How journalists can use creativity, compassion, and community to solve ‘gnarly’ challenges

Over the course of two days in October 2018, more than 130 people gathered at a Seattle co-working space to have a community dialogue around the city’s challenges with homelessness. 

Participants included civic and business leaders, community group representatives, individuals experiencing homelessness, and journalists. But the ideas wasn’t that the journalists would cover the event, instead they were there to learn from the attendees. 

“[We wanted the journalists to] have that more hands-on experience of interacting with people with the belief that what would come out of it for them would be story ideas and potentially new sources and certainly new ways of looking at an old story that wasn’t getting dealt with very successfully by our city,” said Peggy Holman, co-founder of Journalism That Matters, an organization that works with newsrooms to develop engagement strategies and a co-organizer of the event. 

This week in Solution Set we’re looking at how Journalism That Matters co-organized the event covering homelessness, what it learned from the experience, and how journalists can adopt similar strategies for other complicated topics.  

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday (or on Fridays when I miss my deadline — oops), we take an in-depth look at one awesome thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources. 


 

Here’s the TLDR: 


TLDR

• The Challenge: Homelessness is an intractable problem in Seattle, and a group of journalists, business, tech figures, and civic leaders wanted to hold a gathering to devise solutions. 

• The Strategy: Led by Journalism That Matters, The Evergrey, a local co-working space, and others, the group convened for a two-day event in October 2018 called Mobilizing Creativity, Compassion, and Community to Solve Homelessness.

• The Numbers: 135 people participated over two days. Most of those surveyed six months afterward said the M3C events changed their thinking and actions around homlessness. 

• The Lessons: By making sure that the event was inclusive and that differing viewpoints could be comfortably expressed, the organizers created a more conducive environment for actually facilitating change.

• The Future: Journalism That Matters published a report on what it learned and has received interest from other communities. 

Want to know more?: Scroll down to read Journalism That Matters’ report on the project along with other examples of in-person community engagement.

• Anything to add?: Join us for News Book Club on Feb. 12. Scroll down for all the details about our next read: “She Said.”   


The Challenge

In June 2018, former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice wrote an op-e in The Seattle Times calling for a citywide summit on homelessness. “Successful civic engagement based in a community with a desire to bring social change can only come about in an honest, open and authentic process built on the words, hearts and minds of citizens,” Rice wrote

Homelessness is a growing issue in Seattle, and after reading Rice’s story, Seattle-area resident Peggy Holman decided she wanted to host such a summit. Holman is the co-founder of Journalism That Matters, a nonprofit that uses in-person community conversations to foster civic dialogues. 

“A light bulb went off,” Holman told me. “Summits are essentially what I do. That’s the conferences that Journalism That Matters have hosted for years…it’s the essence of the kind of engagement work that I both do and that we have spread through Journalism That Matters: How do you deal with complex or conflicting issues in constructive and creative ways?”

Around the same time, the Seattle location of Social Impact Hub, a co-working space with a social justice focus, was hosting events around the issue as well. Monica Guzman, who was then the editor of The Evergrey, WhereByUs’ newsletter in Seattle, wrote about Social Impact Hub’s plans. Holman read the newsletter and Guzman connected her with leadership at Social Impact Hub. They began discussing a possible collaboration. 

Together, Journalism That Matters, Social Impact Hub, The Evergrey, and a handful of other local groups decided to launch a pilot project in fall 2018. (We’ll discuss how it works in The Strategy.) 

As the discussions of the pilot progressed, Holman also reached out to Yve Susskind, co-owner of Praxis Associates, a research firm that works with civic-focused organizations to plan and assess engagement efforts. 

The project evolved throughout the planning period, but ultimately they decided to focus on a research process to understand the impact of one-off engagement events and to assess how these types of gatherings can help news organizations tackle “gnarly issues,” as they coined it. 

“This kind of engagement is happening. It’s having impact,” Susskind said. “If journalism wants to be relevant and part of solutions then get involved.”


The Strategy

The event was held over two days in October 2018. Titled Mobilizing Creativity, Compassion, and Community to Solve Homelessness — the 3Cs. 

A group of six or eight people met in the weeks leading up to the event to plan and structure the gathering. They decided to focus the work on the creativity, compassion, and community as a way to encourage participants to listen and understand one another while imagining what’s possible to change things as opposed to just focusing on the challenges. 

They also wanted to intentionally include a cross section of community members to make sure that the conversation was equitable, inclusive, and conversational. Journalists were invited to attend, but they came as participants — not as reporters covering it.

“[We wanted the journalists to] have that more hands-on experience of interacting with people with the belief that what would come out of it for them would be story ideas and potentially new sources and certainly new ways of looking at an old story that wasn’t getting dealt with very successfully by our city,” Holman said.

To that end, the organizers planned two different conversation styles for each day. 

The first part of the event took place for three hours on a Friday evening as a World Cafe-style gathering. Participants were broken into small groups and were given discussion prompts to guide their conversations

The discussion questions were: 

  1. Tell me about a time when housing made a difference in your life.
  2. What does being at home mean to you? 
  3. What moves you now?

The second half of the event was a day-long gathering on Saturday. That was organized around Open Space Technology principles, which afford participants the opportunity to drive conversation topics around a central theme. 

“The result of it is that people get to have the conversation they want to have,” Holman said. “That accomplishes a couple of things when you’re dealing with a potential conflict of having people with very different attitudes in the room. If they’re talking about what they really want to be talking about, their differences, rather than becoming a source of friction, become a source of creativity.”

Discussion topics included: 

  • Vision: What would it look like if everyone was cared for?
  • What can I learn about homelessness in a 5 minute walk around Impact Hub?
  • What are the root causes of homelessness and what we can do to prevent them?
  • What have the homeless learned that EVERYONE should learn?
  • What if it is about creativity, community, and compassion? And what if it is us?
  • What’s working and how do we know?
  • How do we bring “anti-homeless” organizers into spaces talking about solutions?
  • How do we share belonging with our friends outside?
  • How might individuals support someone successfully toward housing stability?

The Numbers

135 people in total attended the two events — 89 came to the World Cafe gathering, 25 to the full-day Open Space Technology discussion, and 21 attended both. 

Only 3% of attendees were journalists. For comparison, 21% of participants worked in the civic, faith, or other advocacy fields and 18% were business owners. 7% of attendees said that they had personally experienced homelessness, and another 13% said they had friends or family who had experienced homelsessness. 

Journalism That Matters commissioned a report on the event. There was a brief survey conducted at the event, and six months after the event, Susskind sent a survey to participants via email to learn if and how the conversations influenced participants’ opinions on homelessness in Seattle. About 20 people, or 15% of participants, responded to the email survey. And follow up interviews were conducted with 10 attendees. 

Eighteen of the 20 respondents said they took some sort of action after the event to address the homeless crisis. On average, respondents said they took four actions as a result of the events. Those actions included sharing information with their existing community or religious groups, volunteering, or writing articles about their experiences. 

However, Susskind cautioned against reading too much into the figures because they did not come from a random sample. She also said she wasn’t able to follow subsequent impact of the actions. 

“We didn’t follow the ripples,” she said.” If we had our druthers and more funding that would be the next thing to do to see how far did this thing rippled out, but I do think it was surprising that there was the degree of action taken that there was.” 


The Lessons

• Be inclusive: By working with a diverse group of partners, the organizers tried to make sure that the event and conversations were representative of everyone impacted by the homeless crisis. 

But beyond making sure the right people were in the room, the organizers intentionally designed the event to make sure the conversations were generative, meaning that they looked at problems in new ways and tried to build momentum toward change.

“When our discourse is generative, we learn and adapt because our interactions influence and expand our sense of the possible,” Holman wrote. “It’s that exciting feeling of discovering a new way of relating to others and the world around us. When we feel stuck in habits that aren’t serving us well, generative discourse helps us discover new ideas. That is what we design for when we engage for emergence.”

Half of the survey respondents said other discussions in Seattle around homelessness were divisive and often devolved into open conflict or bullying. That type of environment is not conducive to productive discussion and only serves to entrench people’s viewpoints.

That didn’t happen this time. 

“Instead, there was this creativity and this deep connection as people listened to each other’s stories,” Susskind said. “That blossomed into these new narratives. Not so much for the people who were experiencing homelessness who were there, but new narratives for the people who had not experienced homelessness before. A new way of understanding and thinking about it, and for the people who had experienced homelessness, a new opportunity to share.”

• Change takes time: Journalists and news organizations can help facilitate events like this and build space for generative discussions to tackle issues such as homelessness, Holman and Susskind said. 

Approaches such as solutions journalism can help illustrate policies and approaches that make a difference and reporters can connect the dots for audiences to show trends and patterns. 

These behaviors often require a change in thinking for newsrooms, however. One of the reporters who attended the M3Cs gatherings said they helped her rethink what coverage of the issue could look like by having it “move from seeing homelessness as their problem to homelessness is our problem.” 

But when the researchers followed up with the reporter six months after the gatherings, she still hadn’t changed her reporting processes. 

To facilitate generative conversations, Holman and Susskind recommended that journalists can help illustrate the complex nature of topics such as homelessness 

“Perhaps they needed some help imagining the possibilities for what reporters can do besides cover events,” the report said. “They may have also needed to see more evidence of the value to their organization to doing so.” 

• Just start!: Journalism That Matters, Impact Hub Seattle, The Evergrey, and its partners initially had bigger plans for the M3C events. 

They envisioned a series of regular conversations in neighborhoods across the city with scheduled citywide meetings at Impact Hub to discuss broader trends related to homelessness. They had also had planned to follow up with more in-depth research on the events. 

Funding for the events didn’t pan out though, so they were only able to hold the two-day gathering in October 2018 and then conduct the limited follow-up research. 

Instead of waiting for more funding, they plowed ahead with what they could, instead changing the focus to try and understand the benefit of holding one-time engagement events. 

“It was unexpectedly rich,” Susskind said. “I didn’t think we would learn as much as we did or see as much impact as we had.”

Even when things don’t go as planned it’s worthwhile to be flexible and pivot to new ideas as you’ll still likely learn something or be able to produce meaningful work even if it isn’t as ambitious in scope as you would have originally liked. 


The Future

Holman and Susskind envisioned holding additional events with Impact Hub, but a leadership change at the co-working space altered those plans. 

Last month, Journalism That Matters published the report it commissioned from Susskind and Praxis Associates. And since its publication Susskind and Holman have been having conversations with people around the country hoping to do similar projects. 

Journalism That Matters is also working on developing workshops and coaching tools for journalists to work on these kinds of engagement experiences. It’s also starting to think about how it can work with journalists to help them better report on community events that don’t “flatten” the narratives. 

“How do you write the story that gives the dimensionality and the complexity of the kind of mindset shift that happens when you experience this kind of event?” Holman said. “There’s an art to that that we need to learn.”


Want to know more?

• Here’s the full report Susskind and evaluation assistant Greta Anderson wrote about the project. It includes a number of excellent recommendations for how journalists can support this kind of engagement and how engagement like this can help transform journalism. (You can read Holman’s Medium summary here.)  

• I’ve written about a number of other outlets who have used in-person gatherings to hold challenging conversations with their communities. Here are a few of those stories: 

  • Sacramento’s Capital Public Radio used “radical hospitality” to bring people together to discuss that city’s housing crunch. 
  • Your Voice Ohio is a group that works with journalists and community leaders to hold conversations on issues confronting the state. In 2018, I wrote about how they led conversations on the state’s opioid epidemic.
  • LA’s KPCC holds regular lunch events, called Feeding the Conversation, that it uses to help inform coverage of marginalized communities.  

Anything to add?

Our next News Book Club meeting will be on Wednesday February 12 at 1pm. We’ll be meeting via Zoom call to discuss ‘She Said” by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. It is a masterclass in investigative journalism, and I can’t wait to discuss it with you. 

You can add the event to your Google calendar by clicking here. Please also feel free to join our Slack group or you can discuss things on Twitter with the hashtag #NewsBookClub. 

Learn more about the Book Club by visiting newsbook.club.

Have a great weekend! 

Creative Commons photo of Seattle’s Pioneer Square by ElTico68.

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