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Tool for Democracy: Getting New People Involved in Civic Issues
By Bella English


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 issues.

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 sustainability."

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 can provide."

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 Niedergang.

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.

For more information about study circles, contact:
Study Circles Resource Center
P.O. Box 203
697 Pomfret Street
Pomfret, CT 06258
(860) 928-2616
(860) 928-3713 (fax)

"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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