An Invisible Revolution?: Study Circles and the Renewal of Democracy
by Len Krimerman
Beyond the Education Gap?
OK. There are a few scattered education for democracy programs, some innovative schools in Seattle and New York City, and occasional efforts, e.g., in Ohio, Connecticut, and Georgia, to develop empowering teacher ed programs. (see following article) But dont we still face an enormous education gap, one that requires a wide-scale, bottom-up, and inter-connected movement that touches both adults and children, individuals and whole communities, both within and outside of formal schooling? One that can help build, throughout the nation, a culture of democratic participation and mutual aid?
That indeed is what is needed. But just how bleak is our present situation? If we look at Lima, Ohio, Portland, Maine, the states of Oklahoma and New Mexico, and at over 100 other communities throughout the USA, this education gap becomes somewhat less daunting. Without fanfare, the movement we are seeking has actually begun. What these communities have in common are ongoing, inclusive, community-wide study circle programs. These laboratories for democracy are designed to enable ordinary citizens to meet, deliberate, and work together to find solutions to common problems. And they also provide lessons for how communities can create structured, sustained, citizen-activated avenues for participation... According to legal scholar and activist, Lani Guinier, these initiatives in citizen involvement suggest that busy people with no particular expertise can rise to the task of engaged deliberation when given the opportunity to meet and play a role in public life... For example,
In Oklahoma: State-wide study circles, based in dozens of local coalitions, have focused on the states criminal justice system, which had experienced burgeoning costs and diminishing public confidence. Over 1000 ordinary citizens, enlisted from PTAs, Chambers of Commerce, churches, community action groups, court systems, police and sheriff departments, corrections employees unions, victims groups, inmate support groups, colleges and universities..., participated in deliberative dialogue, initiated local action (e.g., establishing peer mediation programs), and helped to formulate numerous recommendations presented to the state legislature, many now incorporated into law as Oklahoma Bill 1213.
In and around Portland, Maine: Since 1996, over 5000 high school and middle school students from six communities have gone through study circles examining issues concerning youth and education. About 10% of them have gone further, becoming facilitators of study circles for other young people in their communities. Some typical feedback from these participants, the first from a seventh grade teacher, the other two from students:
[My students now] are conscious that listening is a skill.....everyone has a stake in making the group work.
The success with the groups that I have guided has given me a new confidence in myself. I have become better at interacting with people whose opinions differ from mine.
In the beginning everything was an argument that I had to win. Now I know I can just learn from what someone says.
In Lima, Ohio: Over 3,000 residents have contributed to this wide-ranging and ever-evolving study circle initiative. Begun in 1993 as a response to potential racial violence, it is now supported by the Mayors office, the local branch of Ohios state university, and Limas Clergy Task Force. According to the Study Circle Resource Center (SCRC)of whom more will be said later on:
Because of study circles, a growing number of Lima citizens are making good on their vision of unity and strength for their city. (They) have created dozens of projects, programs, and cooperative efforts. Two ongoing groupsFrom Discussion to Action and Growing Peace in Limaformed as a result of the study circles and have achieved 501(c)(3) status. Community diversity celebrations have been held each year for the last four years. A mediation center is now up-and-running. Our Daily Bread II was created to serve as soup kitchen and a center for tutoring and recreation. The Lima Violence Prevention Center has been established.... from FOCUS, the newslettter of the SCRC, Summer, 1998.
In New Mexico: Following the Oklahoma model, several state-wide organizations have designed study circle programs, this time on education, for school districts throughout the state.
In Hampton, VA, Hartford, CT, Los Angeles, Nashville, TN, Tampa and Miami, FL, Minneapolis, Aurora and Springfield, IL, and fifty or so other communities of every size and in every part of the country: inclusive, community-wide study circles have been established to cope constructively with diversity issues, discrimination, racism, race relations, race and economics.....
These study circle initiatives, and many others, offer rays of hope, allowing us to discard the oddly pervasive image of an apathetic, self-absorbed, malled-out American public flaunting its surplus powerlessness. Whether from social scientists like Robert Putnam, whose influential Bowling Alone article alleges that civic society is moribund and social capital all-but-depleted in the USA, or PBS specials focused on the disease of affluenza and over-consumption, we are bombarded on all sides with our own lack of citizenship, indifference to community or neighborhood concerns, lack of social cohesion, etc., etc. The study circle phenomenon belies these self-destructive (and self-fulfilling) images. In less than 10 years, it has built sustainable coalitions, visioned and implemented community- and state-wide progressive changes, and started to resolve problems viewed as intractable. Inner city children in Hartford public schools have learned from study circle programs run for and by high school and middle school students in Portland, Maine, much as citizens of New Mexico are learning how to conduct state-wide programs from those in Oklahoma. Throughout all of these initiatives, it is ordinary citizens, rather than professional educators or planning experts, who have taken the major role as facilitators, planners, coordinators, mediators...receiving training and acquiring experience, which they then pass on to other community members.
And it gets even better....
But How Do We Get Started??
To the natural question of how to start study circle programs in Our Town or Our State, theres an experienced-based, and remarkably low cost, answer. Tucked away in rural northeast Connecticut, doing its deep, noiseless work in a way that would have won praise from Lao-Tze, is the Study Circle Resource Center. Their dedicated staff provides free-of-charge assistance to communities who want to engage in study circle initiatives; e.g., in the organization and planning of community-wide coalitions and programs, the training of study circle facilitators, the writing and dissemination of discussion materials, the lessons to be drawn from other similar initiatives. For nominal cost, this direct assistance can be supplemented by purchasing copies of their numerous publications, including study guides on Racism and Relations, Education and Youth Issues, Immigration and Race, Jobs, and Diversity, Crime and Violence....(see sidebar on SCRC publications).
In short, one framework to close the education gap may now be in place. Assisted by the SCRC, study circles have enabled coalitions to form, whole communities to become involved and interwoven, while developing local remedies and resources. They can augment social capital, should it be in short supply. And these laboratories of democracy can provide opportunities for grassroots groupsones committed to mutual aid, inclusiveness, and the rejection of exploitive control by remote and irresponsible corporationsto build a new and democratic economy in the shell of the old.
How might that process begin? The first step would be to gather together stakeholders from all parts of your community, region, or statelabor groups, small businesses, neighborhood organizations, under- or unemployed persons, environmental justice groups, etc. With their active collaboration, identify and sharpen the central economic problems confronting your community. Then contact the SCRC for assistance in designing a community-wide study circle initiative focused on creating a viable local economy. Check out, in particular, two of their newer full study circle kits on Building Strong Neighborhoods, and Meeting the Challenge of Growth and Development, as well as their extensive, step-by-step guide to Planning Community-Wide Study Circle Programs, and their Community-Wide Study Circle Program Update, describing all known community-wide study circle initiatives in process..... Its hard to imagine a better offer than theirs:
We would like to help you organize study circles throughout your neighborhood. SCRC offers assistance, free of charge, to organizers of large-scale study circle programs....(and) can provide more detailed advice on organizing and facilitating study circles. Please contact us: SCRC, PO Box 203, Pomfret, CT 06258. Phone: 860-928-2616; Fax: 928-3713; E-mail: email@example.com.
STUDY CIRCLE DEFINITION*
Small group of people (6-9) who agree to meet together several times to discuss all sides of an issue in a democratic and collaborative wayto dialogue, not debate;
The process of deliberative democratic discussion is as important as the content;
Goals include mutual empowerment and respect, collaborative problem-solving, and true community;
Includes: background material on the issue selected, facilitator, groundrules, multiple sessions, no specified outcome.
*Used with permission of the Maine Youth Study Circle Project.
STUDY CIRCLE GROUNDRULES*
All views are valued;
Facilitator remains neutral;
One person speaks at a timedont interrupt;
Listen carefully to othersgive everyone a fair hearing;
No name calling or put downs;
If you are offended, say so;
Be open to changing your mind;
Everyone helps facilitator keep the discussion moving and on track.
*Used with permission of the Maine Youth Study Circle Project.
1. All quotes in this piece are from publications of the SCRC; I have relied extensively on this fine material, as well as on conversations with SCRC staff members. GEO thanks the Center, as well, for permission to use two of its graphics in this issue.
2. Robert Putnams Bowling Alone: Americas Declining Social Capital, appeared in the January, 1995 Journal of Democracy. See also, Lizbeth Schorrs Common Purposes: Strengthening Families and Communities to Rebuild America. Anchor Books, Doubleday (1997).
Resources Available from the Study Circle Resource Center
COMPREHENSIVE DISCUSSION GUIDES
Building Strong Neighborhoods: A Guide for Public Dialogue and Problem Solving. Offers sessions on many important neighborhood issues including: Race and other kinds of differences; Young people and families; Jobs and neighborhood economy; and Schools. (1998)
Changing Faces, Changing Communities: Immigration & Race, jobs, schools, and language differences. A discussion guide designed to help people with the challenges and opportunities that come with living in diverse communities. (1997)
Smart Talk for Growing Communities: Meeting the Challenges of Growth and Development. A five sesssion guide for democratic deliberation and action. (1998)
Education: How Can Schools and Communities Work Together to Meet the Challenge? This guide examines challenges which schools face and the ways citizens and educators can improve education. (1995)
Facing the Challenge of Racism and Race relations: Democratic Dialogue and Action for Stronger Communities. Five session discussion with recommendations for tailoring discussions to the concerns of a particular community or organization. (1996)
[NOTE: These and other Comprehensive Discussion Guides are available for $5 each. Condensed Busy Citizens Discussion Guides on the same topics are also available for just $1 each.]
Planning Community-Wide Study Circle Programs: A Step-by-Step Guide. ($15)
A Guide to Training Study Circle Facilitators. ($15)
Guidelines for Creating Effective Study Circle Material. ($2)
Story of a Peoplea 17 minute video that documents Lima, Ohios community-wide study circle program addressing race relations. Highlights organizers, community leaders, and participants. ($5)
Act Against Violence: A Maine Study Circle program. 30 minute broadcast produced by Maine Public TV documenting the final forum in the Act Against Violence Campaign. Highlights program outcomes developed by the participating communities. ($5)
[NOTE: send orders direct to SCRC, PO Box 203, Pomfret, CT 06258. Phone: 860-928-2616; Fax: 928-3713; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org .; add $2 for shipping.]