I walk into a beautiful home in Indianapolis’ Meridian Hills neighborhood prepared to discuss a topic of great importance today: the impact that poverty has on the education of America’s students.
I am here at a Policy Circle meeting, which provides tools for women to come together, learn about policy, practice their voices, and at the end of the gathering, ask the question, “is this an issue we are going to do something about?” Then, if possible, they act.
There with fifty other women in attendance—many of whom are teachers in the Indianapolis public school system—we enjoy a light dinner before we hear from our speaker: the President of a multi-million-dollar foundation in Indianapolis that invests heavily in the city’s education system. After an interesting series of comments from the foundation’s President about their investments in education and the significance of poverty, we divide into smaller groups of about 10-15 people to process and discuss.
Food insecurity, joblessness, home uncertainty, violence, trauma, lack of access to extracurricular activities, insufficient early childhood education—these issues and more all come together as education-adjacent challenges in the discussion in which I participate.
“It’s really inconceivable to me that universal pre-K isn’t fully funded or mandatory,” one former teacher claimed, exasperated. “Pre-K anticipates so many of the problems that teachers cannot manage later in the students’ life.”
“But you must see why mandatory Pre-K isn’t viable—parents have a right to home-school in this country and a right to see their children educated as they see fit,” countered another discussant.
This Policy Circle meeting is one of hundreds that have gone on across the country over the last 5 years.
In 2015, three women—Sylvie Légère, Angela Braly, and Kathy Hubbard—met at a public policy conference. When the American Enterprise Institute’s annual World Forum came to an end, they weren’t ready for the intellectual conversations about important issues and ideas to stop.
Each of the women had hosted policy conversations in her own neighborhood. They were committed to finding a more regular means for all women to partake in this type of conversation. They took a year to explore what programs were out there that offered women this opportunity. to gather and discuss policy, and found that there were none. So they decided to found The Policy Circle.
The desire to empower women to engage on an intellectual level with one another is important. As Sylvie Légère told me, “There was a need for only women to come together and engage on the impact of public policy. Taxes, immigration reform, health care— these all impact their lives and creativity. We wanted to focus our discussions on topics that affect all aspects of women’s lives.”
There was apparently a vastly under met demand for such conversation. So much so, that policy circles have grown exponentially since their beginning in 2015. They now have over 275 circles in 40 states, and thousands of members across the nation.
“We have tapped into a desire on the part of many women to engage in deeper discussions of public policy,” explained Policy Circle co-founder Kathy Hubbard. “These women care about these topics because they often deal with issues of health care, education, and others on a daily basis for themselves and their families.”
The Policy Circle is a non-partisan, grassroots non-profit. “We’re asking women to do it themselves—to step out of their comfort zones and each invite another person and form a circle of their own. We want to encourage women to talk about topics they wouldn’t normally discuss” said Légère.
The Policy Circle offers its members a library of curated policy briefs. Circles decide which brief to discuss at each meeting, and the members read the brief in advance and come prepared to discuss the topic at their meeting. The briefs provide curated information by policy experts and are designed to give an overview of a policy issue.
Another thing that sets Policy Circle apart is their belief that, when it comes to policy questions, the devil is often in the details. “We try to get people to go beyond the headlines which often offer a superficial and simplified view of a policy issue. We want to focus on the nitty-gritty,” Légère relayed. “When you vote on a bill, you vote on a particular detailed proposal. The details matter.” The co-founders of The Policy Circle think of policy circles as incubators for future policy-makers and influencers.
“When we started the Policy Circle, we said ‘We’re going to help women find their voice!’ But do you know what we learned? Women have a mind of their own. They know their voices! They’ve found their voices, but they just need to practice their voices so they can go out in the community and make their voice heard,” said co-founder Angela Braly.
The Policy Circle’s mandate—of bringing women into the conversation about matters of great cultural significance—couldn’t come at a more opportune moment: 2019 is the year that we celebrate one hundred years since women were granted the right to vote. Yet if the last hundred years has taught us anything, it’s that civic participation is a choice. So far, not many women have chosen to get involved in professional politics (for example, women currently make up only 23 percent of the House of Representatives). But The Policy Circle is more than a book group for future public leaders; it celebrates discussion, debate, and self-education in important topics for its own sake. These are essential attributes for our grand experiment of self-governance and citizenship in our great nation.
In this regard, in our moment of impoverished political dialogue, The Policy Circle’s support of healthy democratic habits does our nation a great service. Find out more at The Policy Circle website, www.thepolicycircle.org.