How did you get interested in social change?
The larger answer to this question is that I am a child of the sixties. My model for how to make change was all around me in the culture in my formative years as I was growing up. The cultural message was that if you wanted to change things, you had to work for that change. I remember watching John Kennedy getting the nomination for the 1960 presidential election. I remember his inauguration where he challenged the country: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I was ten years old, but the message was, as Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” The rest of the sixties showed me, through the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement, how difficult but possible change was and how you had to work for it, struggle together, understand that there would be setbacks, and keep your eyes on the prize.
What is Diversity Circles, how did it get started?
Diversity Circles is a process of small group dialogue designed to encourage action to affect social change. I found out about the program through a brochure I picked up at a conference. The program is affiliated with Everyday Democracy, an organization that got started in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I started Diversity Circles while working in the Center for Community Partnerships at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. I was a community organizer working on a Community Outreach Partnership grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. I realized that there were assumptions made about people’s experiences and hoped that the dialogue would help bridge the racial and cultural divides that were evident in both Kenosha and Racine. Diversity Circles are also now offered as a class through the Sociology Department. Many students express that the think this course should be required for all students because it helped them understand issues of race in ways they never had before.
Why is this cause so important to you? How and why did you get involved in this cause and come to start this community?
This cause is important to me because racism is an ugly thread that runs through our culture to such an extent that it is normal. As a culture, we struggle to solve this issue because we deny that it still exists. Racism is one side of the coin; white privilege is the other side. We must address white privilege and other systems of privilege before real change can take place. To this end, I developed an Ethnic Studies class on white privilege to show the systemic nature of white privilege. When we talk about racism, we talk about the effects it has on people of color; when we talk about white privilege, we talk about the underlying causes of that racism.
How has your work affected your community and others?
I consider the work that I did both on campus and in the community as seed planting. So many of the concepts about racism and white privilege are foreign to people, and the resistance is high, so it’s at times difficult to know the impact of the work. Some of the seeds will bloom, and many will wither, die, and be buried. If people embrace the role they play in systems of privilege, change can occur. My hope is that some of those seeds will play out in the future as people take what they have learned in Diversity Circles and in the white privilege class and make the change they know is necessary. The work is a process, a long, slow process. At the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the Diversity Circles and the white privilege class have become part of the curriculum, which has the potential to impact many students and the people with whom they will work throughout their careers.
What advice would you give to others trying to start their own social change projects?
The advice I would give to others trying to start their own social projects is to have the courage of your convictions. You have to believe that you can make a difference to make a difference, and you have to be willing to do the work not knowing for sure that it will make a difference. If you do the work, it will make a difference in the person you become. Know that it won’t be easy, and know that, if you truly have the passion, it is easier to do the work than not because if you don’t follow your passions, you won’t be who you are meant to be. Use the influence you have to give voice to those who have been silenced by systems of power and privilege. Learn to listen to other voices to gain new understanding of other perspectives. Keep the faith in the power of goodness and love. Prepare for those in power to resist what you hope to accomplish, and never give up hope that you will make a difference. Know that the work you do may not bear fruit until long after you are gone. Change happens only if you make it happen. Find good, strong allies to work with you. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”