As high-profile demonstrations, protests, marches and debates about free speech continue to make headlines across the country, millions of Americans are using social media to join the national conversation about race and inequality.
However, a group of people from UW-Eau Claire and the greater Chippewa Valley are taking a different approach — deliberately moving their discussions about race offline, believing that face-to-face conversations among neighbors is what ultimately will lead to lasting change within themselves and their communities.
This fall, more than 120 people are participating in Circles of Change action groups, gathering weekly to discuss race relations on campus and in the community. “The goal is to help make the Chippewa Valley a more welcoming place for everyone,” Dr. Audrey Robinson, director of UW-Eau Claire’s Academic Skills Center, says of UW-Eau Claire’s Circle of Change initiative.
With both UW-Eau Claire and the Chippewa Valley growing, it is important that campus and community members engage in ongoing dialogue to hear issues from various points of view and recognize areas of agreement and common ground, Robinson says.
Robinson also says that “We all have our own personal biases that we need to recognize and address.” “Circles of Change isn’t about pointing fingers, but having honest conversations about what we need to change in ourselves and in our institutional systems so we all can move forward.”
This fall, Circles of Change — a project that includes UW-Eau Claire, Chippewa Valley Technical College, the Eau Claire Area School District, local governments and the Chippewa Valley — are hosting 10 discussion groups on UW-Eau Claire’s campus, at CVTC and in the community.
Each group includes 12-16 people of varying ages, races, genders, backgrounds and socioeconomic classes, that come together for 12 hours of face-to-face conversations about race over a six-week period. Two trained facilitators lead each of the group discussions.
“I’m so excited by the community’s reaction to Circles of Change,” Robinson says. “When we started this project I wasn’t sure we could get 10 people much less more than a 120 people to participate. Given the political climate across the country, I think more and more people are realizing the importance of having dialogues about difference.
“There are a lot of people who are interested in issues that relate to race but don’t know how to talk about it, how to get involved or what to do. Circles of Change is a way for them to get started.”
The Circles of Change initiative began in the spring of 2017, with pilot discussion groups composed of people from the campus and community, including civic leaders, students, business leaders, educators and others.
The conversations, ideas and feedback from those groups was positive, giving organizers and participants many reasons to believe that real change will come as more people take the time to listen to and learn from each other, Robinson says, noting that several members of spring groups are returning this fall as discussion group facilitators.
“We are seeing that there are many people on our campus and in our community who are willing to learn something about themselves and to work to build a stronger sense of community,” says Robinson. “We think these conversations will have a ripple effect, much like what happens when you throw a small stone into a pond. Individuals will make changes that will ripple through the community and bring even more people to the table.”
UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt says he is encouraged to see members of the community embrace Circles of Change.
“It is exciting to see friendships and partnerships being created in the Chippewa Valley through this initiative,” Schmidt says. “Circles of Change is a great example of lifelong learning. Our community is stronger when people share a common goal of learning and working together.”
Robinson’s hope is that multiple new discussion groups will form every fall and spring for the next three to five years, meaning that eventually hundreds of people in the area will have had an opportunity to participate in the discussion groups.
“We know we aren’t going to erase racism, but we do believe we can strengthen our campus and community through this program,” Robinson says.
The fall discussion groups began Oct. 2 and are meeting for two hours weekly through Nov. 11.
In mid-November, all the groups will come together to talk about their experiences and to share proposed projects that could be done by volunteers that would make positive change in the community.
The participants will select two or three of the projects, which teams of volunteers will pursue during the spring and summer months.
“Circles of Change is about more than just talking; it’s a call to action,” Robinson says. “The projects are things that can realistically be accomplished within a year. We know from the pilot groups that there are many things we can accomplish fairly quickly that can make a positive difference.”
Two action projects identified by the spring groups already are nearing completion, Robinson says, noting that The Mahmoud S. Taman Foundation grant is providing funds to help bring one of the projects, "Family Conversation Kits," to fruition.
The kits include age-appropriate books that reflect diversity and a guide that shares ideas for starting conversations about various facets of diversity. The kits will be donated to public libraries and other venues in the Chippewa Valley.
“Parents sometimes don’t know how to engage their children in conversations about diversity and inclusion,” Robinson says. “These kits share strategies for getting conversations started. Since research shows that even small amounts of exposure to other racial groups can help to counteract bias and discrimination, the kits also include books with diverse characters or story lines. It may seem like a small thing, but it can make a big difference.”
The second project, “Humans of the Chippewa Valley: Expanding Our Narrative One Story at a Time,” includes recorded oral histories of 20 people of color in the Chippewa Valley. A website will feature photos and excerpts of these stories, similar to the popular “Humans of New York” project.
While diversity has long been a priority at UW-Eau Claire, taking actions to address racial concerns on campus and in the community is even more critical given the university’s goal of greatly increasing its numbers of multicultural students, faculty and staff in the coming years, Robinson said.
For example, UW-Eau Claire’s strategic plan includes four guideposts, one of which states that we will increase enrollment of students of color by 20 percent and close the opportunity gap.
With those goals in mind, the university created an Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity Implementation Team to identify opportunities and strategies for helping to meet the needs of diverse members of the campus community.
Among the team’s recommendations was the Circles of Change, an initiative that intentionally brings together people within and outside the campus.
“We know many people on and off campus are interested in making our great campus and community even better,” Robinson says. “But none of us can do it on our own. I’m delighted by the overwhelming interest in Circles of Change by so many people from all parts of our community.”
She also is excited about the support coming from within and outside the campus.
In addition to The Mahmoud S. Taman Foundation grant, Circles of Change received support from a Campus Compact grant. UW-Eau Claire’s Circles of Change is one of just 40 projects Campus Compact supported nationwide.
The project also has received various types of support from community members and a variety of organizations, including Eau Claire County, UW-Eau Claire, CVTC, City of Eau Claire, Eau Claire Area School District, humanKIND, Clear Vision Eau Claire, Wisconsin Public Radio, 1 Million Cups, Juneteenth and Eau Claire Regional Arts Center.
For more information about Circles of Change, contact Dr. Audrey Robinson at 715-836-2200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo caption: A Circles of Change action group works through an exercise earlier this year at UW-Eau Claire.