Baha'i News -- Study circle is safe for talks on diversity

Study circle is safe for talks on diversity

By MEREDITH PIERCE, Missourian staff
March 26, 2002

More than 50 Columbians will meet on April 27 at Hickman High School for Let's Talk Columbia! - Dialogues on Diversity.

Participants, who must register by April 1, will be placed in a study circle of eight to 12 people for the day. They will discuss various issues in an attempt to break down stereotypes and talk about diversity.

How to sign up

WHAT: Diversity study circle

REGISTRATION: - click on "Let's Talk, Columbia!
Dialogues on Diversity."

Must register by April 1.

WHEN: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. April 27

WHERE: Hickman High School

Study circles are different from diversity training because, although facilitators help the group stay focused, no one tells participants how they should or should not think or act.

"The facilitator's role is not to educate, not to teach, not to bring in their point of view at all," said Nanette Chun-Ming Ward, program coordinator of the community study circles program. Instead, they work to create a safe space for people to talk openly.

They will bring up alternate points of view if they do not come up naturally in discussion.

Study circles have been successful in other areas of the country as a way to create connections between citizens who go on to create change in their communities.

"It comes from a long tradition of political theory that the strength of a community or the strength of our public life lies in individual people who are able to put aside personal ideals for the common good, said Amy Malick, Study Circles Resource Center director of communications.

Creating change across the nation

In Syracuse, N.Y., after attending a study circle, the chief operating officer of a life insurance company established a policy that his company would not give charitable donations to organizations that do not have people of color on their boards. In Orford, N.H., a study circle on declining school enrollment resulted in the formation of a new school district - the first of its kind, because it spans two states: New Hampshire and Vermont. In Racine, Wis., diversity study circle participants formed an integrated book club that discusses books that deal with cultural differences.

Supporters view the study circles as a starting point.

"We don't know what ideas will be generated from the program, but the discussion itself will hopefully open people to other ways of thinking and of connecting people," Ward said.

In our community

The commission chose to implement the study circle program called Toward a More Perfect Union in an Age of Diversity in response to the mayor.s 1996 Race Relations Task Force Report, said staff liaison to the Human Rights Commission Phil Steinhaus. According to a community survey included in the report, 87 percent of black and white Columbia residents wanted more opportunities for social interaction between races.

"I felt like the study circle program was appealing, because it encourages diverse people to get together and talk about those issues." Steinhaus said. "But contrary to diversity training, it's not trying to put across a particular point of view or a politically correct point of view. It starts where people are - how they feel about people different from them."

Ward heads the program with the aid of a 13-member action team. Other members include teachers and administrators from Columbia Public Schools, a police sergeant, the president of the Columbia Interfaith Council, a Baha'i spiritual rap artist and a lawyer and representative for PRISM - a Columbia community-based lesbian, gay and straight alliance.

"People are asked to come ready to share. That is an expectation - and to be willing to listen," Ward said. "That's where the learning takes place."

Columbia's study circle event is sponsored by the HRC in partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council and with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Missouri.

The Study Circles Resource Center provides the study guide for the program. The center is a project of the non-profit Connecticut-based Topsfield Foundation Inc. The founder of Topsfield, retiree Paul Aicher, originally started his organization in 1989 as a philanthropic group.

Early response

Although the Hickman event is being billed as a kick off for the community, study circles started in Columbia last fall. About 60 people already have participated.

Laura Arnold heard about the program at a Boone County Agency meeting concerning diversity in Columbia. The meeting did not mention senior citizens and as the head of the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program of the Boone County Council on Aging, Arnold felt she should represent seniors in a study circle.

Arnold said her group was productive, but she felt it just scratched the surface. Sarah Read was drawn to participate, because she was familiar with the SCRC. As a lawyer and mediator, she had used the curricula as a model to structure negotiations between parties.

"The dialogue process is very unique," Read said. "It's not debate. It is a very safe process for discussing difficult issues."

Monique Coats, former member of the mayor.s race task force, said she expanded her idea of racial tension in her study circle.

"Even when you are a member of a minority group, you have to be sensitive of other minorities," Coats said.

Her only critique of the program was that she felt it was nationalistic.

"You cannot limit diversity to what it means to be an American," she said. "I think of myself as being a woman on planet Earth."

The curriculum asks participants to describe how they feel they fit into the fabric of America.

Keep the ball rolling

The HRC wants to start the program and then encourage other businesses, religious institutions and organizations to adopt the diversity study circle model.

About a dozen administration, faculty and staff at MU participated in diversity study circles and are working to implement study circles on campus.

Already, the HRC has held a mini-study circle at the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, and a group of seven Columbia Public School teachers completed a study circle for in-service credit.

Although the group of teachers only included one person of color, participants said they learned a lot from each other.

"I felt it covered so many areas on things such as race, sex and community that I had never even thought of before," teacher Carol Stoddart said in an e-mail correspondence.

©Copyright 2002, Missourian

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