FEATURE: Diverse Perspectives

Circles of Change initiative seeks to move from dialogue to action

Patti See, photos by Patti See, Bill Hoepner |

I’m at the front of the pack in this bonding exercise, “Move Forward, Move Back.” To start, all of us lined up along the hallway, shoulder to shoulder as equals. I predicted I might end up in the middle, since I was a working-class kid and a first-generation college student. Another white woman is at the front with me. I can see her take the same baby steps I do in response to questions like the following:

“If you expect or have received an inheritance from a family member, take one step forward.” (I take one step forward.)

“If you often see people of your race or ethnic group playing heroes or heroines on TV or in movies, take one step forward.” (I take another step forward.)

“If most of your teachers were from the same racial or ethnic background as you, take one step forward.” (I take another.)

“If you were ever called names because of your race or ethnic culture, take one step back.” (I stand still.)

“If your parents spoke English as a first language … If you see people from your racial or ethnic group as CEOs in most Fortune 500 companies … If your school textbooks strongly reflected your racial or ethnic group …” (I take three more steps forward.)

“If you come from racial groups that have ever been considered by scientists as ‘inferior’ … If you believe you have been harassed by the police because of your skin color …. If you, or a relative, have been questioned or detained since the Sept. 11 attacks, take one step back.” (I don’t move.)

I can’t see who stepped back; I only hear the shuffle of feet on marble floors. This is a physical embodiment of privilege. Many of us are born with benefits we did not ask for, which is why, on this Saturday morning, anyway, I am ahead of my peers.

A student once asked me, “If you don’t have to think about something, is that a privilege?” Exactly.

Walk alone at night? Wear your hood up? Rent an apartment wherever you want? Qualify for a home loan? If you’ve never had to consider any of these, then you have advantages other groups do not. Institutional racism is rooted in history, laws, culture, in fear and hate. All of us are biased because we live in a racist society.

"We make lists: What’s working in our community? What is not? We vote on areas to target and decide upon criminal justice/law enforcement, employment, media, and housing. Our mantra is ‘Start Small, Think Big.’"

Those in the back – two people of color from our community – watch the rest of our group members step forward and back and forward and forward again, a metaphor on the state of our unequal country. I have an epiphany: Those of us at the front rarely look back. Today I do.

It’s our third Saturday morning together in our Circles of Change group. Before our first session, I found myself wondering how a white girl from Chippewa ends up in a conference room talking about race. Honestly, I think I’ve got nothing to contribute. What am I? Third-generation mostly German-American. Culturally: White Trash.

I learned about race from 1970s TV, I tell everyone at our first meeting. Good Times taught me that families are much the same: argue with your siblings and share a bed. All in the Family brought racism and sexism into everyone’s living room. I tell these strangers, “I knew I had to decide if I wanted to be ignorant like Archie Bunker or progressive like Gloria and Mike. I sided with the Meathead.”

That first session, many of us had concerns. Front and center was our whiteness. One participant said, “I’ve never experienced what it’s like to be followed around a store.”

A student asked, “We’re young, so will our ideas be brushed off?”

A 50-something responded, “The longer you live, the less you know.”

Will our message permeate the targeted audience? And just who is that? Our friends, families, and neighbors? Racism is not just burning-crosses-in-yards, but more nuanced: a distrustful glance, a singling out.

We ended by sharing common themes and one-word descriptions of the session. Eye-opening. Hopeful. Unifying. Humbling. Exciting.

After two hours together on a cold February morning: 11 strangers have bonded.

When our co-facilitators lead us in a de-briefing of “Move Forward, Move Back,” we stand in our places scattered along this hallway, another teacher and I at the front. Two college students and two community members are a step or two behind. Two more participants are many steps behind.

Our co-facilitators coax us into talking about some uncomfortable questions: How does it feel to see our peers step forward or back? What does this say about our country? What might this mean for our community? If our goal is to transform institutions, we must face behaviors, our own and others. This benefits everyone, not just people of color in our community.

One student tells us that his friends often pine for the experiences featured in movies about the Civil Rights Movement. His response: “You’re alive now. What are you doing?”

Circles of Change is a partnership among UW-Eau Claire, Chippewa Valley Technical College, and the Eau Claire Area School District. Two pilot groups that launched last spring included people from throughout the Chippewa Valley. The Saturday morning group was an odd mix: a bank president, an elementary school teacher, a county board member, a small business owner, a community activist who focuses on alleviating homelessness, two college students, three UWEC professors, and one staff member. These seven women and four men likely would not have crossed paths except for Circles of Change.

"Something phenomenal is happening on these Saturday mornings. Strangers come together to talk about how to make the Chippewa Valley more welcoming to everyone. Strangers become friends. And we’re moving towards action."

We met for six two-hour sessions – each one growing more complex – based on a guidebook adapted from Everyday Democracy, a Connecticut-based organization whose mission is to help groups create dialogues which build communities that work for everyone. These are discussions that folks like me rarely have: “Making Connections,” “Our Ethnic Backgrounds and Racism,” “Our Unique Nation,” “Why Do Inequalities Exist,” and “Looking at Our Community.” Finally the two pilot groups gathered for a final “action forum” to decide upon what we will do to make the Chippewa Valley a safer, more welcoming environment for people of color. Our first two projects include “Humans of the Chippewa Valley: Expanding Our Narrative One Story at a Time,” a webpage featuring photos and oral histories from diverse people, and “Family Conversation Starters,” which will offer kits from public libraries with age-appropriate books and a guide to discussion starters about diversity. 

In early 2017, UWEC hired Barbara Yasui from Everyday Democracy to train facilitators – school board and city council members, principals and other educators, and business owners – who will pair up to lead 10 Circles of Change groups beginning in October. Each group will work through a guidebook and gather information and local statistics. Together the groups will create more action plans for implementation. 

Yasui acknowledged, “There is a deep division around race. We need to come together and be able to talk about these issues. People often are afraid they will say the wrong thing. We need to help them to talk about it so they become more comfortable.”

This initiative came out of UWEC’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) Implementation Team, which identified specific ways to meet the needs of diverse members of the campus and larger community. Sweat equity for Circles of Change came from two key members of that team: Dr. Audrey Robinson, director of the Academic Skills Center, and Mike Huggins, retired Eau Claire city manager who teaches Honors courses. Both are beyond passionate about this project, and they hope for its effects to ripple out across the Chippewa Valley for years to come.

“We all live in our community so we are affected by what happens there, whether it’s at our bank, our grocery store, or the YMCA,” Robinson says. “We need as many voices as possible to make this work.”

Like a pebble in a pond, these concentric circles expand as they move out from the source. Circles of Change “pebbles” are personal and public.

One Saturday morning, UWEC Chancellor Jim Schmidt tells our group, “The heart of diversity has to start here.” He points at his chest. His ultimate goal is that the Chippewa Valley will be known across the country as a welcoming place. “That’s the kind of community I want to be a part of,” he says.

At a time when the U.S. has never been more divided, Schmidt says that Circles of Change is not about political correctness, that businesses are more profitable if there are multicultural voices around the table.

A business owner on our team emphasizes, “Getting past stereotypes and personal biases is critical to increasing acceptance of others and having a stronger and healthier community.”

The week before my first Circles of Change discussion, I was detained in the El Paso International Airport for 30 minutes – one of those travelers you see having her bag searched and contents swabbed. I tested positive for something. Explosives?

“I don’t even set off fireworks,” I want to tease as two agents whisk me to a table.

Each question I ask is met with a terse, “Step away from me, ma’am. Don’t touch anything.” My carry-on, briefcase, coat, laptop, shoes, wallet, and belt are taken from me. I follow in silence.

My heart pounds as I watch the agents rummage through my perfectly rolled clothes. Shake out my dirty underwear. Swab my shoes and toothbrush handle. Peer into my mouth guard container. I have nothing to hide, still I sweat through my clean T-shirt.

“We’re going to have to search your body in a private room,” one says to me.

“But why?” I try to control the anger and fear in my voice. Should I say that I’m just a Wisconsin gal coming home from visiting her son, who works in federal law enforcement? Do you get a phone call when you’re a security risk? Do I even have his work number?

I follow the two agents to an area the size of a department store fitting room. When I hear the door lock behind me, a little voice says, “You may never get out of here.” I’m traveling alone. No one will miss me for eight hours. Irrational, I know, but these agents speak a language other than my own; they look different than me.

A female agent explains how she’s going to use the back of her hand to pat my breasts and groin and the front of her hand for the rest. “Just do it,” I say. She touches each humiliated inch of me, and then methodically moves her gloved fingers through my tangled hair.

Finally she says, “You’re free to go.”

I nearly cry.

Only when I get to my gate do I contemplate how I experienced something that people of color go through on a daily basis. White, middle class people like me don’t have to think about privilege or race unless we choose to. People of color or other marginalized groups live it every moment of every day.

Historically, power structures are based on who tells the story and how it’s told. For years, voices from people of color have been silenced or overlooked.

According to city-data.com, in the last 15 years Eau Claire has had a 3.5 percent increase in people of color. Our story is changing. At a Circles of Change meeting a white participant says, “Most of us don’t know what we don’t know.”

Something phenomenal is happening on these Saturday mornings. Strangers come together to talk about how to make the Chippewa Valley more welcoming to everyone. Strangers become friends.

And we’re moving towards action. We make lists: What’s working in our community? What is not? We vote on areas to target and decide upon criminal justice/law enforcement, employment, media, and housing. Our mantra is “Start Small, Think Big.”

Our goal is institutional change, but in order to accomplish that we realize we have to affect people’s hearts and minds. We start with our own group. One week our “homework” is to bring in an object that tells the story of our personal history. I watch members display them in the center of our conference table. A family Bible. A carved Last Supper. A beer stein. A washtub. A flute in its black case. A Hershey bar.

Really, chocolate? I can’t wait to hear about that. We each have exactly 60 seconds to tell our story.

“You can’t make a s’more without a Hershey bar,” says the young woman whose family runs a resort in northern Minnesota. “What smells like home to me is a campfire.” I tear up.

We hear that most traditional Filipino households have an ornately carved Last Supper and an oversized wooden fork and spoon on their dining room wall. And that this stein represents Friday nights at an uncle’s, when everyone gathered with a pony keg of beer to play euchre or sheepshead. The flute player comes from a family of musicians going back generations. One participant offers a video about her Minnesota culture. “Not too good is worse than pretty good,” she says in a lilting accent. Another participant tells us about how her German great-grandfather was persecuted for his Mormon faith, and his Bible – along with a hand-written family history –has survived more than a century. I tear up again.

My relic is a steel Wheeling washtub my grandparents bought in 1920 for their rented farm in northwest Wisconsin. When I brought it home from my 91-year-old dad’s garage and scrubbed it on top of my hot tub, I couldn’t help but say out loud, “Adults bathed here.” I realize I soak in a 103 degree spa for fun, and my grandparents and parents survived with no indoor plumbing and bathed in a tub smaller than a beer cooler.

Unfolding before us are common themes among these strangers’ histories: family, food, religion, survival. Imagine if we did this adult “show and tell” at board meetings or orientations – how much we’d learn about each other.

Today, only the professor forgot to do his homework, an irony that makes the two students smile. He tells us he would have brought corn, since you can’t make a Mexican meal without it, going back to pre-Columbian times. When he moved to Eau Claire he told himself, “As long as I can find corn tortillas in the supermarket, I’ll be fine.”

The goals of Circles of Change are many, but at its heart is helping everyone in the Chippewa Valley find their version of those corn tortillas.


Interested in joining a Circles of Change team, 
beginning in October 2017?

Visit the website to sign up or make a donation to support: uwec.ly/circlesofchange


Watch for 2 Circles of Change Action Plans happening near you:

Humans of the Chippewa Valley:Expanding our Narrative one Story at a Time is a collection of photos and oral histories from diverse residents living in Altoona, Chippewa Falls, Eau Claire and Lake Hallie (modeled after the successful “Humans of New York” phenomenon).

Family Conversation Starters is a series of kits available from public libraries with age-appropriate books, a guide to discussion starters about diversity, additional book recommendations, and suggestions for additional resources.

Works Consulted

“Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation” from Everyday Democracy (PDF available at everyday-democracy.org/resources/facing-racism-diverse-nation)

“Move Forward, Move Back,” is adapted from exercises developed by Paul Kivel, Martin Cano, and Jona Olsson.