Community Conversations Designed to Travel
In the nonprofit community, there is a saying that “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”
Attributed to criminal justice reform advocate Glenn E. Martin, this phrase underlies countless hours and philanthropic dollars dedicated to the practice of hosting community conversations.
Yet conversations designed to engage underrepresented voices, uncover biases, and inform key decision-making are likely to hold more space inside computer drives than with audiences who need to hear them.
It’s not that nonprofits are discarding or ignoring community input. Instead, the objectives driving our listening prioritize analysis over narrative. It is a process where stories capable of inspiring empathy get reduced to quotes on a strategic plan. And lived experiences—emotional, uplifting, and sometimes heart-wrenching—are relegated to abstract phrases like structural barriers and opportunities to thrive.
And what do community voices receive in return for their courageous conversations? Do they know where their stories traveled? Are they informed of their impact on the hearts and minds of listeners and decision-makers?
Engaging underrepresented voices is a cornerstone of civic participation. But what are the incentives to participate in a conversation if no one hears you? What further traumatization results from extracting input without any positive reverberations? And what opportunities do we lose in the rush to action rather than the urgent need to listen?
These were the challenges we faced in the spring of 2020 when the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation asked us to surface stories of COVID-19’s impact on underrepresented communities in Arkansas.
At a time when Arkansas poultry workers were disproportionately sick and dying, and teachers worried about the loss of safety net services for students, we launched Reimagine Arkansas to ask those closest to the problems the question that would become our organizing principle, “What’s your vision for Arkansas’ future? What can we do today to realize it?”
Our model is still evolving. But our process seeks to avoid the “analysis trap” of community conversations and share them in creative ways.
Listening is a form of activism.
COVID-19 revealed what many had experienced first-hand for decades. An economy built on low wages and few social supports weakens democracy, deepens inequalities, and makes everyone vulnerable.
There are no simple solutions. But the first step in finding them is to listen deeply to those most failed by our current systems.
This expertise is not hard to find in Arkansas, where one out of two households is ALICE and can’t support a basic household budget.
Since March 2020, we’ve used LVN’s Zoom-based platform to hold 35 conversations across Arkansas. We’ve convened more than 100 voices, including frontline healthcare workers, Marshallese youth, and DACA students enrolled in community college.
Partnering with advocates and nonprofits, we act as a creative tool to the campaigns and futures they are working towards.
After recording community conversations, we use LVN highlights to create a synthesis full of context and depth. These long-form narratives steep audiences in an auditory journey about the futures Arkansans are imagining and the experiences that inform them.
Art activates imaginations.
Once we’ve synthesized the highlights into narrative form, we pair them with art to create constellation kits. Kits provide nonprofit partners with shareable graphics and audio highlights that activate the public’s imagination about what’s at stake and possible in the future.
We recruit four to five Arkansas-based creatives for each kit to share their artistic talents. They receive a creative brief with story threads, illustrative metaphors, history or policy context, and a set of narrative principles borrowed from The Center for Cultural Power’s COVID-19 Cultural Strategy Activation Guide for Artists and Activists.
Artists receive paid honorariums in exchange for shareable designs inspired by the conversations. Working independently or collaborating, each artist produces three to five concepts that we collectively workshop through Slack.
The designs provide a form of feedback to our participants. What do you think about the art you inspired? They are also key to our broad digital distribution efforts where short-form, visual content is prioritized.
From the first conversation to the resulting constellation kit, the whole process takes about three to four weeks.
Amplification requires strategy and resources.
If Reimagine’s goal was to amplify counter-narratives, we learned early on that it only takes a few voices to create plenty of disruptive storytelling. A single, 75-minute conversation with four to six participants can produce up to three months of engaging content. Reimagine kits usually convene 12-16.
The challenge is finding the capacity and resources to distribute to specific audiences and keep them engaged. Before moving to a partner-based model, we used the “mirrors and windows” approach to share content with audiences based on affinities.
For example, we would use ad spend to push content related to education towards teachers and principals. From there, we would expand our audience to include participants from earlier conversations and other intersecting groups.
This basic strategy resulted in kit content reaching over 500,000 people in the first several months through Instagram and Facebook. Our average engagement rate was three times higher than content produced by the top five media platforms in the state.
Such reach may seem like good news—and it was! But we struggled to keep participants and audiences engaged over the long haul. Without partners, we lacked authentic pathways into community and specific call-to-actions on critical issues.
Today, we have repositioned Reimagine Arkansas as a tool, not a standalone initiative. With the support of grants, we apply our creative process to the campaign goals and objectives of community-based partners in Arkansas.
Feedback is the optimized currency of community engagement.
In our futures-based conversations with participants, the questions that generate the most profound reflections are What headlines do you want to see in the future? What ideas do you have for realizing it?
This line of questioning give participants the space to imagine what a future built for them would look like and the actions we need to take.
In a recent project with Arkansas’ Rural Community Alliance, Reimagine piloted an audio, video and text-based feedback model that we’re calling portals. Our first portal featured participants’ aspirations for “just and thriving rural futures” that we shared with a targeted set of leaders and decision-makers in the state.
Using VideoAsk, we created short videos that prompted listeners to provide feedback to the participants’ ideas. This solicitation from above, not below, was a critical feedback loop resulting in feelings of being heard and mobilized a series of ongoing actions and relationships. It also created a sense of accountability from those providing the feedback.
In the months ahead, we will be leaning deeper into the portal process as a way to return to community members with feedback designed to nurture the movements they represent. By doing so, we hope to keep moving the conversations forward and create communities organized around specific ideas for the future.
Community Conversations Reimagined.
In today’s challenging advocacy environment, inviting you to do more with your community conversations may seem like cruel and unusual punishment.
And without funders who recognize that narrative change precedes policy change, nonprofit and grassroots communication budgets will continue to struggle with the kind of storytelling, creative engagement, and amplification efforts I’ve outlined above.
But where there’s story, there’s art. Where there’s art, there are futures within the grasp of imagination. And if we can imagine it, we can build it.
Reimagine Arkansas began as a simple idea to give voices that matter the energy, imagination and resources they need to move. And as our fellow imagineer Maxi Dominguez likes to remind us, “1% of our creative endeavors is mindset, and the rest is logistics.”
Are you ready to get creative with your community conversations?
Let us know if we can help with the logistics.
Sara Bishop is co-imagineer of Reimagine Arkansas and president of Orchid Communications in Fayetteville, Arkansas.