Civil Rights Issues

(Iowa Civil Rights Commission; 09/30/97; 0800)


At their September 26, 1997 meeting, the Commissioners of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission decided that their focal issue for fiscal year 1998 would be "Study Circles."

Study circles are democratic, highly participatory, small-group discussions. Eight to twenty persons -- diverse in background, race, age, and income -- meet four or five times, each time about two hours, and, with the help of a trained, neutral facilitator, talk about race and race relations. They share personal opinions, experiences, and perspectives. They search for common ground. They discuss societal viewpoints on race and they explore ways to improve race relations.

Organizers of large-scale study circle programs bring hundreds or even thousands of citizens into study circles to address issues such as race relations, education, and crime and violence. Community-wide study circle programs are underway in scores of American cities, ranging in size from Yarmouth, Maine to Los Angeles, California. These programs aid community problem-solving at a number of levels, from greater individual volunteerism, to increases in small-group collaborations, to new city-wide policies and plans.

A number of Iowa communities are in various stages of planning, organizing, and conducting community-wide study circles programs, including Des Moines, Sioux City, Muscatine, Dubuque, Storm Lake, and Fort Dodge.

By participating in study circles, citizens gain "ownership" of the issues, a recognition that there can be a connection between personal experiences and public policies, and a deeper understanding of their own and others' perspectives and concerns. They discover common ground and a greater
desire and ability to work collaboratively to solve local problems -- as individuals, as members of small groups, and as voters and members of large organizations in the community. Community-wide programs also facilitate cooperation between citizens and government, both at an institutional level and at the level of parents and teachers, residents and police officers.

"The Iowa Civil Rights Commission is promoting the use of study circles on racism and race relations in an effort to build greater community and fight discrimination," says Executive Director Don Grove. "Our mission is to eliminate discrimination in Iowa. Involving Iowans in honest conversations about race, something most Iowans never get a chance to do, is bound to help in the fight against discrimination."

Three years ago, the Commissioners' focal issue was "Fair Lending." At their regular monthly meetings, the Commissioners heard from a number of persons and organizations involved in the mortgage lending industry. Lending institutions, federal regulatory agencies, and citizen advocacy groups spoke to the Commissioners about their concerns and efforts in promoting fair lending. Recognizing fair lending as a focal issue and collecting state-wide information on the issue helped the Commission receive a grant from the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to study mortgage lending, homeowners' insurance, and appraisal practices in depth in eight of Iowa's largest communities.

Two years ago, the Commissioners' focal issue was "Building Community Diversity Appreciation Teams." When the year began, there were 4 working teams in Iowa. When the year ended, there were 10. Today, 16 communities have teams. Community diversity appreciation teams -- comprised of elected officials, school administrators and teachers, law enforcement officers, advocacy group representatives, county extension personnel, employers, chambers of commerce, housing providers, and other interested citizens -- work to develop and implement community-wide plans to fight discrimination, teach the value of diversity, and respond to reported hate crimes.

Last year, the Commissioners decided to explore the immigration. At their monthly meetings, they heard from people from all over the State, from varying backgrounds and interests, on a variety of immigration issues. In the spring 1998, the Commission, in collaboration with a number of other agencies and organizations, will be holding an all-day conference on immigration.

For more information about the Commission's Study Circles Program, please call Don Grove at 515-281-8084.


(Contact: Don Grove 515-281-8084)