Prince William Study Circles Strengthen Communities and Earn Top Honors

Posted: January 13, 2010 at 1:01 am, Last Updated: January 12, 2010 at 4:15 pm

By Marjorie Musick

Prince William County residents discuss community issues at a study circle.

In community centers, schools and churches throughout Prince William County, residents are gathering together to improve their neighborhoods.

The Prince William Neighborhood Study Circles were formed collaboratively in 2007 by George Mason University, Unity in the Community and City of Manassas Neighborhood Services as a forum for community members to better understand all sides of various issues, build relationships across groups and develop action plans.

According to Charvis Campbell, assistant dean of Prince William University Life, the study circles were initially started to focus on immigration issues within the community. However, they quickly transformed into forums for discussing broader issues that affect neighborhoods, many of which are home to Mason’s faculty and staff.

“We realized that folks weren’t really talking about immigration but talking about how immigration impacted their community − whether it was loud music or miscommunication about trash pickup or miscommunication about language differences,” says Campbell.

“We decided to get the community talking and to have a respectful, honest and productive conversation about neighborhood issues. The whole point of the circles is to empower the community to take the initiative.”

The two-hour sessions are held for six-week periods and are open to all residents of Prince William County and the City of Manassas. Trained facilitators from Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR) lead each discussion group of approximately 15 residents and help them establish trust and find common ground.

Funded by Mason’s Prince William University Life Office, Everyday Democracy, Center for Voter Deliberation of Northern Virginia, Unity in the Community and the City of Manassas, the program was named State Neighborhood Organization of the Year in 2009 by the 10th Annual Virginia Statewide Neighborhood Conference. The program was cited for bringing study circles to eight neighborhoods: Georgetown South, Point of Woods/Cannon Ridge, Weems, Wellington and Wildwood in the City of Manassas; and Lindendale, West Gate and Pilot Circle in Prince William County.

Cindy Brookshire, volunteer director of the Prince William Study Circles, coordinates the ongoing rounds of circles and works with the community partners who support the organization. She says the program is truly a team effort. She notes that by sharing the load and taking on tasks that include everything from finding funding and scheduling facilitator training to documenting action plans and maintaining a web site, the program has made a visible difference.

Brookshire cites the example of two participants in one of the Neighborhood Improvement Circles who were new to their homeowners’ association board. They came into the circle with the agenda of making the homeowners comply with the rules, but after leaving the circle, they wanted to do more. They eventually hosted a community yard sale with entertainment for children, participated in three community cleanups and became vocal representatives for the study circles.

“The study circles are connecting neighbors and helping participants to both find a voice for their ideas and to go from dialogue to action. The difference is both a change in attitude and the knowledge that they aren’t alone – other people are facing the same problems. By speaking out, forming creative partnerships, getting to know people as neighbors and walking in each other’s shoes, the study circle participants have been able to make a positive difference and overcome obstacles,” says Brookshire.

For more information on Prince William Neighborhood Study Circles, visit www.pwsc.org.

Write to gazette at gazette@gmu.edu