In traveling around the Twin Cities, many of you may have noticed at least one of the three billboards advertising something called community-wide “Roundtables” on the topics of race relations, education, or police/community relations. These signs herald the latest and most ambitious round in a series of grassroots discussion groups that have quietly been having an impact in Champaign-Urbana since 1997.
Until very recently called “Study Circles” here in C-U, the idea of holding grassroots, diverse discussion groups as a means of addressing complex or divisive community issues is not unique to our community.
Though there are several national organizations that promote some variation on this theme, the Study Circles Resource Center is perhaps the most ambitious. Established in Pomfret, Connecticut, in 1989, the Center is a project of the Topsfield Foundation, which describes itself as a “private, nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation whose mission is to advance deliberative democracy and improve the quality of public life in the United States.” The Study Circles Resource Center creates study circle organizing and discussion materials, distributes those materials free of charge to organizers of large study circle programs in local communities, and provides free technical assistance to organizers. Nationally, 203 communities in 35 states currently have ongoing community-wide study circle programs, including nine that are active in Illinois.
Locally, the program began with pilot groups in 1997 and 1998, at the instigation of people involved with the YWCA, the Baha’i faith, and the City of Champaign. Under the sponsorship of the City of Champaign’s Office of Community Relations, the program has continued since then to attract new participants.
Until recently, the topic under discussion was race relations and how to improve them in our community. This summer, several groups met to discuss the theme of education. And this coming fall, in addition to the other two topics, there will be groups focusing on police/community relations.
So what exactly is a Study Circle/Roundtable?
In its essence, a Study Circle is a group composed of 8-12 people who meet for two hours once a week for a period of six weeks (or more if the group so decides) to address a critical public issue in a democratic and collaborative way. Participation is entirely free of charge. An attempt is made to achieve the broadest possible diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, age, and economic level.
Each group has one or two trained facilitators (normally people who have participated in a previous study circle). The job of a facilitator is not to tell the group what to think, but to assist the group in keeping the discussion focused, making sure that everyone has a chance to participate, helping the group consider a variety of viewpoints and explore areas of common ground, and asking the difficult questions that may lead to constructive solutions to community problems.
Typically, a study circle progresses from a session on personal experience (“how does the issue affect me, or how has it affected me personally?”) to sessions providing a broader perspective (“what are some alternative ways of looking at this issue?”) to a session or sessions on action (“what can we do about the issue here in our community?”).
At the very least, a study circle offers a person the opportunity to meet, get to know, and exchange ideas with others in the community who are unlike himself or herself, people of different backgrounds and perspectives. It can be a broadening, stimulating, enriching experience that expands one’s world view and creates bonds of unity and fellowship between people who might otherwise never have met one another.
At its best, a truly cohesive study circle can also have a more directly positive impact on the community as a whole.
As an example, one of the 1998 pilot groups discussing racism decided at the end of the six weeks to continue meeting on a regular basis to explore educational enrichment for children who were not succeeding in the regular public school system. This study circle group formed the nucleus of what is now called the Champaign-Urbana Charter School Initiative, a coalition of people who have been working ever since to plan and establish a charter school in the community.
This summer, three study circles focused expressly on the topic of education. Of those three groups, two have remained active after the “official” end of the study circle program. One group decided to concentrate its efforts on the current search for a new superintendent of schools for the Champaign Unit 4 School District. Two of the group’s members volunteered to be candidates for the school board’s search and interview committees. The group formulated criteria for the prospective superintendent that emphasize his or her background and previous experience in dealing with racial and ethnic diversity.
Another of this summer’s education study circles illustrates how flexible the concept of a Study Circle can be. It was comprised entirely of parents (and one teacher) from just one of the community’s elementary schools. Organized by one of the parents who had previously participated in a Study Circle on race relations, this group wanted to concentrate on ways of improving the school in question. After much discussion of the issues unique to their school, the participants formulated specific strategies to assist the PTA in fostering better communication between parents, teachers, and administrators, and other creative ideas. They hope that these ideas will help make the school a more nurturing place for teachers to work and children to learn and grow.
Recent changes in the local Study Circle program include changing the name of “Study Circles” to “Community Roundtables”, and expanding the administrative base to include the University of Illinois campus YWCA’s Program Coordinator for Social Justice. Future plans include the implementation of Roundtables for younger community members at the University of Illinois, Parkland College, and the three local high schools, as well as a possible collaboration with the Independent Media Center in developing a film discussion series.
The potential of Community Roundtables is limited only by the energy and creativity of those who choose to get involved.