People of varying ages, races, genders, backgrounds and socioeconomic classes will come together this spring in Eau Claire to talk about making UW-Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley a more welcoming place for everyone.
This spring, the Circles of Change initiative — a partnership among UW-Eau Claire, Chippewa Valley Technical College, the Eau Claire Area School District and the Eau Claire community — will pilot its first two discussion groups.
The goal, organizers say, is to facilitate positive social change, particularly in terms of race relations on campus and in the community.
"This is an opportunity to work with the campus and the Chippewa Valley to build a stronger sense of community," said Dr. Audrey Robinson, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Academic Skills Center and co-coordinator of the Circles of Change project.
Each small, facilitated Circle of Change group will include 10-12 people, with members coming from UW-Eau Claire, CVTC and the Eau Claire community.
Two pilot groups will meet for two hours six times throughout the spring.
Since members of the campus community often live, work, socialize and shop in the region, it makes sense to make the Circles of Change a community initiative instead of a campus effort, Robinson said.
“We want to encourage dialogue by putting into place a process for exchanging ideas and building awareness on campus but also in the community,” Robinson said. “Specifically, these groups will be talking about racism, institutional and other forms. The groups will include diverse participants, all of whom will have an equal voice.
“This effort will provide opportunities for people to consider issues from various points of view, and help them recognize areas of agreement and common ground.”
Race typically is a topic that many people are uncomfortable talking about, said Barbara Yasui, a senior associate from Everyday Democracy, a Connecticut-based organization that helps groups and communities have group dialogues around specific topics.
Given the current racial climate in the country, it’s more important than ever that people who disagree find ways to have constructive conversations about race so they can identify some common ground, said Yasui, who spent two days at UW-Eau Claire training the facilitators who will lead Eau Claire’s first discussion groups.
“If nothing else, this last election cycle showed us that there is a deep division around race,” said Yasui. “We need to come together and be able to talk about these issues. People often are afraid they will say the wrong thing. We need to help them to talk about it so they become more comfortable.”
The circles bring diverse people together to share their own views and insights around race, she said.
As participants hear new viewpoints and perspectives, their own thinking will change, Yasui said. Individual change then will lead to community change, she said.
While discussion is at the heart of the initiative, Circles of Change will go beyond talking about racism, Robinson said.
“This initiative is a call to action, it’s not just a dialogue,” Robinson says.
Each group will develop proposed action plans, which will include specific things that could be done that will lead to real change on campus and in the region, Robinson said.
Once the individual groups have completed their work, all participants in all the groups will come together to share their action plans.
They then will identify the one or two action items they consider to be most important. Those who want to remain involved will lead those projects.
“The action plans basically say ‘we recognize these things in ourselves and in our community, and this is how we can change it,’” Robinson said.
The proposed action items could be big or small things, Robinson said.
For example, she said, an action item could be auditing libraries in area public elementary schools to determine if they have enough books that reflect the student population through pictures and stories.
“Are there are enough books with Hmong people, African Americans, Native Americans or other ethnic groups so students can see and read about people like themselves?" Robinson said. “Do the books represent our community? I don’t know the answer, but that’s the kind of thing these groups might decide is important to find out.”
While diversity has long been a priority at UW-Eau Claire, addressing racial concerns on campus and in the community is even more important given the university’s goal to greatly increase the number of multicultural students, faculty and staff in the coming years, Robinson said.
UW-Eau Claire’s most recent strategic plan states that 20 percent of its students will be people of color in 10 years.
“If that is our goal, then we need to be working now to ensure that the campus and community are welcoming places for people of color to live, learn or work,” Robinson said. “We need to find ways to make sure our community is ready to welcome all people.”
To be successful in making change in the community, people from all walks of life must be included in the discussions, Robinson said.
So while students, faculty and staff from UW-Eau Claire and CVTC will participate, so, too, will a mix of people from the community, Robinson said. Faculty, staff and students will be encouraged to participate, as well as people working in all sectors in the community, such as bankers, grocery store clerks, teachers and bus drivers.
“We all live in our community so we are affected by what happens there, whether it’s at our bank, our grocery store or the YMCA,” Robinson said. “We need as many voices as possible to make this work.”
The hope, she said, is that people who participate in the discussion groups will recruit their friends, co-workers and others to join future groups.
This summer, organizers will review the work of the spring pilot groups, make adjustments to the program, and then launch the full initiative in fall 2017.
In the fall, 10 or more Circles of Change discussion groups will meet, following the same structure as the pilot groups in terms of developing action plans and then coming together to select priority action items.
The hope is that each semester, new circles will be formed so the discussions will continue indefinitely.
“We know that change won’t happen overnight,” Robinson said. “It will take some time, so we plan for the Circles of Change to continue for a while.”
Robinson and Mike Huggins, the retired Eau Claire city manager who teaches Honors courses at UW-Eau Claire, are leading the Circles of Change initiative in Eau Claire.
More than 20 people, half from UW-Eau Claire and others from CVTC and the Eau Claire community, already have signed up to be group facilitators, and were part of the first on-campus training session led by Yasui. A second training will take place in January.
The idea of the Circles of Change initiative came out of UW-Eau Claire’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Implementation Team efforts.
That team identified opportunities and strategies for helping to meet the needs of diverse members of the campus community.
“We know that the university, CVTC and the city all are interested in making this great community even better,” Robinson said. “But none of us can do it on our own. It’s going to take all of us to make this an even better place for everyone to live.”
Project leaders are looking for people to participate in the pilot circles as well as future discussion groups.
Interested in leading or being part of a Circles of Change group? Contact Dr. Audrey Robinson at 715-836-2200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top photo caption: Barbara Yasui, a senior associate from Everyday Democracy, helped train campus and community members who will serve as facilitators for the pilot Circles of Change discussion groups this spring.