YWCA Delaware Fights Racism with Dialogue to Change

Liz Dupont-Diehl

Civic Change Champion

Civic Change ChampionYWCA Delaware is one of Everyday Democracy’s most enduring partners, and is being honored as a Civic Change Champion for its past, current and future impact and work using dialogue to bring diverse people together for problem solving and to promote racial equity.

Before being named a finalist for Everyday Democracy’s 2017 Paul J. Aicher Leadership in Democracy Award, the YWCA used Study Circles to bring thousands of people together to discuss racism and other issues throughout the 1990s and 2000s. It now plans to continue and expand its LEARN network and to bring back Study Circles/Dialogue to Change this fall.


As the Executive Director of YWCA of New Castle County in the 1990s, Ruth Sokolowski was in the unusual position being part of a national organization that had “eliminating racism” spelled out in its mission statement.

“Not many people were so explicit about it at that time,” Sokolowski said. “The YWCAs began in the 1800s offering safe places and recreation for young women, and in the 1970s many of us were coming to understand the underlying nature of racism in our country.”

So when the Study Circles Resource Center (SCRC), a small organization based in Connecticut, reached out to Ruth in 1996 to suggest a partnership, she was interested. SCRC was offering training and resources around an organizing process that brought together small groups of diverse people to meet over several weeks and get to know each other, and build trust as they addressed racism and other difficult topics.

“I had been looking for a way to expand our work into racial justice and economic empowerment, and to move from individual action to system-level change,” she said.

The YWCA of New Castle County, which later became YWCA Delaware, embraced the process, starting with a small grant from DuPont and involving many other organizations, including corporations and the local newspaper, and eventually thousands of participants. Study Circles continued for nearly 10 years, leaving in their wake positive relationships, awareness of privilege and implicit bias, and connections for structural change that continue to this day.

SCRC changed its name to Everyday Democracy in 2008, and has continued to work with communities throughout the country, applying lessons about bringing people together for increased understanding of racial equity and positive systems change. Today Everyday Democracy also works with Anchor Partners – “democracy hubs” in various states -- and is concentrating on cultivating Dialogue to Change with a racial equity lens in the areas of Education, Criminal Justice, and Leadership Development.

Eunice LeFate, a prominent educator, former bank manager, artist and writer, facilitated many study circles for the YWCA. “People lack experience with diversity, and you can’t value what you don’t know or understand,” she said. “Study circles are a way to get people to gain understanding and move from tolerance to acceptance.”

“There are very few other ways for white people to know what it is to experience discrimination – for us to know what people of color experience throughout their lives and on a daily basis,” said Allan Cairncross, a retired DuPont scientist who took part in four Study Circles and became a trained facilitator. “I like the process because it allowed me to build respect for people I didn’t know.”

“It also helps you speak up in a group, when people say things that are insensitive or racist,” added Betty Garrett, a retired social worker who took part in dialogues at the same time as Cairncross. Both Cairncross and Garrett are white, and their reactions typify the impact of these dialogues for white people, who even today rarely have the chance to discuss issues of race in diverse settings.  

The people of color who participated in the Study Circles that took place during this time had a significant impact on the tools and advice that SCRC would later provide, and that Everyday Democracy provides today.

“In focus groups of study circle participants in Delaware in 1996,” Everyday Democracy Executive Director Martha McCoy recalled, “we heard very clear feedback. People of color of different backgrounds said that for the dialogue process to continue to be something they would participate in, the impact couldn’t stop with greater awareness.

“…We needed to provide ways for people to understand the deep nature of racism and its effects, and a clear pathway from the dialogue process to intentional action strategies to create systems change… That was a game changer for us.”  ~Martha McCoy

“They said that too much was at stake – we needed to provide ways for people to understand the deep nature of racism and its effects, and a clear pathway from the dialogue process to intentional action strategies to create systems change,” she continued. “We kept hearing that same sentiment across the country. That was a game changer for us. It led us to work with the YWCA and other community partners to strengthen our advice and tools on structural racism and about how to move from dialogue to equitable change.”

By the time Study Circles wound down in Delaware, more than 16,000 people had taken part. The YWCA held large community events with nationally recognized speakers such as Tim Wise, Maya Angelou, and Lani Guinier.  The News Journal newspaper helped promote attendance at new dialogues, covered the discussions and resulting actions, and ran a year-long series of special reports about the dialogues and racism. It also sponsored a forum in 1998 that drew close to 500 people.

YWCA DE lessened its focus on the community dialogues in the early 2000s, but continued to include diverse voices and address racism. This fall it will re-launch Dialogue to Change.


New Ways to Address Racism

Matthew Pillischer, now a consultant for the YWCA, worked as its Director of Racial and Social Justice in 2016-17, and created Local Emergency Action and Response Networks (LEARN). LEARN helps communities gather and galvanize people interested in working against hate crimes, for the rights of marginalized groups, and on trust-building events such as Solidarity Suppers, protests and vigils, and more. LEARN also offers training in organizing and facilitating democratic meetings and other best practices.

“After the (2016) election we were contacted by a lot of people who were alarmed at the rise in hate crimes and looking for a place to plug in,” Pillischer said. “There are now three LEARN networks and there may be more in the future. We are trying to empower people in communities to figure out how they want to respond to acts of hate in their community. We want them to see they have the power – to march, to write, to reach out and support people who have been attacked.

“It was amazing to see the energy in people coming together,” he added. “This is helping to fill the gaps of what people can do on their own.”

“We had been discussing a re-launch of Dialogue to Change modeled after Study Circles for some time with the understanding that planning and coordination would not happen overnight due to resource constraints,” said Stephanie Staats, Chief Executive Officer YWCA Delaware. “LEARN was created to address a spike in interest in social advocacy by providing a vehicle for grassroots-driven rapid response to community incidents or to other issues of pressing concern around racism and marginalization of non-dominant groups.”

Lorie Tudor was on the board of YWCA Delaware in the 1990s. She was involved in many Study Circles and grateful for how they showed her, and others, to relate better to different people.

“The process of listening intentionally, for a lot of us, is new,” she said. “Very often we start to jump in with our own experiences and feelings, and don’t really hear what the other person is saying, or let them finish and be heard.

“The other thing I love about Study Circles is that the listening is a two-way street,” she added. “Very often in counseling it’s a one-directional, hierarchical ‘helping’ process. In Study Circles, I am listening to you and you are equally listening to me.”


Continued Impact

Gregory Chambers, currently the Senior Human Resources Business Partner of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, worked in the Mayor of Wilmington’s office in the 1990s and helped launch and operate Study Circles. He remained involved as he moved on to work as the state’s Officer of Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action., and he carried the dialogue experience with him as a force for institutional change.  

“At my government job we were always looking for ways to engage middle management,” said Chambers. “I recommended Study Circles for many state agencies and they worked well in getting people to buy in. We saw people begin to be more considerate with their thoughts, words and actions.”  

Cairncross shares another memory of how the dialogues impacted an institution – an area hospital. “We had study circles with hospital upper management and with the workers, and we saw them get to know each other as people in a new way,” he said. “To me it was phenomenal to see how it stimulated discussion and how people connected. There was a permanent improvement and value in how the top echelons of the hospital interacted after that with the people that did the work.”

“I realized the importance of having a diverse group of people” Sokolowski said. “We hired a part-time person who was responsible for the matching-up piece (for putting the circles together) and our rule was that it should be one-third people of color.”

Pillischer, whose work recently took him out into various communities, said that when people knew of the YWCA it was usually due to Study Circles. “There’s never been anything like this in Delaware before or since,” he said.  “Very recently we had a large forum with about 400 people. A lot of them signed up to take part in upcoming Study Circles.”


Now More Than Ever

Cairncross, Chambers and others agree that the Dialogue to Change process at the heart of Study Circles is needed today.

 “For me personally, it was eye-opening to hear people’s experiences with what we today call micro-aggressions, which had been invisible to me,” Sokolowksi said. “This may say more about me and my white skin, but I learned how African-American parents need to tell their children to carry their receipts in stores, or men walking down the street and hear doors lock as the approach.

“You can’t dance around this stuff. You need to speak the truth and talk about it. This process offers people a chance to have these conversations and remain connected.” ~Gregory Chambers

“I run into people all the time who say, ‘We still need this,’“ Sokolowski added.

LaFate, who has remained involved in Everyday Democracy’s work, donating artwork over the years and taking part in a December 2016 Convening, was thrilled to learn the YWCA is relaunching dialogues. “Racism is alive and well now, and the racists have lately become emboldened,” she said. “The rock has been turned over and people feel like they can get away with it. That’s why we need Study Circles.”

Garrett believes that racist attitudes stem from people feeling badly about themselves, and are compounded by lack of opportunity to interact with people who are different from themselves. “It’s how you feel about yourself, and your need to scapegoat someone else who is different from you,” she said. “Until you interact with someone who has had different experiences than you, it’s hard to recognize them as a human being.”

“Racism has not gotten better in the last 40 years. If anything it has gotten worse,” Chambers said. “You can’t dance around this stuff. You need to speak the truth and talk about it. This process offers people a chance to have these conversations and remain connected.”

To learn more about the LEARN Network, visit

To sign up for an upcoming Delaware YWCA Dialogue to Change group, go to


Everyday Democracy’s Civic Change Champions are people and organizations whose work is bringing Everyday Democracy’s values of equity, voice, sharing power, and participation to life.

To nominate someone for recognition as a Civic Change Champion, please send your name and your nominee’s name, organization if applicable, address and web site, and a short description of their work to Everyday Democracy’s communications team at


May 9, 2018

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Dialogue to Change

Our ultimate goal is to create positive community change that includes everyone, and our tools, advice, and resources 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, using a racial equity lens, can help.