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History of Everyday Democracy

Everyday Democracy was founded as the Study Circles Resource Center in 1989. In the early years, we focused on developing a better kind of public dialogue, drawing on the ways people talk in their everyday lives. Then, we championed the idea that public talk is for everyone, and helped communities organize to bring all kinds of people into the conversation. Now we’re helping people connect public dialogue to real solutions.

Scroll through the timeline to learn about pivotal moments that helped shape what Everyday Democracy is today, or browse through select events from our history below:

 

Download the full PDF version of the timeline, or check out the highlights:

1950-1960
“Owning” an issue
Paul J. Aicher participates in the Ford Foundation’s Fund for Adult Education—“study-discussion” groups on political, economic, and international affairs. An engineer by training and profession, Aicher has his first experience of “owning an issue” for himself, with finding his own voice -- rather than letting the “experts” define the issue for him.   

1981
Finding his voice
The Aicher Family purchases property known as “Topsfield,” in Pomfret, Connecticut. Paul joins a local group of residents who meet regularly to organize local nuclear freeze movement.  Paul is central to getting the town of Pomfret to establish itself as a nuclear-free zone; he begins to make connections with the peace movement, state-wide and nationally.   

1982
Shifting to philanthropy
Paul Aicher founds Topsfield Foundation, Inc., after selling Technical Materials Inc., his company in Rhode Island.

1982-1989
Funding nuclear-freeze efforts
Topsfield Foundation grants $50,000-$100,000 a year to groups around the country working to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. 

1984
Connecting the U.S. peace and justice movement
Aicher establishes the Grassroots Peace Directory, to collect and disseminate news, updates, and contact information from peace and justice groups around the country. The first of its kind, the print directory of 7,000 connects the groups and helps to strengthen and coordinate their movements.

1985
Exchanging arms reduction information

Paul Aicher starts ACCESS, a security information service based in Washington, D.C., to further the exchange of information and viewpoints on international affairs, conflict and conflict transformation. Ultimately, it becomes a project of the United States Institute of Peace.  

Engaging on security policy
Aicher helps found Options at Brown University, which later moves to Juniata College in Huntingdon, Penn. The project aims to improve and deepen the debate over security policy and to increase public participation in policy formation.  

1988
Supporting affordable housing

Topsfield Foundation makes a $100,000, three-year, tiered grant to the Connecticut Housing Coalition enabling the organization to hire its first full-time staff and strengthen its work.

1989
Launching Study Circles Resource Center

As the Cold War comes to an end, Paul Aicher wants to focus the Foundation’s efforts on strengthening grass-roots participation in the U.S. – on a wide range of issues.
Paul J. Aicher establishes the Study Circles Resource Center as a project of the Topsfield Foundation. SCRC extends its reach by networking, building relationships with groups and people inside and outside the emerging field of dialogue and community building.

1990
Creating our first how-to materials and discussion guide

Phyllis Emigh, Mark Niedergang, and Francine Nichols work on SCRC’s first recommendations for creating dialogue focusing on populist small group efforts.
Before the onset of the first Iraq war, Martha McCoy and Susie Graseck develop a discussion guide for high school students, Crisis in the Gulf.

1992
Focusing on racial tensions

In Los Angeles, in the wake of civil disturbances that followed the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King, Martha McCoy spends time with community leaders from different ethnic groups.  That experience leads Martha to recommend that we create our first discussion guide on race and racism, Can’t We All Just Get Along?

1993
Pioneering community-wide dialogue in Lima, OH

Lima, OH, creates a multi-racial, cross-sector coalition to launch dialogue on race across the whole community. More than 1,000 people come together to talk about race relations in their city. SCRC begins to add advice on community mobilization to its dialogue recommendation.

1994
Building everyday leaders

Topsfield Foundation launches the Community Leadership Project, which offers a leadership course at six community colleges to help people–especially women and people of color—develop skills they need to be effective leaders in their community.  

1995
Taking part in ‘Days of Dialogue’

Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas asks SCRC to help the city address racial tensions stirred up by the O.J. Simpson trial.  We invite the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice to work with us. More than 1,000 people take part in “Days of Dialogue.” National media — ABC Nightly news, NBC Nightly news, NPR’s All Things Considered, and The Los Angeles Times — feature the story.

Increasing the scope and scale of our work
President Bill Clinton’s “One America in the 21st Century: The President's Initiative on Race” consults with SCRC and several other organizations, including NCCJ, Hope in the Cities, and the Community Relations Service, to create the One America Dialogue Guide. People around the country take part in a national conversation about America's racial diversity.

1995-96
Paving the way for criminal justice reform

Oklahoma’s Balancing Justice, the first statewide study circle program, leads to legislation creating truth-in-sentencing guidelines for various crimes and helps to establish a large-scale community corrections program. Nearly 1,000 people took part in study circles in 13 Oklahoma communities.

1996
Connecting U.S. Congress with public dialogue

Topsfield Foundation launches the Congressional Exchange, led by Pat Scully. Based in Washington, D.C., the project aims to help members of the U.S. Congress organize study circles so that they can discuss local and national issues with their constituents.

1997
Connecting dialogue to action

In the early days of SCRC, Paul thought it was important that action not be a structured part of the dialogue process. He thought that an action focus might cause people to shortchange the richness of dialogue. Later, as he and the staff listened to participants talk about their experiences, he came to understand that having an action component was essential; it would help people make a difference on the issues they had just been talking about. It provided another opportunity for citizen empowerment and voice.

1998
Expanding our reach, deepening our understanding   

SCRC establishes a senior associates program to expand the size, quality, diversity and geographical reach of our work.

2001
Increasing the nation’s recognition of dialogue

Within three weeks of the 9/11 tragedy, SCRC publishes the discussion guide Facing the Future: How Should We Respond to the Attack on Our Nation? People across the country respond positively to having a way to move forward.

Vowing to ‘walk the talk’ on diversity
Lani Guinier delivers the keynote at SCRC’s national conference in McLean, Va., “Working Together for Creative Community Change.” At the closing plenary of the conference, people in the audience point out that the organization’s senior leadership is all White.  Paul makes a public commitment to diversifying our staff and management.

2002
Saying goodbye to our founder

Topsfield Foundation founder Paul J. Aicher dies, leaving an endowment to support the work of the Topsfield Foundation and SCRC.

Helping to build a movement
SCRC helps found the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, a network of practitioners and researchers working to strengthen deliberative democracy at all levels of governance in the United States and around the world.

2004
Honoring Paul J. Aicher

To honor Paul J. Aicher, the Board of Trustees changes the name of the Topsfield Foundation, Inc. to The Paul J. Aicher Foundation. Martha McCoy becomes president of the foundation, and Patrick Scully becomes executive vice president of the foundation.

2006
Advancing our knowledge on racism

Everyday Democracy publishes Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation to support deeper discussions of race, racism, and racial equity.

2006-2010
Engaging communities on poverty

With SCRC’s help, over 100,000 people in 238 communities took part in the Horizons initiative. This community leadership program, sponsored by the Northwest Area Foundation, is aimed at reducing poverty in rural and reservation communities in seven northwestern states.

2008
Envisioning ‘everyday democracy’

The Study Circles Resource Center changes its name to Everyday Democracy to provide a clearer sense of the meaning of dialogue-to-change work. The organization also moves its office location to East Hartford, Conn.

Influencing a movement in Australia
Martha delivers a keynote address and workshop at the Annual Conference of Adult Learning Australia in Perth. She and Patrick Scully spend two weeks meeting with practitioners, academics and government agencies working to engage communities in dialogue and problem solving.

Strengthening our Nation’s Democracy
Together with America Speaks, Demos, and the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Everyday Democracy convenes thinkers and practitioners across the democracy movement to create a common vision, an action agenda, and recommendations for whoever the next president would be. They recommend the establishment of an Office of Civic Participation.

2009
Helping President Obama ‘renew America’

Everyday Democracy collaborates with CIRCLE and Public Agenda to create the Renew America Together discussion guide for the Presidential Inauguration Committee for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The guide provides people with the opportunity to reflect on service activities in their community.

Inspiring the South to take on poverty
Inspired by the Horizons leadership project, the Southern Rural Development Center partners with Everyday Democracy on Turning the Tide, an initiative to bring everyday people together to address poverty and inequities in the rural South.

Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy (part two)
During the summer of the town hall meetings on health care reform, Everyday Democracy helps convene another Strengthening Our Nation’s Democracy gathering. Several members of the Obama administration take part, and listen to recommendations.

2010
Working with New Mexicans to help kids succeed

Everyday Democracy selects five New Mexico organizations to be part of “Strong Starts for Children,” a Kellogg Foundation-funded initiative to help communities find ways for people from all walks of life to work together for the success of all children.

2011
Capturing the ‘civic health’ of Conn.

Everyday Democracy partners with the National Conference on Citizenship and Connecticut’s Secretary of State to produce the first-ever Connecticut Civic Health Index report. Drawn from data collected in a special supplement to the U.S. Census, the Index shows us how involved Connecticut residents are in their communities and in political life, so that we can strengthen civic opportunities for all and achieve our potential as a state.

2012
Creating a roadmap for change

Everyday Democracy creates a theory of change outlining the assumptions, strategies, outcomes and impact of its work at the community, intermediary and national levels.

2013
Working together to support mental health
In the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn., President Obama calls for a National Dialogue on Mental Health, tapping the deliberative dialogue field to create a national platform for the initiative. Everyday Democracy and other leading deliberative dialogue organizations work with The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to provide in-depth support to cities around the country selected to host a city-wide dialogue on mental health.

2014
Ending racism within our lifetime
Everyday Democracy joins a nationwide coalition to launch the “Campaign to Combat Implicit Bias,” a campaign to raise public awareness about implicit bias and to encourage action to combat its impact. The campaign encourages people take the Implicit Bias Test to see if they have unconscious biases and then join dialogues to reflect on their experiences and work together to find solutions.

 

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Dialogue to Change

Our ultimate goal is to create positive community change that includes everyone, and we believe that our tools, advice, and resources will help foster that kind of change. Whether you’re grappling with a divisive community issue, or simply want to include residents’ voices in city government, Everyday Democracy's Dialogue-to-Change process can help community members take action and make their voice heard.