The Study Circles Model

The following text was submitted to NCDD by the Study Circles Resource Center. For more information, contact SCRC at P.O. Box 203, Pomfret, CT, 06258, 860-928-2616, Fax: 860-928-3717, .

What are study circles?

Part of a larger community program, a study circle is a group of 8 to 12 people from different backgrounds and viewpoints who meet several times to talk about a critical public issue. In a study circle, everyone has an equal voice, and people try to understand one another's views. They do not have to agree with one another. The idea is to share concerns and look for ways to make things better. A neutral facilitator helps the group look at different views and makes sure the discussion goes well.

From left to right: NCDD's Sandy Heierbacher, SCRC's Ashley Johnson (Communication Associate), SCRC's Amy Malick (Communication Director), Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute, and Martha McCoy, SCRC's Executive Director.

In a large-scale study circle program, people all over a neighborhood, city, county, school district, or region meet in diverse study circles over the same period of time. All the study circles work on the same issue and seek solutions for the whole community. At the end of the round of study circles, people from all the groups gather in one place to work together on the action ideas that come out of the study circles. Study circle programs lead to a wide range of action and change efforts.

Under what circumstances are study circles most successful or fitting?

  1. When other efforts to resolve a long-term, intractable community problem have failed and the community needs to hear ideas from a range of perspectives.
  2. When a crisis or disturbing incident (teen suicide, racial unrest, etc.) has focused the community's attention on a public problem.
  3. When communication and trust have broken down between people and groups from different backgrounds and sectors.
  4. When the community is divided about how to move forward on a critical public issue.
  5. When people need to come together in a structured way to create new relationships across barriers of race, constituencies, and points of view.
  6. When public input is important to the quality of a long-range project (like a strategic plan).
  7. When complex challenges call for innovative and inclusive approaches to community problem solving.
  8. When many people want a chance to work productively with others on a public problem.
  9. When people want to link dialogue to community action and change over the long term.
  10. When public officials need informed citizen opinion on an issue.

About the Study Circles Resource Center

The Study Circles Resource Center is dedicated to finding ways for all kinds of people to engage in dialogue and problem solving on critical social and political issues. SCRC helps communities by giving them the tools to organize productive dialogue, recruit diverse participants, find solutions, and work for action and change.

Martha McCoy, SCRC's Executive Director, with Sandy Heierbacher.

Established in 1989, SCRC is a project of the Topsfield Foundation, Inc., a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation dedicated to advancing deliberative democracy and improving the quality of public life in the United States.

Since 1989, SCRC has worked with many kinds of communities, on many different issues, to develop a process for bringing people together for creative community change. More than 300 communities across the country have organized study circle programs. From neighborhoods to large cities, broad coalitions of community groups are bringing together hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of people from all walks of life to deal with important issues like racism and race relations, education reform, the achievement gap, crime and violence, immigration, diversity, youth concerns, growth and development, police-community relations, building strong neighborhoods, and more.

SCRC staff members provide consultation, often free of charge, at every stage of creating a community-wide study circle program. This includes advice on: developing a strong, diverse organizing coalition; setting program goals and finding ways to assess progress; writing or customizing discussion guides; building the community's capacity to train facilitators; connecting dialogue to action and change. Staff members or SCRC associates make occasional community visits; they also conduct regional study circle workshops. In many instances, SCRC can provide up to 500 free study circle guides for large-scale programs.

Further Resources on Study Circles

Mobilizing Citizens: Study Circles Offer a New Approach to Citizenship

Leighninger, Matt, and McCoy, Martha. 1998. National Civic Review, National Civic League. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Engaging the Whole Community in Dialogue and Action: Study Circles Resource Center

McCoy, Martha, and McCormick, Michael A. 2001. In David Schoem and Sylvia Hurtado (Eds.), Intergroup Dialogue - Deliberative Democracy in School, College, Community, and Workplace. University of Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.

Deliberative Dialogue to Expand Civic Engagement: What Kind of Talk Does Democracy Need?

McCoy, Martha L., and Scully, Patrick L. 2002. National Civic Review. National Civic League. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Study Circles Resource Center web site

Training for Racial Equity and Inclusion: A Guide to Selected Programs

Shapiro, Ilana. (2002). Queenstown, Maryland: The Aspen Institute.

Organizing Community-wide Dialogue for Action and Change

2001. Pomfret, Connecticut: Topsfield Foundation.

What Democracy Feels Like

2002. Pomfret, Connecticut: Topsfield Foundation.


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