Iowa Civil Rights Commission

Study Circles


Vol. 2, No. 2 Spring 1998

Our Mission is to eliminate discrimination in Iowa.

by Mim Van Winkle


Ms. Van Winkle is the chair of the Burlington Area Study Circles Project, and gave these remarks before the area Ministerial Alliance. She is a counselor with the Burlington Community School District.

Thank you for inviting me here to speak about the Burlington Area Study Circles project. Ten Iowa communities, including Burlington, have now started community-wide discussion groups or study circles on racism and race relations, with help from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.

Not long ago the local NAACP chapter hosted a public forum for people to air their concerns and a large number of people turned up, black and white. People shared worries and frustrations and questions about racism. They talked about race relations with the police, about racist attitudes in area workplaces, and about how schools deal with hate-talk. It was eye-opening for me to see so many Burlington people saying that things are not OK by them.

I know there are many local people of all races who work long and hard to make a difference in people's lives. But, beyond the NAACP, nowhere in this community are we collectively addressing race relations in Burlington.

The questions we haven't addressed productively as a community are: (1) what part does race play in our daily lives? and (2) how does not addressing race issues poison our own community wells? The Study Circle experience can provide that missing dialogue in our community for people who sincerely want to improve race relations.

First of all, let me explain what we're all about and where we're at in this project. Study circles are small group, participatory discussions that help everyday people like you and I share their own concerns and perspectives on race. A dozen or so people meet four times for two-hour sessions with a trained, neutral facilitator.

Study Circles provide the chance to identify and explore common ground. Our goal is not consensus, but understanding and acceptance of honest differences of opinion. We'll have a difficult time finding ways to get along if we can't learn to truly listen to each other. What it comes down to is, that "unless we find productive ways to talk to each other, we'll be left talking about each other."

A coalition of about 20 concerned community members and sponsors has been meeting since the beginning of the year to get the ball rolling here in Burlington. These members of the working group have pledged to participate in a pilot Study Circle series and to help set up subsequent Study Circles within their organizations, schools, or churches.

This all sounds great. But I've heard a lot of reticence from people about this project. People have said to me (and maybe you are thinking some of these same things):

In response to these questions, the Study Circles Resource Center material states that "all of us from every ethnic and racial background have had experiences that give us unique understandings of race and its impact on our personal and public lives." Whatever demographic category we fall into—white, black Hispanic, Asian, rich, poor, middle class—we each have a voice and everyone is welcome.

When people say "leave well enough alone, don't stir things up," I am reminded of how we as a society deal with (or don't deal with very well) other people's grieving. Just because we dance around a subject doesn't mean it's not there; those invisible elephants that we try to avoid are likely to rampage if we don't talk about them when we need to. "When we do talk about race issues, it is often at times of crisis, when racial divisions become apparent or racial tensions turn to violence." (SCRC)

To paraphrase Langston Hughes, "What happens to frustrations unspent? ...Maybe they just sag, like a heavy load. Ordo they explode?" We should all be fearful of just such explosions of violence, stemming from poor race relations.

And what about people who say, "Let's stop talking about race—let's talk about being Americans!" This is an example, for me, of one of the issues we need to talk about in a racially-mixed group, not just share with those of our own race, with people who tend to validate our own views. We need to try to understand why people might not agree with us rather than feeling angry or threatened when they don't. I would think this is especially true if our stated goal is a united country.

Whites have asked me, "How safe will I feel as a participant? Will I be able to talk freely without being labeled a racist? Will blacks use this as a soapbox for `educating whites'?" The purpose of having a trained, neutral facilitator is to keep the conversation focused and productive and safe for everyone to share their true feelings.

What about those of us who feel almost maxed out with commitments, with all sorts of projects and responsibilities? Why should this project take any priority? One reason is that this kind of relationship-building can provide a more solid foundation for other community projects. It's really money in the bank, so to speak. This is a short-term intense way for people to develop new relationships and to stretch our thinking about ourselves and our community. It sounds like a win-win investment all around, something we can use to build on for other projects.

So, what will it cost you to participate? "A few hours of your time to come to meetings, a little time to read background information. Some effort to turn off the TV and go out to a meeting on a cold night. Some personal risk in sharing your experiences, in speaking out on feelings that maybe you've never told anyone before, to confront your own feelings and fears about race relations." (Des Moines Honest Conversations article)

What's in it for you as a participant? The chance to look at a different face, to listen to a different voice, and to be able to be heard in a respectful environment. The chance to be part of change, to let go of blaming and recriminations and help build good will as a basis for future community efforts.

And that last complaint, that talk is cheap and what good can it really do? One journalist wrote: "In a world in which everyone—from yammering talk show hosts to newspaper columnists to everyone-seems-to-have-it-all-figured-out—in this kind of world, Study Circles stands out as a refreshing alternative." He went on to say, "Change is the ultimate purpose of Study Circles and perhaps the most fundamental change of all is a change of consciousness." (Teaching Tolerance)

Let me tell you what "just talking' can accomplish with a true story about the unlikely pairing of Ann Atwater and CP Ellis—a black activist and a white racist. They two met 25 years ago in Durham, NC, when that city was battling with integrating their public schools and both of these people had children in that district's high school. The school district decided to pull people with a wide range of opinions together to talk, face to face, on a desegregation committee.

These two had clashed before at rallies where Ellis, who was then Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, would taunt civil rights activist Atwater. Both were reluctant to participate in the committee, but Atwater had a dream in which she saw newspaper headlines proclaiming her too frightened to stand up to Ellis again in public, so she signed up. And Ellis, not wanting to seem like he couldn't face the blacks, said he felt forced to agree to participate, too.

For Ellis, this ended up being a life changing encounter. For the first time in his life he really listened to black people—time and again he heard his own thoughts coming out of the mouths of black parents. He came to realize that Ann Atwater was very much like himself, with many of the same problems. After one meeting, the two of them stayed on and talked, parent to parent, poor person to poor person. These two eventually became very good friends. Ellis turned his life inside-out, all because of "just talk." He dropped out of the KKK and later became a steward of a union that was 80% black. (HawkEye article, 2/6/98, Criss Roberts)

"This, then, is where the battle of race relations needs to be waged, from the inside out.... If each person is willing to focus his or her energy on doing this, on searching deep inside and being courageous enough to confront and, if necessary, change what one finds there, then maybe we can regain a larger sense of collective purpose, and maybe we can influence society's development positively with this human dilemma—racism. (Jonathan Coleman, Long Way to Go: Black and White in America, 1998)

The Study Circle program is set up to help us do something that needs to be done. Replacing confrontation with conversation does not mean that mountains will necessarily be moved. But perhaps people will develop for one another a degree of empathy from which constructive relationships can be forged.

In Romans 8 it says: "All creation stood on tiptoe to see the children of God come into their own." It's kind of exciting tothink that with this project we as a community could be taking some small sure steps toward coming into our own. This is one way that we can, as Lincoln once said, get in touch with the better angels of our natures.

We would like to invite Burlington area churches to join with us to try to make a difference in race relations with the Burlington Area Study Circles project.

Circles Around the State: Progress Reports

Webster County is completing their sixth study circle. They plan to continue and expand. Participants in two circles joined for their last session and developed an action plan. The plan contained two items — to convene a study circle involving students in the high school and to organize a youth, outdoor, night basketball league, both of which are going to happen. Concerns: Getting more minorities to participate and the lack of resources to administer the circle program. City of Fort Dodge has increased the Fort Dodge/Webster County Human Rights Commission's annual budget by $500 to help fund "Diversity-related" activities, like promoting study circles and attending the Lt. Governor's "Faces and Voices of Iowa" Conference.

Ottumwa has 20 members on the Coalition dedicated to offering study circles to the general community and to the schools, focusing on 8th graders. Their pilot circle is scheduled for May 9, 19, 26, and 30, 1998. Twelve Coalition members have already been trained as facilitators. Concern: Negative people who profess to see no current problem in race relations.

Muscatine has 12 Coalition members participating in a pilot circle. After one session, a long-time friend of the Coalition's chair said, "I've lived in this town for 30 years and I've never been in a group with Blacks, Hispanics, and Whitesaltogether." After the pilot, they plan to take study circles to the schools. A meeting with school administrators is scheduled for May 1998.

Storm Lake uses the Study Circles Resource Center materials but follows a slightly different format. For the past year, they've been facilitating an ongoing circle, sometimes two, on the last Sunday of every month. The facilitators move from one circle session to another, asking questions, getting the group to explore various issues, viewpoints, and myths about race, national origin, immigration, and diversity. Following one recent Sunday afternoon session, in response to a concern that clerks at retail stores aren't friendly or helpful to persons of color, members of the Storm Lake Diversity Task Force contacted the Storm Lake Chamber of Commerce and arranged a "Valuing Customer Diversity" workshop for local merchants. Thirty-six people from the retail community attended.

Sioux City just finished their fifth circle on March 10. They've applied for a grant to the Siouxland Foundation to help with administration, publicity, and recruitment. Concern: How to keep the momentum going.

Burlington plans to offer circles to the general community; and several members of the Coalition associated with the AEA and the Burlington and West Burlington School Districts are very interested in introducing circles to the schools, with middle school students as potential participants. Pilot circle is scheduled for April 14, 21, and 28, and May 7, 1998.

Humboldt County is working on a mission statement and goals/objectives for their newly-created Community Diversity Appreciation Team. Because one of their goals could very well be coordinating community-wide study circles, they've decided to do a pilot circle involving Team members. The four, two-hour sessions will begin June 3 and continue June 10, 17, and 24.

Denison has four members of their Cultural Diversity Committee trained as facilitators. They plan to do their first round of circles at the Denison Job Corps. The Job Corps is very excited about offering the study circles experience to its students and the Committee is hopeful that success at the Job Corps will serve as a springboard to the entire community. Concern: Because so many people in the community see no problem or issue with the current state of race relations, they worry that their efforts to promote study circles will be exceedingly difficult.

Cedar Valley (Waterloo/Cedar Falls) will complete their pilot circle on April 17 and then they plan to organize/schedule/facilitate 15 circles from June through November 1998. They've already identified and trained 26 people to serve as facilitators. Concern: How to keep the Coalition solidified in order to stay on schedule.

Des Moines recently completed another round of four honest conversations/circles. They plan to convene ten more circles in May, June, and July. A leading organization of the Des Moines Honest Conversations Working Group, the National Conference of Christians and Jews, has secured grant funds to employ a part-time study circles administrator. Concern: Getting more minorities to participate, getting more minorities to see how important they are in helping white people understand their racism.

Dubuque is hoping to get their "Talk Circles" re-energized by working more closely with the Dubuque Human Rights Commission. They need to regroup and reevaluate goals and objectives.

Burlington "Study Circles"

Mim Van Winkle



Cedar Valley "Study Circles"

Walter Reed



Denison "Study Circles"

Coletta Weed



Des Moines

"Honest Conversations"

Rudy Simms



Dubuque "Talk Circles"

Thom Detterman



Humboldt "Study Circles"

Joe Hadar



Muscatine "Study Circles"

Pat French



Ottumwa "Study Circles"

Gail Quinn



Sioux City "Study Circles"

Eloise Caltvedt



Storm Lake "Study Circles"

Dale Carver



Webster County "Study Circles"

Ed O'Leary

515-576-2201A Call to Circles