Time to Talk—and Listen

“Let’s talk.” Here we are again, in the aftermath of a grueling presidential election that highlighted deep divisions among Americans. The best way to address these divisions is to talk with each other in a civil manner about things that matter to us, with an emphasis on listening. Local government and community-based groups can be the conveners of such conversations, using some of the many tools and toolkits available for hosting community dialogues. 

Local governments and, nonprofits and colleges are in an ideal position to convene community dialogues that bring people together to listen to each other and work to understand how we might work together toward common goals. These dialogues can help people who were at odds during the elections practice conversation and mutual understanding. Such convenings can also help disparate interests work together on a community mission that might bring people together. The advantage of local problem-solving is just that—local challenges often rally people of different philosophies around a practical, nonpartisan goal, like improving community health, for example.

Community dialogues can be a great way to hear from residents and other stakeholders on ways to build a better community. An example for All-America Cities would be to hold dialogues on what makes your community an All-America City and how it can be even better. In any community, residents appreciate being asked their opinions. And paramount to any such effort is to hold these dialogues in different parts of the community and in ways that allow for small group interaction to maximize input.

Many organizations are working to advance civil and civic conversation as a means of bridging the political and social divides during elections like those in 2020. A nationwide collaboration called the National Conversation Project has brought together over 300 organizations in the #ListenFirst Coalition to promote conversation programs. The coalition promotes annual National Weeks of Conversation, #ListenFirst Fridays, Rapid Response & Featured Conversations on Major Issues, Locally-Focused #ListenFirst Movements and any conversation creating social connection. Additionally they co-created the #WeavingCommunity campaign in response to the pandemic.

One of the nonprofit groups that has promoted community conversations the longest is Everyday Democracy, which has a set of discussion guides for holding public dialogues on open or specific topics. The guides typically employ the study circles approach, in which small groups of individuals meet in the same circle for multiple sessions over time to discuss a particular topic. The organization offers discussion guides for a variety of topics, like racism and community-police relations, on its website.

Another, more recent organization in this arena is Living Room Conversations, which provides a model for short, one-time conversations, with a suggestion that the groups range from 4-7 people. The organization has discussion guides for over 80 topics on its website and provides means for holding these conversations virtually. A thought for a large-scale effort would be to encourage conversations across the community on a single night or week and allow groups to pick the topic they wish to discuss.

The All-America Conversations program created by the National Civic League is aimed at helping cities and other groups understand residents’ aspirations for the community, the divisions facing the community, and most importantly, the small, specific actions that give people confidence that we can work across dividing lines. The All-America Conversations Toolkit provides communities with ideas on how to publicize the sessions, identify facilitators and run a productive meeting.

On the Table is a program created by the Chicago Community Trust that started in Chicago but has now been used by dozens of communities. The program encourages people throughout the community to hold dialogues among neighbors, colleagues or friends on one particular day of the year. Begun in 2014, the program reached 55,000 participants in Chicago in 2016.

A few other organizations offering tools and ideas for community conversations include Conversation Cafés, Mismatch and Essential Partners.

Please send us other toolkits for conversations that we have not mentioned. We would also love to hear stories about the convenings in your community!

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