Essay People Power

How to Have a Community Conversation


A Community Conversation is a form of group dialogue that often addresses issues of local or larger concern. Participation is usually open to all, and may lead to some form of action, consensus or objective by the participants. Regardless of the size of the gathering, when individuals assemble to engage in dialogue related to self-determination, it often becomes a community unto itself. Community conversation is a collective process that has the potential to transform individual thought into collective consciousness (Yankelovich, 1991).

Community Conversations are a social form of engagement that brings together people with little or no formal affiliation to discuss issues of significance, often with the aid of facilitators to keep the group on topic or task. Groups often meet with no formal structure or organizing authority and they differ in size and how frequently they convene.

A ‘Public Sphere’ of Enlightened Engagement 

The public sphere from the German word: Öffentlichkeit is an area in social life where individuals come together (virtually or in person) to freely discuss and identify societal issues, and through dialogue influence political action. The term was originally coined by Jürgen Habermas who defined the public sphere as “a virtual or imaginary community which does not necessarily exist in any identifiable space” (Soules, 2007). Communication scholar Gerard A. Hauser defines it as “a discursive space in which individuals and groups associate to discuss matters of mutual interest and, where possible, to reach a common judgment about them” (Hauser, 1999). 

In examining the dynamics of ‘dialogue space’ I use the term metasphere as a way of measuring and exploring the social climate or atmosphere in the room. I found the quality of metasphere in Community Conversations often described by participants as inducing a special connectivity where thoughts, theories and ideas are experienced in a sensed setting of new possibilities. This metasphere is a place where the eureka effect (aha moment) can occur – the experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept that can transform stuck paradigms in a process of discovery where ideas can be created, evaluated and evolved. 

Many communities across the US, overwhelmed with the devastating impacts of the pandemic, also face many adjacent challenges and social issues including opioid and heroin addiction, crime, pollution, police brutality, discrimination, run down housing, hunger, poverty, school shootings and more, including fake news and disinformation that further cause division between different groups of people. 

The good news is, many communities are already co-creating desired changes through the tools of nonviolent communication and conscious conversation. For sure, the true value of Community Conversations as deliberative dialogue is measured by how openly they promote input and invite voices from multiple and divergent perspectives. 

A growing number of community organizers, hoping to bring neighborhoods together, have successfully used Community Conversations to work through differences and resolve local issues within their neighborhood or larger region. Groups typically average 8 to 12 people who meet regularly over a period of weeks or months to address a critical public issue.

Participants examine concerns from multiple points of view and identify areas of common ground. They emerge with recommendations for action that will benefit the entire community. Examples include youth mentoring programs; budget planning; programs to address food, energy and water needs; and much more. 

A Community Conversation is typically led by an impartial host or facilitator whose job it is to keep dialogue focused, help the group consider a variety of views, and ask difficult questions. In general, a conversation naturally seems to progress within a session from personal experience (“How does the issue affect me?”) to engagements providing a broader perspective (“What are others saying about this issue?”) to a deliberation on action (“What can we do about this issue right now?”).

Creating Community Conversations reminds us that our shared values are far more powerful than the threats that divide us.

 

 

Eight Tips for a Successful Community Conversation

  1. Bringing the right people to the table means bringing everybody. Making sure residents with diverse perspectives and experiences are part of the conversation is important for identifying challenges and opportunities across the community.
  2. Be strategic about how you reach out to residents. When you’re spreading the word about an upcoming Community Conversation, think beyond email invitations. Consider residents without access to technologyTown halls, community centers, places of worship, retirement centers, and door-to-door outreach are effective places to find and invite residents to a Conversation. A personal ask can be the key to getting residents to join.
  3. Make meetings easier and more fun to attend. Providing rides to and childcare during events makes it easier for residents to join. Offering healthy food from local farmers or restaurants models healthy eating habits, supports the local economy, and builds trust and connections with even more community members. Using icebreakers to start off a meeting can help people relax.
  4. Listen. The less you say, the more you hear. Start a Conversation with a big question like, “What would make your community a healthier place to live, work, play or pray?” Then listen. Give residents the space and power to lead the way and identify solutions based on their own experiences.
  5. Use small group discussion to create room for more conversation. Small groups make it easier for people to share their thoughts. It’s also a welcome relief for anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable talking in front of crowds. Consider bringing in scribes – members of your staff or non-resident volunteers – to take notes so all community members can participate fully. If conversation stalls, scribes can ask prodding questions like, “What do you dream about for your community?”
  6. Lean on democracy. Once community members have shared what they would like to see changed in their community, let members “vote” to identify priorities. One idea: give each resident 3 sticker dots and asks them to place one dot on each challenge or dream that is most important to them.
  7. Embrace the little wins. The community should dream big, but success isn’t just about the big wins. Having a new voice join the conversation, creating a space where someone feels comfortable sharing a new idea, and identifying a promising next step are all small wins that can have huge benefits. When the bigger wins do come along, invite community members to be part of the celebration!
  8. Follow up! Community Conversations are a helpful starting point to move toward action and a great place to meet people who can help lead the way.

(Via: Allen County, Kansas)

More Resources

Community Conversations About Mental Health: Planning Guide
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Leading a Community Dialogue on Building a Healthy Community
Community Toolbox

5 Tips: How to Start a Regular Community Conversation That Works
West Virginia Community Development Hub

Organizer’s Guide to Community Conversations
National Education Association

Community Conversations Workbook
American Library Association

Community Conversation Guide
NCD Alliance

About Michael Ratner

Michael Ratner, PhD is an enlightenment activist currently living in Wisconsin with his wife Yanju and two daughters.

He is former national media manager for Anthony Robbins’ live seminar events, and has also promoted Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Les Brown among many others. Michael completed his doctorate degree in Higher Education at the Western Institute for Social Research in Berkeley, California where he had been researching the power of Community Conversations for over a decade and is now writing a book called LovingConversations.com.

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