When we were created as the Study Circles Resource Center twenty-five years ago, our founder, Paul Aicher, gave us a fundamental charge – to find ways to make dialogue compelling, routine and powerful for everyone in the country. He envisioned community settings where people of all backgrounds and views would engage with each other on pressing issues, form relationships across divides, create community change together, and improve democracy in the process.
In our quest to bring this vision to life, we began asking informal and formal community leaders about their hopes and the kinds of support they needed. Early on, people from all backgrounds and regions told us that people in their communities wanted to talk about race but didn’t know how. They told us that they needed ways to recruit people from different groups and bring them together. Within three years of our founding, we had decided to address the issue of racism head-on as we worked with and learned from community groups.
At that time, we were a small, all-white organization, just beginning to learn. Our journey led us to deep collaboration with community partners of every ethnic background, working on many different issues, in every region of the country.
As we learned from their experiences, we came to see that racism is more than just another issue area. We learned that systemic structures rooted in racism stand in the way of making progress on all types of public issues – and on realizing the promise of democracy. To meet these challenges, we became a multi-ethnic organization explicitly committed to inclusion and racial equity in all aspects of our work.
These lessons and organizational commitments enable us to support communities in developing their own capacity for large-scale dialogue that leads to personal, cultural and institutional change. As we partner locally and nationally, we reflect, learn, coach, write and talk about the need for equitable opportunities for voice and impact. We often serve as a bridge among the fields of deliberation, racial equity and social justice.
We are still learning, but at this 25-year milestone we want to highlight some lessons from along the way:
1. Diversity is essential across all phases of dialogue-to-change
Whether in organizing, dialogue, or action. In addition to racial/ethnic diversity, it’s important to consider other kinds such as education level, economic status, gender, age, sexual orientation, and language. But racial/ethnic diversity is often the hardest to achieve. Tackling it first will help with all other forms of diversity.
2. Diversity is just the beginning
It’s important to build an equity lens in all aspects of organizing, dialogue, and action. Understanding the structures that support inequity (with a particular emphasis on structural racism) is essential for effective dialogue and long-term change on every issue.
3. Personal change and relationship-building are critical to addressing racism
Sharing personal concerns and stories throughout organizing, dialogue and action processes helps make it possible to address issues of privilege, power and inequity.
4. Personal change and trusting relationships are just the beginning
They bring energy and persistence to long-term democratic processes aimed at institutional, cultural and systemic change.
5. Measuring and communicating progress toward community change is essential
Doing so makes it possible to keep engaging new people in dialogue and action, to build on the change that has already happened and to sustain the work.
6. Racism affects all of us personally and in our communities, no matter what our racial/ethnic background is
We all have something to gain by working together and addressing racial inequities. Addressing it is hard work, and requires empathy, self care and long-term commitment.
7. We all need to be part of the change we are trying to create
At Everyday Democracy, we have been learning how to apply an equity lens to all our work. We are committed to “walking our talk.”
We have discovered that fighting racism goes hand in hand with creating communities where everyone has a voice and a chance to work together. We look forward to the next 25 years of learning and change.