How to Run a Civic Engagement Event

It's important that the community feel involved in what you are doing. Giving people the chance to come together, voice their opinions and get involved is important. Regularity is the key to this; I think it's important for the community to know that the door is consistently open for them to get involved and have their voices heard. It may take some people-especially artists- a long while before they work up the nerve to jump in. And, of course, some people will try for months before their schedule actually opens up to allow it. I try to host community conversations monthly. There are several ways to go about this, and I'm going to detail a few examples of what we offer along with some instructions.   

One member of our art co-op has been hosting "Community Art Talks" which feature an artist talking about their work- their processes, inspiration, materials, etc. We have a projector and screen so the artist shows slides or their work, and then they take questions from the audience and a lively discussion ensues. We provide coffee and cookies and it is free of charge. This has been a great way for artists to engage with each other and the broader community. The artist who runs the talks, Chase, is particularly interested in making art accessible for the every day human. He calls the talks "Bridging the Gap Between Art and YOU." It's also been a great exercise for the artist to prepare their lecture; for some of the artists it was their first foray into public speaking, and they have described it as being very valuable, and a healthy risk. If you are curious to know more about this model, please ask questions in the comments below.   

We have an annual talk that is specifically for our arts community. It's called "Circle Talk" and it is the kick-off event to our annual springtime celebration All Together Arts Week. We promote the talk like this:   

"An annual networking and friend making event for creative people of all types. Arts organizations and artists of all disciplines (literary, visual, healing, performing, etc.) are welcome. Come to share ideas, meet collaborators, promote your programs, discover resources and find ways we can make our arts scene more vibrant and connected! Let's talk about ways we can collaborate, cross pollinate and unify our creative community!"  

Every year the talk is different, with varying groups of people, but every year it spawns new friendships, collaborations and conversations. This has been a great way to cultivate our arts scene.   

One year, several of the artists expressed a desire to meet more often, and it ended up materializing in a weekly get together that lasted for a couple of years. That group of people evolved to a volunteer organization called "JumpStart" that offered volunteerism to events, brainstormed ways to support local business and even organized some events on their own. So, this type of engagement can prove to be very productive. Even if it doesn't lead to anything, it helps people feel involved and gives them a way to "plug in."   

I host monthly community conversations called Renaissance Rap Sessions, billed like this:   

"Want to talk about downtown development? Want to know what's in store for PRP projects in 2016? Have an idea or conversation topic you'd like to explore? Want to get involved? Join us! Everyone is welcome; the only reqiurement is a positive attitude. If you have a question or idea, bring it with you and we'll talk about it! Please plan to enjoy a cup of coffee, smoothie or snack to support our awesome downtown cafe if you are able. Questions? Feel free to call: 304-320-8833. We hope to see you there!"  

It's the same type of engagement- it basically gives citizens an open door to get involved.   

In order to host a conversation like this, here's what you need to do:    

  1. Identify a facilitator. This person will be responsible for hosting the conversation and devising talking points and/or an agenda.                                                      
  2. One thing that we find important to communicate to people is this: you must understand that when you present an idea, you can't just expect that someone is going to take that idea and make it happen. If you have an idea and want to see it materialize, you must be willing to work to make it so. We've encountered people over the years that think they can just make a suggestion and that the idea would magically manifest. Then, they get upset or even angry when their idea isn't used. It is a good idea to put that sentiment out there in the open from the beginning. Perhaps you could make a handout, or a poster to hang on the wall establishing "group norms" that let people know that their voice will be heard, certainly. But if they have an idea and want to see it happen, they must be willing to help make it happen.    
  3. Pick a venue. We love having our talks at The Local Mo'Joe, our neighborhood coffee shop. It's a great place for us to meet and, of course, it supports the business.  Make sure to clear it with them so they can be prepared, and no other groups are using the space at the same time. It may be possible for a cafe to stay open after hours to accommodate you; if so, make sure you have enough people in attendance to make it worth their time.   
  4. Depending on the size of the circle, sometimes it works best just to bring up topics and have open ended conversation. I like to ask open eded questions like "What do you envision happening creatively in our community?" "How can we make our creative community more interconnected?" "What does an ideal arts district look like to you?" "What challenges do we face here in our creative scene and what are some solutions?" You can get more specific with topics if you are trying to solve a particular problem or plan for a particular project. For instance, if you decided to hold a community conversation around creating a new event or a public work of art, you could ask questions pertaining to that. The idea is to allow people's voices to be heard.                           
  5. When the group is big, it's a good idea to split into small groups so that everyone gets the chance to talk. There's a model called World Cafe, in which you place conversation topics on various cafe tables, and have people rotate from table to table, spending about 15 minutes discussing the topic on that table. One person stays as the "host" of the table, so by the end of the exercise, the participants have been in a group with several different people. After you've rotated through all of the tables, you come together in one big group and have the hosts report what was talked about. Then, a lively discussion should ensue.   
  6. It's the facilitator's job to keep things running smoothly and make sure no one dominates the conversation too much. It can be a challenge if you have one of those types show up- you know, the ones who don't take social cues and talk and talk and talk until everyone is exhausted. I like to keep a nice bell with a beautiful; peaceful yet audible ring tone to gently let someone know if they are taking too long.    
  7. Start the conversation by asking everyone to introduce themselves. It's important to mind the time during this for the same reason I just mentioned; sometimes one person can take 15 minutes to introduce themselves. It's good to set the boundary at about a minute. Let everyone know they have a minute to let the group know who they are, where they're from, why they're here, etc. Let them know that if they exceed the minute they will hear the bell gently ring. I actually ends up investing in an air horn one year for All Together Arts Week due to one particularly verbal participant. It is my hope for you that you never encounter a situation like that. But, in case you do, an air horn is only about $5 at Wal-mart. ;)    
  8. Next, make a flier, a Facebook event page, and make invitations. And keep me posted!   

If you have any questions about how to run a civic engagement event, or want to run any ideas by me, I'd be happy to listen and talk it out with you! Write to me in the messages below or send a private message. Good luck!   

by Lori McKinney  
Creator and Community Organizer
 

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