Transforming a community with sustained dialogue

Janice Thomson
Aurora, Illinois

Woman smilingLast week a small but dedicated group of Chicago area dialogue & deliberation (D&D) practitioners traveled through a heavy snow storm to Aurora, IL to meet with Mary Jane Hollis, creator of the Aurora Community Study Circles (1996-2007). Our original goal was to learn about her approach to “dialogue across difference” related to race, ethnicity, and income  inequality. We certainly did that. What none of us expected though was  to discover how dramatically the city of Aurora as a whole had been  transformed by public dialogue. While Portsmouth Listens now attracts international attention for its use of study circles for  community empowerment, Aurora had in fact done something quite similar  years earlier….and on Chicago’s own doorstep!

Mary Jane is known as an expert in race dialogue. Yet we were  surprised to learn that she never discusses race directly. In fact, the  programs she ran consciously avoided using words like “race dialogue” or “diversity training”. She said how the intent of the dialogue is framed is very important.  People can become uncomfortable if they feel  they’re being told what to think. In addition, such vocabulary tends to  attract those already committed to inclusion (i.e., “preach to the  choir”).

The Aurora community dialogue program was called “Circles of Understanding”. It identified community needs and how they’re met. Residents gathered simply as human beings to better understanding one another and especially what experiences,  feelings, and values have shaped their lives and views. Race often  emerged naturally an important factor. Sometimes other kinds of  difference like disability or socioeconomic status or personal interests were more important. From a common base of mutual understanding and enhanced relationships, residents could then go on to effectively tackle potentially contentious public issues – like changing school district boundaries.

Each circle consisted of an average of 12 residents selected for  maximum diversity (e.g., race, income, gender). Participants met for two hours once a week for five weeks, led by a trained facilitator using  the flexible Everyday Democracy study circles method. At its height, 6-8 circles took place every  quarter. They met at different times of day and days of the week to  accommodate diverse schedules. To make people feel comfortable, only  public meeting spaces like universities, schools, and community  buildings were used, never homes. In fact, Aurora University was an important supporter, supplying both meeting space and sending faculty and staff to be trained as facilitators. Food contributed to the  conviviality of the circles, brought either by the facilitator or  participants. At the end of each quarter, people from all circles came  together in a celebratory wrap-up session. Once a year, the program also organized a fun picnic in the park for everyone who’d been involved in a circle.

Woman smilingThe tremendous impact of the Aurora Community Study Circles was  driven by its longevity and reach. It began with “Circles of  Understanding” among adults and then expanded into high schools and  middle schools via the Many Young Voices program. These were supplemented by two Citywide Days of Dialogue with small conversations all over the city and a big community event in the evening, one of which included a film screening and discussion of Crash. During 11 years, Aurora Community Study Circles involved over 6,000  residents, out of a total population of nearly 200,000. From the very  beginning, it was supported by an influential and diverse group of  community leaders: from government, business, academia, religious  institutions, philanthropy, media, etc. Participants were primarily  recruited from within these community groups and referred to by the  empowering term of “stakeholder”. In addition, all staff members of the  local newspaper the Aurora Beacon News were themselves participants in study circles, ultimately transforming their approach to local journalism.

Having so many residents participate in community dialogues over many years created a “snowball effect”. Even people and organizations which  had never been involved with the program were impacted. Ordinary  meetings incorporated principles of good dialogue. When a contentious  issue arose, for example within a school board, residents created their  own study circle-inspired processes to address it. Informally, in a  myriad of daily interactions, differences which could have escalated  into violent conflict were resolved civilly as residents recalled  earlier discussions with people different from themselves. When the  program started in 1996, there were 26 murders in Aurora and multiple  complaints of human rights violations. Last year, there were none.

Sustaining funding over the long-term, however, proved a  challenge. Funders like to support innovative, short-term projects. Yet  community change takes time. In addition, although there is considerable anecdotal evidence that the program transformed Aurora, it is difficult to prove this quantitatively or demonstrate concrete outcomes, as  funders demand.  In 2007, a combination of financial and personal  factors led to the dissolution of Aurora Community Study Circles.

Mary Jane’s greatest regret was the end of the school-based program Many Young Voices.  She sees youth, starting in middle school, as the people most in need  of training in and experience with civil dialogue. In school, young  people are not often recognized as individuals and so don’t learn to  value (or even how to understand) their own perspective, let alone those of people who differ from themselves. Without such skills, bullying can take hold and simple conflicts escalate to violence. Furthermore, without experience with collaborative approaches to transform conflict,  youth may as adults perpetuate destructive adversarial approaches in  politics, law, business, and community.

Although Aurora Community Study Circles disbanded in 2007, Mary Jane is keen to continue this work, especially Many Young Voices (MYV).  She sees great potential, for example, in expanding this program into  more middle schools, as well as perhaps using it with youth in the  juvenile detention system. To discuss the possibility of using the MYV  materials, scheduling training, or working in partnership, Mary Jane Hollis may be reached at

September 9, 2013

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