Top Ten Lessons We’ve Learned about Convening Community Conversations

In the wake of political unrest and polarization which followed President Trump’s victory last November, the Leadership Center decided to host a series of Community Conversations for the local communities near campus.

 In partnership with local resident Edy Schwartz and the Town Council of Moraga, the initiative was launched in December.  Through this project, community residents, College students, faculty, staff, and alumni have been invited to leave the comfort of their computer screens and meet up face-to-face to listen and discuss issues.  Below we share ‘Ten Lessons We’ve Learned” through convening these community conversations. Our last gathering of the semester will be held on Saturday, April 29th in the Soda Center at Saint Mary’s College from 9:30 - 11:30 am.  All are welcome.

These are some of the lessons we have learned so far, read our full blog.

Top Ten Lessons We’ve Learned about Convening Community Conversations

  1. Creating a space to encourage deeper listening is enough.
    While we encountered pressure to turn the gatherings into action strategy sessions, we stuck with our intention to create a space for people to listen deeply to themselves and others.  This drove some away, but it confirmed our belief that we need to create neutral community gathering spaces that are built for connection, deep listening and creative idea generation.
     
  2. Pay attention to welcoming people.
    Getting people to talk in a non-defensive, authentic way was not necessarily easy – but we found setting up the room in small tables, having coffee and bagels, and warmly welcoming people helped.
     
  3. Start by connecting people to each other.
    People started the meetings pairing up with strangers and answering non-threatening questions designed to help people connect.  Responding to questions like, “What’s one thing that happened to you since you woke up this morning?” And, “What’s your favorite thing about this community.” It set a tone of connection and positivity right off the bat.
     
  4. Don’t be afraid to structure listening time.
    We invited people to turn to two others in the room and take turns being listened for three minutes each.  This part of our process lets people address whatever might be going on for them. We had to tell people when to switch and reinforce that this wasn’t a time to agree or disagree, just be present and listen.
     
  5. Share a mini-lesson on a topic relevant to civic engagement.
    After the first couple of meetings we began to offer short presentations (15 minutes) on topics such as Processing Transitions, Listening Deeply, and Organizing Effectively.  These offered common language and context before people moved into topic groups.
     
  6. Create topic groups organically and in the moment.
    Rather than choose topics in advance, we had people generate topics they wanted to talk about during the meeting. In these groups people listened to what others were thinking, sometimes came up with action ideas, and at times just heard different perspectives.
     
  7. Come back to the Community Commons.
    Before closing we always came back to the large group to share insights, announcements and closing remarks.  This part of the meeting always reinforced the value of gathering and the impact it was having.
     
  8. Do the work to engage people of all ages.
    We’ve been lucky to have a healthy mix of generations, in part, because we worked at it.  We reached out to everyone from children to senior citizens and this intergenerational engagement had a significant impact on the richness of the gatherings.
     
  9. Be open to the side conversations.
    In addition to the Saturday meetings we had individual conversations with people organizing initiatives and helped them listen to the values of others. We helped them imagine solutions that would bridge two potentially polarized needs or interests.
     
  10. Appreciate the small victories.
    In five short months, we’ve felt successful in the small victories – individuals telling us how helpful it’s been to them; advocates on a community issue beginning to address their issue in a more inclusive and creative way; a public leader letting us know that hearing residents concerns in a more expanded way helped her understand the complexity in a situation.