Reflecting on our community conversations through We Create Here

By Kiran Sood

One of the new methods of storytelling and engagement we’re using as part of We Create Here is facilitating small group discussions centered on particular issues.

Over the past couple months, I’ve had the opportunity to facilitate two such discussions.

The first one in late February was centered on diversity and inclusion in Eastern Iowa. Prior to organizing the conversation, I had spent months reporting on why diversity and inclusion efforts are critical throughout the Corridor. As Iowa faces a shrinking workforce, its ability to compete with other states and countries for talent will depend on just how welcoming and inclusive its communities are. While my reporting laid the foundation for the importance of diversity and inclusion, I wanted to take it a step further. As part of We Create Here, we are focusing on solutions. My hope with the conversation was to produce a blog post with bullet point-style takeaways that gave readers simple steps they could take themselves to make their own communities more welcoming. If each person takes action on their own, the likelihood of the entire community becoming more welcoming is far greater.

Working with Peggy Holman of Journalism that Matters and Quinn Pettifer, our manager of community networks and engagement, we brainstormed the best format for the conversation.

Peggy helped me realize the power of action that lies within a small group. She also helped me realize I could step back and let the group work its wonders.

I invited professionals who work in diversity and inclusion every day as part of their job description in addition to people who are proponents of diversity. During the conversation, I asked the six community members to each find a partner they knew the least for the pair question portion of our conversation. Each of the three pairs took turns asking each other a list of three questions. When we returned to the large group, I asked everyone to share something that struck them from their conversations. One pair, who was made up of two very different people on the surface, both reported they were surprised to see how much they actually had in common. At the conclusion of the conversation, many participants said how thankful they were for the opportunity to come together in a small group and work toward solutions.

As I had hoped, our group of six community members came up with six takeaways each one of us can put into practice to make this community a more welcoming and inclusive place.

To begin with, embracing diversity starts with understanding ourselves and our own “mess.” Secondly, we’re more alike than we think. It’s also critical to listen to each other’s stories. Look for opportunities to bond with others based on what you have in common. Go beyond the obvious differences, assuming there is little chance to connect. All of these suggestions came directly from dialogue and interaction during the discussion.

My most recent community conversation was on Wednesday, April 16 at Vault Coworking and Collaboration Space in downtown Cedar Rapids. The topic of the conversation was affordable housing in Eastern Iowa. Through reporting leading up to the conversation, I discovered a number of facts about the state of affordable housing in the region. As I learned about the subject and conducted interviews, I wrote posts and reflected on our site,

My goal in gathering the group for discussion on this particular day was to create new connections and relationships amongst attendees and to focus on solutions.

Similar to the first conversation, I had spent weeks reporting on affordable housing before bringing the group together. I wanted to make sure I knew enough about the issue to be able to facilitate the discussion. As I went out and conducted interviews, I formed a list of participants I wanted to invite to participate. I also knew how critical it would be to include someone who was directly impacted by the need for affordable housing in the Corridor. I made sure to invite at least two such individuals, hoping that at least one of them would be able to attend.

During the conversation, I asked members to pair up and take turns asking each other three questions. First, they asked each other to describe a high point experience in which diverse housing needs were met. What were the factors that made it successful? Another question asked participants to imagine our community has a plethora of affordable housing options. What does this community look like?

After the pair exercise, we got back together as a group. We were joined half way through by a fifth participant, a woman I had invited who had recently been homeless. I asked each of the participants to go around and share what struck them from their conversations. Everyone shared their observations and thoughts.

This was a natural segue to our final group exercise. The most exciting part of this conversation were the revelations that came out of one of this exercise we conducted. On a whiteboard, I wrote “plentiful affordable housing” as the goal we hoped to achieve. We then worked together to outline what steps we could take to achieve plentiful affordable housing. Community stakeholders came up with some incredible solutions. For example, it is critical for members of the community to understand the economic impact homelessness has on the entire community.

In addition, the group realized there isn’t any one entity tasked with measuring the success of individual agencies working to provide shelter and address homelessness. A way to centralize resources and coordinate efforts would help eliminate redundancies among agencies.

Just like after the first community conversation, participants said they were grateful for the opportunity to come together in a group and discuss a critical issue.

Something for me to think about is how to carry the momentum from the original conversations forward. In both cases, I wrote an entry on our site and forwarded it to group members. But, how can we at We Create Here continue to work with group participants to put some of the solutions into practice? If not us, who is the appropriate entity to do so?

I’ve really enjoyed getting the opportunity to facilitate such conversations. I’ve been amazed by the power of bringing together a small group of motivated people to focus on solutions to problems that are plaguing the area. With preparation and motivation, the groups have come up with some fantastic ideas and solutions.

My biggest hesitation by bringing groups together was what we would find. I also was unsure of how active a role I would have to take in moderating the discussion. In a typical reporter-subject interview setup, the reporter leads the conversation. The reporter asks questions and listens, asking for clarification or follow ups when needed. As I learned after the first community conversation, the critical knowledge is already in the room. As facilitator, I don’t need to take group members by the hand to lead them to findings. Together, they come up with the solutions on their own.

Going forward, I hope to have additional conversations. The challenge is determining when in the reporting process is the appropriate time to bring together the group. When does it make the most sense to begin focusing on solutions and taking action? The point of the conversations is not just to bring people together to talk for the sake of talking, but instead, to work to bring about change to the situation.

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