Diversity Circles expands program
Group planning a fair, events for public, schools
October 17, 2005
Green Bay Press-Gazette
Green Bay, Wisconsin
After a successful first year using one of the newest tools to explore diversity and other social issues, Brown County Diversity Circles members are planning future events including a pilot program for schools and a cultural heritage fair.
About 120 people have participated in diversity circles discussions since the effort began last fall.
The program promotes small-group discussions on community issues in a democratic and collaborative way. Residents are encouraged to move from dialogue to action.
The first diversity circles discussions addressed immigration issues and the impact of Brown County’s changing population.
“People came to the circles, ready to share their stories and their ideas,” said Barbara McClure-Lukens, outreach program manager for the Division of Outreach and Extension at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who helped coordinate the program.
“When people talk about diversity, they often approach it with concern or fear, that they won’t be heard or that they can’t make a difference,” McClure-Lukens said. “The discussions we had went beyond the stereotypes and headlines and we were able to find ways to take action. We’re not out to change people’s minds. We just want them to gain some understanding about how our community is changing and discuss their opinions about them in positive and constructive ways.”
Circles members plan to implement three major initiatives in the next year to increase awareness and understanding of the changing racial/ethnic population in the county:
• Diversity circles in the Green Bay School District this fall.
• Creation of an oral history project to document racial and ethnic diversity in Brown County. The project is scheduled to be completed and presented to the public at the Neville Public Museum next year.
• A summer cultural heritage fair.
“When I was asked to be a part of this, the first thing I thought is that this is about race and culture,” said Liz Hessler, university services program associate at UWGB. “But what I found out is that there’s a lot more to it than that. At the beginning the whole group would look at diversity as being racial or cultural but individuals in the group would remind you it wasn’t always about that. We had to approach it in a broader sense — about gender issues — how it would affect the gays, the lesbians.”
Hessler, who teaches a Polynesian dance class at the Multicultural Center of Greater Green Bay, plans to participate in more diversity circles in the future.
“I think the diversity circles are good for the community because they will encourage people to learn” more about diversity, she said.
The diversity circles project was developed under the leadership of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Division of Outreach and Adult Access, Brown County UW-Extension and the UW-Green Bay Institute for Learning Partnership. It was created to address the increasing immigration and migration into the community, mostly of minorities.
Minorities make up about 12 percent of Brown County’s population, according to the 2000 census. The biggest growth from the previous census was in the Hispanic population, which increased from 1,525 in 1990 to 8,698 in 2000, while the nonwhite population grew from 7,973 to 20,090. Increasing diversity in the area has affected institutions such as the Green Bay School District, in which nearly 30 percent of students are minorities.
“It’s good to see Green Bay public schools embrace diversity circles,” said Juliet Cole, assistant to the director of the Institute for Learning Partnership at UWGB, who is helping to coordinate the circles. “The teachers, the parents and the students would develop more constructive ways to promoting understanding. This could be a good way for schools to socialize the students through diversity circles.”
The Green Bay-De Pere YWCA soon will take over leadership of the project, acting as a clearinghouse for information and creating ongoing activity related to diversity such as organizing future diversity circle discussions, said Judy Lehnert, associate director of community services of the Green Bay-De Pere YWCA. Public diversity circles will be scheduled in the fall and winter, Lehnert said.
“The main mission for the YWCA is eliminating racism and empowering women,” she said. “One way to do this is by creating dialogue in the circles that could address all forms of discrimination.”
Similar diversity circles have begun in cities nationally and in Wisconsin, including Madison and Milwaukee, Cole said. Brown County Diversity Circles meet for two hours a week for four weeks, McClure-Lukens said.
Plans are being made to host diversity circles next month, Lehnert said.
“We want to provide a safe and comfortable way for people to talk about how they feel about the changes that are occurring in the community and to share their stories,” McClure-Lukens said. “We want to be able to go beyond the stereotypes and headlines and put all the dialogue to action. A number of people have already expressed that participating in diversity circles has changed their perspectives about diversity in the community.”
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