by someone trained
by the SCRC, and includes people from the city and the suburbs, blacks,
whites, Hispanics, and other ethnic groups. Members are recruited from
the pulpit and via newspaper ads and personal contact. They meet in a public
place for approximately eight weekly sessions. At the first meeting they
share personal stories; the following sessions deal with the issue at hand:
What is the problem? What implications does it have for the community?
What is the solution?
The ideal study circle member, Aicher says, only half in jest, "is someone
who doesn't talk." He recalls one woman who came close to fitting this
description--until the fourth session. "But then, she found her voice,"
he says, adding that she went on to become a study circle facilitator,
trained to mediate meetings. Aicher is particularly fond of teenagers who
join study circles (there are special groups that discuss youth issues
and include teens). "Kids are great. They don't have the baggage adults
do," he says. "They don't have the ego issues."
In Springfield, Illinois, Mayor Karen Hasara has been pleased with the
study circles that began in the wake of racial discord in 1996. The groups
didn't just meet and yak, she says. They came up with an action plan including
better minority police recruitment and shared church services among various
ethnic communities. "We have this motto that Sunday morning is the most
segregated time in the community," says Hasara, by way of explaining the
church services' importance. The study circles also recommended--and the
city sponsored--multicultural neighborhood events. Long after their official
groups ended, many of the members continue to meet socially.
"It's been quite successful," says Hasara. But there is one issue that
gnaws at her. It's diversity, not of skin color--Springfield's groups have
that--but of opinion. "As you can imagine, you tend to get people who appreciate
racial diversity, and they want action," says Hasara. "I'd like to get
more people who don't appreciate it, and try to change their minds."
Indeed, the single most critical attribute of a successful group is
a diversity of opinion--and it's also the hardest to achieve, say those
who work in the field. By their nature, study circles tend to attract liberal,
activist types. But homogeneity is the study circle's enemy. "Study circles
will die if they're seen as liberal and advocacy," says Aicher. "All points
of view need to be genuinely heard. We can't be, we must not be, a disguise
for advocacy. If we are, we lose our credibility."
If you want to promote the diversity of opinion so fervently desired
by study circle advocates, a first step is probably to set some ground
rules to make all participants comfortable. Thus, everything said in a
study circle remains confidential. Personal attacks are strictly verboten.
People must listen respectfully. The sessions aren't meant to be talk-show
confessional, though particularly in the racial sessions, people's personal
stories may be raw and poignant. If anything, says Aicher, study circles
may suffer from old-fashioned earnestness, or, to put it bluntly, dullness.
Hasara, the former clerk of court in Springfield, has found another,
novel way of encouraging diversity in the circles. She is working with
judges to make study circles part of the required community service for
minor offenders. If they can serve at a soup kitchen or pick up garbage,
they can attend a study circle, she explains. At the other end of
the economic spectrum, Hasara has met with the CEOs of various businesses
in town and asked them to get their employees involved. She's just begun
these outreach efforts, so the jury is out on whether they'll succeed.
But study circles in Springfield have settled in to stay. "I see them going
on for a long time," says Hasara. "We still have a lot of work to do
implementing the action steps."
HILE Springfield's study circles are restricted to that one community,
in New York State the League of Women Voters has launched a massive statewide
study project on criminal justice issues. The Balancing Justice Project
took 18 months of preparation before its circles began meeting, at the
start of 2000. Unlike circles in most places, the New York circles--held
in more than 70 communities--met only three times each. And unlike many
others, this study circle project aimed mainly to educate participants
about an issue, not to agitate for action.
"There were constant criminal justice issues in the media," says Paddy
Lane, chairperson of the study circle's steering committee. "And the politicians
always talk about crime during campaigns. It has become a big budget item
in this state, with more and more prisons being built. The death penalty
has come up in groups, too." More than 2,200 people participated in the
first round of sessions. An overwhelming number decided they would like
to see the state's court and prison systems give more attention to
rehabilitation. But like Mayor Hasara, Lane understands the importance of having diverse
opinions at the table. "We really invite it," she says. "It is key to the
project." In public service announcements, advertisements, letters to the
editor, news blurbs in local papers, an organizing committee from each
New York community where study circles are being held stresses the importance
of diverse opinions and urges people from all backgrounds to join a circle.
Next year, the circles will move from talk toward action by considering
how to work on criminal justice issues with the state assembly. With legislators
representing different districts with different interests, it's a little
trickier than working with a city council or board of selectmen.
For Paddy Lane, one of the circles' most exciting features has been
to watch criminal justice professionals--jailers, police officers, wardens,
judges--who have been recruited to join the circles sit down with citizens
in informational discussions. "They really create a dialogue and a good
relationship with folks so that people start to understand how complex
things really are. Dealing with crime is not a sound bite," Lane says.
From something as simple as language--say, a legal definition of violent
crime--to issues as complex as whether to incarcerate a first offender,
circle members have become more savvy about the field. Groups have discussed
what happens to children--and society--when a mother is incarcerated. They've
also debated the implications of jailing a drunken driver versus getting
him into a detox program. "A common reflex is 'Lock him up,'" says Lane.
"Groups have talked about whether that really deals with the issue, when
he's going to be back out on the street sooner rather than later." All
in all, it's been an education in an area many members didn't know much
about coming in.
AUL Aicher can relate to that. As an engineer, he says, he "didn't
have a clue" about foreign policy until he joined discussion groups. "Then
I became an owner of that issue, as a citizen," he says. "It wasn't only
the wonks who knew something about it." Aicher says study circles can transform
people and communities. He has seen it happen. "You're interacting with
your fellow citizens around values," he says. "It changes you. It makes
you more open to understanding the choices and other people's views. It
empowers you to improve your community."
Of course, study circles sometimes end up being all talk and no action.
"There are programs that when they're finished, that's it," says Aicher.
"No significant action is taken. We're working on how to increase the
Mind you, the folks at the Study Circles Resource Center don't use the
word "failure." But they admit that some programs succeed less well than
others. Des Moines, Iowa, for one. The topic there was sprawl and development,
but the study circle was set up from the beginning to funnel information
to public officials.
"It was limited to a preselected group," says Patrick Scully, the resource
center's deputy director. "To them, it was a success. But to us, it was
a disappointment. There was promise, but it wasn't fully realized. They
didn't open it up to people throughout the community. It was solely about
government. They lost sight of the other possibilities that give and take
Martha McCoy, the center's director, agrees that the major strength
of study circles is their democratic makeup. "In a thin democracy, we have
a lot of experts yelling at each other. There has to be a place for citizen
voices because we're the ones who have the most to say, not the experts."
NE of the more successful ongoing projects, in Somerville, Massachusetts,
was started by Mark Niedergang, an early disciple of the movement, who
worked for Paul Aicher at the Topsfield Foundation in the late 1980s, writing
discussion guides on nuclear weapons and arms control, the peace movement,
and affordable housing--all before Aicher launched his first study circles.
In the 1990s, Niedergang joined the Mayor's Office of Human Services in
Somerville, where he started the city's study circle program. Somerville
Conversations began in 1995 with some 15 groups meeting on the subject
of immigrants, a controversial issue in this working class city of 76,000.
In Somerville, 42 percent of high school students come from families for
whom English is not the first language. Several community groups--including
Tufts University, the weekly Somerville Journal, the Haitian Coalition,
the Massachusetts Association of Portuguese Speakers--recruited participants,
and each hosted a circle. At times, the talk grew heated on the subjects
of assimilation and bilingual education.
That doesn't bother Niedergang. He says, "You hope people care enough
to raise their voices, as long as they don't insult each other and attack
each other." The Somerville Police Department has played an active part
in the circles, which are funded partly by a law enforcement block grant.
In one group, a Brazilian leader who wasn't happy with the way the police
department had handled an issue in his community, spoke to his new colleague,
a Somerville police captain. The result? They connected and resolved the
issue. "If that man had not been in study circle, he probably wouldn't
have dared go alone to the police department and talk to them," notes
One major benefit of study circles for Somerville, as in most places,
has been the empowerment of ordinary citizens. Circle members "gain a lot
of confidence and skills, and they start contributing much more. They emerge
as leaders in the community," says Niedergang. "Study circles get people
involved in public life in a meaningful way, much more so than just voting."
And as a bonus, people are connecting with their neighbors in a personal
way that seems refreshingly old-fashioned in this high-tech world of e-mail
and voice mail.
As part-time coordinator of Somerville Conversations, Alex Pirie holds
the project's only paid position. Last spring, he had 12 groups going,
on the topic of youth and adults making the city a better place. Pirie
trains leaders over 10 hours; they spend another eight hours leading the
groups in four two-hour sessions. "They then go on and use those skills
in their job or their church or wherever," says Pirie.
Each town or city or state seems to set a different goal for its study
circles. In Somerville, the conversation itself is the thing. No outcome
is expected, though the circles have had some concrete results, including
the launch of a city website. After each circle is finished, all the circles
that have met simultaneously on the same topic get together with an open
microphone for a "conversations congress" and share their recommendations.
A report is then written, sent to city leaders, and posted on the website.
Pirie acknowledges the difficulty of recruiting circle members in the
conservative city. "The idea of this kind of meeting is kind of a wonky,
liberal idea, very much like a college seminar, so it's hard to bring people
in," he says. There are other problems, too; namely, language. Translators
have been hired, but there is still the problem of shyness and class issues
to overcome, Pirie says. "It's a struggle," he adds, "but once people do
it, it's incredibly empowering." Although politicians are welcome to join
the study circles, they're treated as regular participants, no more. "We
don't want it to be a place for a political sounding board," says Pirie.
"And I think the politicians enjoy the chance to be in a group and not
have to be the leader."
AUL Aicher, now a member of the tiny UU Church of Brooklyn, Connecticut,
cites several ways in which the study circles mesh with his religious beliefs.
No one, after all, likes to talk more than a UU, and--for better or worse--few
people are more opinionated. And the ideas of community and civic activism
are key to both the circles and the UU movement. "In the UU churches where
I was a member," Aicher says, "I found a community of people whose religion
manifests itself in their relations with others. That's what study circles
are about--relating to others."
Having watched the study circle movement grow from infancy to adolescence
and now to maturity, Aicher can point out various successes in addition
to Springfield and Somerville. In Fort Myers, Florida, which a national
study called the most residentially segregated city in the South, a chain
food store finally opened in a black neighborhood because of study circle
activism. In Decatur, Georgia, study circle organizers got 450 people engaged
in neighborhood and school issues. After the murders of two blacks by skinheads
in Fayetteville, North Carolina, study groups there gave citizens the chance
to talk openly about race in a way they had never done before. In Alread,
Arkansas, population 400, the town youth said they felt empowered by joining
a study group with adults that focused on the issue of education. In Maine,
nearly 50 rounds of study circles have taken place since 1991 on topics
from abortion to substance abuse.
In Lima, Ohio, where the movement first took off, Art Edwards was approached
by his minister to join a study circle. As a black man, he says he liked
the group's diversity and that study circles to him "look like an opportunity
to facilitate change." And indeed many changes have resulted. The YMCA
put a new building downtown, accessible to the entire community, instead
of locating it in a suburb as originally planned. And Our Daily Bread,
a combined soup kitchen and recreation and tutoring program launched after
the first round of study circles, continues. A multiracial community choir
performs throughout the year.
"Right now," says Art Edwards, study circles represent "the best model
there can be." It gives people an opportunity to feel what's there."
"This city," Mayor Berger adds, "will never be the same."
Bella English writes for the Boston Globe and belongs to First Parish UU in Milton, Massachusetts.
UU World XIV:6 (November/December 2000): 28-33.
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