Following the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the Study Circles Resource Center produced a study guide entitled "Can't We All Just Get Along?" to help communities find ways to address their deepest divisions. The guide includes a manual of short readings, questions and prompts, as well as suggestions for study circle leaders and participants on how to conduct a successful discussion.
In the face of sensitive topics like race that are bound to spark disagreement, the study circle format is designed to promote civility. Because personal opinions are sometimes irrational, accusatory and difficult to discuss, the guided conversation begins around personal experience, only later moving into broader issues open to debate.
Circle members get to know one another -- and invest themselves in the group -- by sharing things that have actually happened to them in the context of the subject under discussion. A circle on community violence, for example, may open with a firsthand story about a gang shooting up the street; a discussion about racial prejudice may start with a participant's memory of being forced as a youngster to use "blacks only" restrooms.
"Issue-oriented discussions are too remote for most people," says Martha McCoy, director of the Study Circles Resource Center, "so we say, 'Tell us about an incident in your life,' not 'What do you think?' This gets people to tell powerful stories, which in turn generates other stories."
McCoy considers the circles a democratic tool reminiscent of the old town hall meeting, with a couple of critical differences. "The town hall may have been democratic," she says, "but it was democratic only for those included in the process -- mostly white male property owners. But study circles strive to be inclusive -- inviting into the discussion as equals those who have too often been on the outside."
Ron Hagaman, assistant to the mayor of Lima, Ohio, helped organize study circles in that city shortly after the Rodney King verdict, when there was, as he puts it, "violence in the air." Hagaman, who has participated in a number of the circles himself, observes, "Even though the ensuing discussions were often emotional and sometimes tense, the participants always treated one another with respect." Consequently, Hagaman says, "there's a completely different sense in the community regarding race. People are more aware, more sensitive. And best of all, the circles are still going on."
Creating a safe environment of mutual respect in which people can speak their minds without fear of reprisal is largely the responsibility of the study circle leader. While the leader, as Nick Heimlich tells participants, must not be "a study circle cop," it is her job, nevertheless, to make sure that no one monopolizes the conversation or bullies those with a different perspective.
She must also, Heimlich says, "withdraw from being the focal point as fast as possible. The leader's role is to pose questions and encourage everyone to participate, not to dampen the discussion by turning it into a forum for her own views."
The study circle leader, with the input of everyone in the group, develops a list of ground rules for discussion, which she has primary responsibility for enforcing (see main story). There is nothing complicated about these rules, yet they are essential to a study circle's success. A willingness to observe them not only fosters civility but creates a reflective atmosphere in which people can examine their own long-held assumptions. For more information, contact:
Study Circles Resource Center
P.O. Box 203
Pomfret, CT 06258