Study Circles on Race Relations Connect Talk with Action

Article excerpt

President Clinton's call for constructive dialogue on the difficult issue of race relations is already being answered. Over the last several years, study circle organizers in communities around the country have involved thousands of citizens in discussion and action on race.

In study circles--small-group, democratic, highly participatory discussions--people of all backgrounds and views exchange ideas and grapple with critical public issues. As citizens participate in community-wide study circle programs, they form new interracial networks, gain a deeper understanding of others' perspectives and concerns, discover common ground, and gain a greater desire and ability to take action--as individuals, as members of small groups, as members of large organizations in the community, and as voters.

Study circles create more than just talk. An evaluation of a program in the Cleveland area, where 700 citizens have participated, showed that people changed their attitudes about race as a result of their study circle experiences. In Lima, Ohio, where over 2,000 citizens have taken part, participants have done everything from building new playgrounds to winning minority representation on a regional development board. In the week after the O.J. Simpson verdict, study circles took place at over 100 sites in Los Angeles, allowing people to address a tense situation in a civil and productive way.

"Study circles are making dramatic progress on race relations in cities all over the country," says former Senator Bill Bradley.

In Tampa, Florida, over 500 people have been involved in study circles on race relations; almost 500 have taken part in a program in Wilmington Delaware; and in Springfield, Ohio, 1,570 residents have participated, including several hundred high school students.

Study circles aren't limited to race issues. Many communities are using them to get people involved in issues like crime and violence, education, criminal justice, and youth concerns. A program on education in tiny Orford, New Hampshire, helped that town address the financial difficulties of its high school.

A program on crime in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, helped the police department implement a new community policing strategy. In Oklahoma, a state-wide study circle program involving over 1,000 citizens enabled the state legislature to pass sweeping changes in the corrections system. At present, there are full-scale study circle programs underway in 36 communities across the country. Another 65 communities are in the process of planning such programs.

While each of these programs is unique and locally-driven, study circle organizers receive free assistance and materials from the Study Circles Resource Center, which also works to connect this growing national network. SCRC is a project of the Topsfield Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan private foundation working to "advance deliberative democracy and improve the quality of public life in the United States. …