Partner Voices: Innovations in Sensemaking

Building engaged process for conversation-driven insights

Author and Director of Partnership Strategy Alex Kelly Berman

At Cortico, we believe communities should be at the helm of telling their own stories and we’re building tools for partners to connect their communities to the sensemaking process.

Community-engaged sensemaking involves surfacing the meaning of a collection of conversations to more deeply share the “story of the stories.” Once Local Voices Network (LVN) conversations are recorded and added to the platform, community members are invited into the process of articulating the meaning of the full collection, developing and sharing a more publicly-informed synthesis.

Last week, LVN partners connected in small group conversations to discuss this topic of community-engaged sensemaking and how it connects to their work in government, libraries, advocacy, media, research and the arts. Key takeaways from these conversations included:

Surfacing personal stories is important, but we can’t lose track of broader context.

We need to share back collection insights that elevate compelling and personal details while also capturing the full picture―bringing in deeper context and perhaps even quantitative data streams. Sara Bishop, Founder of Reimagine Arkansas, describes the power of the individual story and the need to not lean so far into atomized stories that you lose the bigger systemic issues. Listen here.

“I think one of the challenges is, we know that individual stories are really what move people, that’s where you can insert yourself and where empathy is constructed. Yet, I come from a nonprofit background, every story is not created the same. If we lose the systems, then we’ve really limited ourselves to solutions that are not up to the task.

It’s balancing, sharing those individual stories and voices, yet not losing the scale and the scope of what this one story is actually really highlighting and illustrating. How do we persuade, in a really authentic and dignified way, while also making sure that we have that wide angle lens?”

There is complexity in sensemaking and perhaps we should just be okay with that.

Across the board, partners advocated for patience with the process, recognizing that we’re often too quick to offer up band-aid solutions or to agonize over how difficult it can be to analyze conversation data.

Kathy Cramer, University of Wisconsin-Madison Political Science Professor, unpacks the term “messy” as a way of describing conversation analysis. Listen here.

“I’m intrigued by why we call it a mess, because part of the point of LVN is to get people to not see each other in categories, to see the nuance. I just find it interesting why we say “mess” and not, “Wow, look at that complexity. Wow, look at all the nuance.” But it’s just not even in our culture to talk about complexity that way. And I think a lot of it’s because of our media environment and the platforms for which we usually communicate.”

T. Marie King, Cortico’s Gathering and Curation Lead, equates the sensemaking process to a slow cooker. Listen here.

“It makes me think sometimes about how we want to rush to the answer. And a lot of times we have that microwave mentality of we need it quick, we need it fast, but some things, it’s more a Crock-Pot. Some things need to sit and simmer for a little while. And that food actually tastes better when you do that.”

One of the most accessible ways to engage community members in sensemaking is through highlighting and active re-listening.

Sometimes the best way to make the whole collection digestible is to surface the specific parts, the powerful moments within a conversation.

Erica Parker, Associate Director of Adult Programming at The New York Public Library, talks about the act of conversation browsing as a tactic to build deeper understanding. Listen here.

“It reminds me of the topic of serendipity, which is something we think about a lot as librarians — the idea is wandering the stacks and coming across something that you never would have encountered otherwise. I think there’s an aspect of that when you’re looking at an LVN conversation, too. There is still probably a power to just diving back into a conversation and seeing what emerges, what jumps out, that might not have struck you the first time.”

Sensemaking is deeply connected to the work of sharing out learnings.

Our partners are actively thinking about how to effectively package learnings alongside their communities.

Part of the Wormfarm Institute’s public art project called DTour

Philip Mathews, Director of Programs at Wormfarm Institute, talks about a public art project using LVN conversation content. Listen here.

“There was a first time collaboration among three artists named Sheila Novak, Emilie Bouvier, and Crysten Nesseth, who created a series of 75 cyanotype banners. They used LVN highlights from the Food, Farming, and Land conversations, as well as correspondence that they gathered through a letter writing campaign with Sauk County residents to collect text, also imagery, et cetera, that were exposed on these 75 banners that were installed along the banks of Honey Creek. There was something really special for people seeing their ideas reflected back at them through sort of this heightened experience of an artwork.”

There is a tension between meaningful community engagement and the work of surfacing insights.

Building cross-collection insights involves identifying themes and summaries — which can come at the cost of nuance and context when communities are left out of the process. New opportunities for exploring the intersection of community engagement and data analysis need to be piloted in the spirit of experimentation.

Erin Raab, Co-Founder of 100 Days of Conversations About School, talks about the challenge of finding a balance between meaningful community engagement and effectively identifying cross-collection themes and insights. Listen here.

“What I anticipate will be the issue is finding time to bring everybody together that is long enough that we can overcome the barriers of really figuring out how to use the platform and get people in there and active on it, and can be meaningful while also not taking up somebody’s entire day. I think qualitative research takes time to make sense of. And so, how to engage people in a way that’s meaningful that actually allows them to identify themes and maybe umbrella codes, even, of what’s happening.”

To support community-engaged sensemaking, Cortico has introduced the new Topics-based Insights Tool and we’re now offering regular Highlighting & Amplification Workshops in addition to specialized support on curation and thematic reporting. And, of course, we’re still learning through our partners about how we can improve and expand all of these services.

Our June 3rd session is the first of many planned partner conversations aimed at connecting around shared areas of practice as we expand and articulate our service offerings, inviting partners in as collaborators.

Learn more about community-engaged sensemaking on LVN and partner websites:

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Cortico is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization led by a multidisciplinary team of experts in community engagement, technology and non-profit management. We strive to meld two elements not typically found in one space: technological innovation and community-centered advocacy. We'd love to keep you up to date on what we're doing!