|UW-Eau Claire||News Bureau|
|Schofield Hall 218|
|Eau Claire, WI 54702-4004|
MAILED: Feb. 19, 1997
EAU CLAIRE - How do you persuade your professional or blue-collar co-workers to change their negative attitudes toward different racial and ethnic groups? How do you convince your teenage children to interact with peers from different backgrounds? How do you go about creating opportunities for racially diverse neighbors to interact?
These are among the issues 160 Eau Claire area residents are grappling with this winter and spring as they participate in the "Circle of Change" - a project intended to get community members talking about issues involving ethnic diversity in the Chippewa Valley.
"We tried to understand what was behind the racial prejudice of ourselves, our friends, family and fellow community members," Jan Larson, an assistant professor of communication and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, said of her 10-member discussion group. "We talked about fear, ignorance, lack of contact with racial and ethnic minorities and quite a bit about the role economics plays in prejudice and racial bigotry.
"We talked about ways to cross such divides. And we wondered if part of the difficulty is that people are so busy with their individual lives that they don't take time to get involved in a community and don't take advantage of opportunities that might lead to greater racial and ethnic harmony. We become isolated and entrenched in our views - however wrong they might be."
Larson's group is one of 15 such discussion groups that are meeting for two hours once a week for four weeks. The eight to 10-member groups are encouraged to discuss any issues they want in an effort to gain an understanding of ethnic diversity in the Chippewa Valley. Participants consist of people of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as different ages.
"The idea is to bring together members of the community, public schools and college in a non-confrontational atmosphere to talk about issues that have created tension," said Joseph Hisrich, chair of the University/Community Committee on Diversity that organized the "Circle of Change" project.
"The sessions are mediated discussions where all points of view are heard and considered. This process should make participants aware of others' opinions and ideologies as well as the implications of their own attitudes."
An effort, Hisrich said, was made to include people from all parts of the Eau Claire area community.
"The idea was to get as much diversity within the groups as possible," Hisrich said. "We wanted people with different backgrounds, different life experiences, to sit down face-to-face and talk about those things."
For example, the inclusion of a high school senior in her group has made the interaction that much more interesting, said Judy Gatlin, of UW-Eau Claire's Center for International Education. "Having this young man present is inspiring - it's telling me the youth of the Chippewa Valley are willing to attempt to make a difference in this broad issue," she said.
Each of the groups has two co-facilitators who have been trained to help keep the conversation flowing. The intent, Hisrich said, is to ensure that all points of views are heard during the discussions.
Larson, who has a Hispanic background, joined the "Circle of Change" project because she cares about the values and attitudes of the community in which she is raising her children.
"I thought about the 'Circle of Change' and what it hopes to be a part of - a continuing effort to encourage people to judge, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, 'not by the color of skin but by the content of a person's character,'" Larson said. "And if I want Eau Claire, or any community, to accept my children, all children, then I better be about the business of helping to make that happen.
"Dialogue may be a good first step toward change, but shouldn't we be beyond first steps? We need to back up our words with actions."
Gatlin said she was interested to hear other people's opinions on diversity and race/ethnic issues specific to the Chippewa Valley. "I want to hear opinions/ideas from people different from me - different economic status, different education levels, different cultures," she said.
Organizers hope the "Circle of Change" project will prompt similar discussions - formal and informal - throughout the Eau Claire community.
"While there is no formal plan at this point of what happens next, we hope the efforts to better understand ethnic diversity in the community continues long after these discussion groups end," Hisrich said.
As the project's kickoff, facilitators and participants in the "Circle of Change" program attended Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's UW-Eau Claire Forum presentation in February, during which he talked about his book, "Black Profiles of Courage."
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Updated: April 24, 1997