Dialogue to Change Program

A community learning journey in Maryborough 

Presented to Adult Learning Australia Annual National Conference 2011

Centre for Adult Education, Melbourne

27 September 2011 

Mary Brennan, Director, Australian Study Circles Network Pty Ltd 

To me it was a revelation. This was a process to get a community to come together, to talk through issues, to come up with ideas and then to lead to some types of solutions that are attainable. Drina Andrews, 2011

The Central Goldfields town of Maryborough, Victoria began this community learning journey in September of 2008 when there was an Information Workshop on the topic of study circles. At that time representatives from all sectors of the community participated in the half day workshop where the power of study circles became apparent. Not only did people learn new things about themselves, about others and about study circles too that day, they also learnt that study circles are a way to get to action: Dialogue to Change (D2C). Since then, together with Goldfields Employment and Learning Centre (GELC), the Maryborough Neighbourhood Renewal (NR) team and Australian Study Circles Network Pty Ltd (ASCN) Maryborough’s successful Dialogue to Change (D2C) Program came to pass in 2011. This is a story about the stages of Maryborough’s D2C Program.

Firstly, preparation and planning are critical to the success of a D2C Program because the methodology requires that time is taken and spent developing relationships with all levels of a community, so it was perfect that ASCN, GELC and NR had a significant number of months to engage support. It was in 2008 that Drina Andrews, Manager of GELC attended an Adult Learning Australia Inc conference where Dr Mark Brophy conducted a presentation and workshop on the study circle methodology and deliberative dialogue practices. Drina’s interest piqued in this thoroughly democratic process and she decided that she was in a very good position to bring the D2C Program to her community.

Together with Maryborough NR, GELC submitted to the Victorian government’s Adult, Community and Further Education Board and were able to achieve a Community Learning Partnership Program.  The NR and GELC cohort then engaged ASCN to work with organisations and stakeholders as well as community members to conduct a Dialogue to Change Program.  Initial meetings to get the Program into the Preparation stage began in October, 2010 after which three D2C Orientation workshops were planned and conducted in the heart of the town.

The D2C Orientation Workshop provides an explanation of D2C programs and shares Australian, as well as international examples of successful study circle programs. It also includes a sample study circle so participants can get a sense of how they actually work. As well as this, it includes an overview of ASCN expertise and services and explains that the best D2C programs start with a coalition of community partners. The Orientation Workshop also helps build interest with the people in the community that matter.

In Maryborough a diverse range of organisations and community members attended these workshops. Some of them are Maryborough University of the Third Age, Maryborough Education Centre, Maryborough Community House, Bendigo Regional Adult Community Education, Maryborough District Health Service, Central Goldfields Shire Council, RMIT University, Victoria Police and Salvation Army.

Following the Preparation stage that garnered community support for the Program, the training events of the Community Organising stage were ready to take place and were planned for January through to March 2011. The first of these is the Organising Workshop that provides the necessary training to implement a full D2C Program. Having identified key people to lead and to be members of working groups, the training is crucial to get success. For each of the working groups, the Workshop covers Establishing goals, Logistics Requirements, Communication Plan, Recruitment Strategy and Planning for Action. In Maryborough, eighteen people representing NR, GELC, Maryborough District Health Service, Central Goldfields Shire Council and others including local residents participated in this training workshop.  They left the Organising Workshop with the expertise and internationally recognised resources to ensure the success of their D2C Program.

The Community Organising stage of a D2C Program also includes Facilitator Training. Study circle facilitators are vital to the success of a D2C Program. The one day facilitator and recorder training in Maryborough took place at the end of February, just before the launch of the round of study circles. In the training, facilitators and recorders learnt the skills to work impartially while focusing on, highlighting and recording the common themes of the dialogue. A discussion guide – Building a Stronger Community – a discussion guide for public problem solving, supports the study circle dialogue.  Meanwhile, during this stage, ASCN mentors and supports each of the working groups, facilitators and recorders.

Following the Community Organising stage is the Launch and the round of four study circle sessions.  In Maryborough, the launch and the first study circle session ran on the same night, with each of the other 2 hour sessions scheduled weekly.  The fourth session was in the middle week of April.  Over the four weekly sessions the dialogue in the sessions progressed from establishing ground rules and sharing personal experiences; to exploring the issue and the different opinions and views; to exploring ways to make progress – what are the range of solutions?, and in the final session; to deciding on and planning for action.

Action from the D2C Program happens across four levels.  There is individual, small group, organisation and community wide. The action ideas resulting from the Maryborough D2C Program are:

            •            Get Visitors Guide renamed to be more inclusive – e.g.: Events Guide 

            •            Planning to make recreational areas safe and accessible to everyone

            •            Promote Maryborough as ‘the place to shop’

            •            Look out for local events and activities and actively promote them within our networks

            •            Promote area as ‘heart of the Goldfields’ – emphasis on weekend get-aways

            •            Buy local campaign

There were thirty-one commitments by individuals to these action ideas. Also resulting from the Program is a documentary video made by Philip Ashton of Imagelink and ASCN.  It can be viewed here: http://studycircles.net.au/2011/08/maryborough-d2c-on-film/

Finally, an external evaluation of the Program is soon to be published and a comprehensive report is at: http://studycircles.net.au/2011/06/maryborough-d2c-program-report/

To sum up, these are words from Liz Dorsett of Maryborough Neighbourhood Renewal:

People who were there are saying that they now have the confidence to ask the questions – they’ve learnt some communication skills; they know they have the right to ask as residents.

Evaluation of the workshop shows that all participants were comfortable asking questions.
One hundred percent of the respondents said the workshop was moderately to extremely interesting and informative.