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Paul Aicher, Civic Innovator and Philanthropist, Dies at 76
Paul J. Aicher, a businessman and philanthropist who played a leading role in advancing the idea and practice of civic dialogue on critical social issues in the United States, died on Monday, Aug. 19, 2002, in Pomfret, Conn., after a brief illness. He was 76.
Mr. Aicher had a successful business career prior to his full-time civic activism. He worked for 17 years at Beryllium Corp. in Reading, Penn. In 1968, he founded Technical Materials Inc. (TMI), based in Lincoln, R.I., where he developed innovative processes for bonding specialty metals that became widely used in the electronics and semiconductor industry.
Throughout his business career, Mr. Aicher was involved in community work that would later lead him to become a full-time philanthropist and national civic leader. In the 1950s, he was chairman of the Refugee Resettlement Program of the North Shore Unitarian Church, in Evanston, Ill., and served as president of the North Shore Human Relations Council. For many years, he was a facilitator for the American Foundation for Political Education, a national program underwritten by the Ford Foundation - an experience that led to his lifelong interest in civic dialogue. After he and his family moved to Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s, he started the World Affairs Council of Berks County. At that same time, he founded the first Unitarian Universalist Church in Reading.
In 1982, he sold TMI and established the Topsfield Foundation, Inc. (TFI), based in Pomfret, Conn., to enhance civic engagement and improve the quality of public life in the United States. During much of the 1980s, the Foundation - under Aicher's leadership - worked on a variety of small-scale but far-reaching peace initiatives. TFI published a series of grass-roots peace directories, as well as developed a news service that presented diverse reporting and opinion on international security issues. During these years, Aicher was key to launching several other organizations. In 1985, he founded OPTIONS, a disarmament-oriented speakers bureau based at Brown University, that involved college faculty members in community education around the country. In 1987, he started ACCESS, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-advocacy information service on international affairs. Also during this time, TFI became a leader in promoting affordable housing in Connecticut and in establishing the Connecticut Housing Coalition.
In the late 1980s, as the Cold War was drawing to a close, Aicher became eager to advance civic dialogue as a community practice and national movement. He wanted to help people from all backgrounds find ways to meet with each other to address critical social and political issues. During all his years of activism, it had struck him forcefully how seldom people on different sides of issues or from different walks of life had a chance to speak with each other and truly listen to one another. He had a profound faith in the capacity of so-called ordinary citizens to address public issues in collaborative ways. Aicher's friend Miles Rapoport, president of Demos, noted that Aicher had a "passionate belief in the genuine, meaningful participation of people→ in having real efficacy on decisions that affect our lives and communities everyday." Benjamin Barber, a leading scholar of democracy based at the University of Maryland, dedicated his book A Passion for Democracy: American Essays to Aicher, calling him a "passionate democrat."
Aicher's vision of respectful, inclusive, productive citizen dialogue as a regular practice of democracy led to his creation of the Study Circles Resource Center (SCRC) in 1989. Because of his entrepreneurial sensibilities and drive, he pushed SCRC to create tools that could be readily adapted by local communities and widely replicated around the country. SCRC's guides to dialogue and problem solving on specific issues have been used in hundreds of communities, from neighborhoods to larger metropolitan areas. Aided by training and advice from SCRC, coalitions of governmental and non-profit groups in these places have involved many thousands of people in diverse dialogue in which everyone has a voice. Some of these dialogues have taken place in high-profile situations. For example, in 1995, the Los Angeles City Council turned to SCRC for assistance during the tensions after the O.J. Simpson trial, and brought thousands of Angelenos into dialogue, using the SCRC guide on racism and race relations.
In recent years, Aicher's work in fostering deliberative democracy has led to national recognition. In 1996, the National Association of Human Rights Workers awarded Aicher its advocacy award. In 1997, Aicher received the Pew Partnership's Civic Change Award, just a year after the late John Gardner, founder of Common Cause, received the award. In 2000, Aicher received the John H. Filer Award, sponsored by the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy. The award recognized him for his entrepreneurial vision and for modeling "how an individual can strengthen our democracy by creating a philanthropic organization that enables communities to define and solve the challenges they face."
Former Senator Bill Bradley has said, "Paul Aicher's work in creating the Study Circles Resource Center was a visionary act. There have been thousands of people who because of its work have found ways to honor the better angels of their souls." Lani Guinier, law professor at Harvard University and prominent scholar on democracy noted "Paul is a visionary with the temperament of an activist. He combines the best of the world of the mind and the life of a doer."
Paul Joseph Aicher, Jr., was born in Philadelphia, Penn., and grew up in Reading, Penn. He received a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering from Penn State University. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II as an Aviation Cadet.
He is survived by his wife Joyce; a daughter, Kathryn Wright; two sons, Peter Aicher and Mark Aicher; and five grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Sarah Aicher.