With a vase of flowers sitting in the middle of a circle of chairs, a small group of Sacramento residents from all walks of life gathered to discuss a sensitive topic: The meaning of home.

This scene repeated itself several times over the past year in community spaces all over Sacramento. These conversations were part of a series of Story Circles run by Capital Public Radio, the city’s public radio station.

Story Circles are guided discussions that encourage participants to share stories about their experiences. Capital Public Radio adopted the format to help build engagement around its coverage of housing.

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to examine why Capital Public Radio decided to experiment with Story Circles, how the station went about hosting the gatherings, and how it hopes to continue to iterate on its approach to in-person gatherings.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Solutions Journalism Network. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one thought-provoking thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.

You can now also get Solution Set delivered each week via text message. I send subscribers our weekly report, plus some added resources and a sneak peek at upcoming issues. You can also ask me questions or share your experiences directly via text. This week’s issue is coming out on Friday. You can sign up by clicking here or by texting SOLUTION to (215) 544–3524.

We’re going to spend the next couple weeks studying different approaches to in-person gatherings. If there’s anything specifically you’d like to know or examples you’d like to share from your own experiences, please email, text, or tweet me. I learned about Capital Public Radio’s Story Circles because jesikah maria ross, who ran the program, reached out on Twitter. I really do appreciate it when people get in touch!

Here’s the TLDR:


The Challenge: Capital Public Radio wanted to find ways to reach new audiences and bring communities together to talk about housing issues.

The Strategy: The station partnered with community groups to host Story Circles, in-person gatherings that encouraged participants from all over the city to share their experiences with housing.

The Numbers: 82 percent of Story Circle participants said they met people they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to know and were exposed to new perspectives.

The Lessons: By inviting people to share their stories, community members can help inform your news organizatons’ reporting.

The Future: The station trained community groups to continue facilitating Story Circles while it experiments with new in-person gathering formats.

Want to know more?: jesikah maria ross, who ran the Story Circles for the station, put together a phenomenal guide that will walk you through how to host a Story Circle in great detail. Scroll down for the link.

The Challenge

Sacramento is an expensive place to live, and it’s only getting costlier. The median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in California’s capital city was $1,695 earlier this spring, an 8.2 percent increase from the previous year  — about triple the average national increase.

Cost of living has become an issue that affects Sacramento residents in all walks of life, and the city’s public radio station, Capital Public Radio, has in recent years devoted significant coverage  to housing.

The station has a unit called The View from Here, which focuses on documentary style reporting and community engagement, and that team produced an eight-part podcast and hour-long radio documentary on the topic. It also did some online community building.

But jesikah maria ross,Capital Public Media’s senior community engagement specialist, wanted to find additional ways to bring together communities around this issue. Working with journalists from the station and representatives from community organizations, ross decided to find another way into the story to address it.

“For the affordable housing crisis project, I was working in collaboration with six community partners and our team of journalists in thinking through how might we engage the communities who are hit hardest and how might we bring together those communities with our public radio audiences to have conversations and experiences to allow people who might otherwise not meet each other to share stories and figure out what they would like to do going forward,” ross said.

The Strategy

Working with the community organizations, Capital Public Radio decided last year to hold a series of community gatherings called Story Circles.

Story Circles are facilitated discussions that bring people from different backgrounds together to have conversations about specific issues affecting the community. (I’ll talk more in the Lessons about how the station learned about the format.)

Capital Public Radio held Story Circles in neighborhoods around the city. They aimed for lower income communities. The partner community group invited half of the attendees and the station invited the other half. They also saved a handful for groups that required special outreach, such as youth leaders, developers, or city officials.

“There was a lot of intentional curation in partnership between Capital Public Radio and the original six community partners,” ross said.

Each event began with appetizers and time for participants to mingle before the formal programming began. They also created a Story Booth, where participants could be recorded sharing their thoughts about housing issues. Capital Public Radio then would share those stories on social media and also share a copy of the material with the attendee.

After about 30 minutes of socializing, the actual Story Circle began. The participants all sat in chairs in the middle of the room that were organized in a circle facing one another. The facilitator asked everyone to turn off their phones and then they all went around the circle introducing themselves and why they care about the issue of housing.

The facilitator then explained the purpose of the event and started a short conversation about what makes a good story. The facilitator made it clear that participants did not have to share a story if they didn’t want to; it was okay to just sit and  listen. They then shared a few prompts that encouraged participants to “Tell a story about a time when…”

  • Having a home made a difference in your life.
  • You realized how other people perceive the place you call home.
  • You felt a sense of belonging – or the opposite – in your neighborhood?

The participants then went around and shared their story with the full group. In larger Story Circles, the participants split up into smaller groups to share their stories.

After sharing the stories, the participants paired off to discuss what they heard and how it made them feel. They then came back together as the full group to share their thoughts and debrief.

In total, the Story Circle events ran for two and a half hours.

Earlier this year, ross expanded the program to include more community partners. She ran a series of trainings for facilitators from the local organizations so they could run their own story circles. She received a grant to add more community partners, run the training program, and write a guide. (More on the guide in Want to Know More?)

The Numbers

The initial series of Story Circles each had between eight to 10 participants. After expanding the program in its work with the other community organizations, the second set of Story Circles included up to 50 attendees.

Capital Public Radio produced six Story Circles with twelve different partner organizations. (The full list of partners is here on page 18.) ross trained 16 community facilitators to run Story Circles.

The Story Circles can cost up to $500 each to run. The cost can vary depending on the space, the price for food, and whether you need to pay facilitators. For Capital Public Radio, the community organizations it worked with often donated the space and station staffers would lead and help manage the discussions. Capital Public Radio also covered child care during the Story Circles.

There were typically four staffers at each event. ross would facilitate the Story Circle, someone  from one of the community partners would participate and share a story, and two interns helped run the Story Booth and take notes on the proceedings. These stories were then shared on Instagram and the station’s website.

After each Story Circle, Capital Public Radio also did an evaluation and conducted a survey with the participants

91 percent of participants said they were inspired to act on the issue by staying in touch with people they met at the event or getting involved in projects dealing with housing issues.

89 percent of participants said they planned to discuss what they learned at the Story Circle with family or friends.

And 82 percent of participants said they met people they wouldn’t typically meet and were exposed to new perspectives.

The Lessons

• Let the community inform your reporting: Capital Public Radio was quite intentional about documenting the Story Circles and measuring their impact. There was always someone taking notes during the sessions, and the station worked with Lindsay Green-Barber of Impact Architects to measure how the Story Circles affected the participants.

I mentioned some of the results from the survey in The Numbers, but here were a couple other findings that ross shared with me:

  • Prior to the Story Circles, about one-third of participants said Capital Public Radio was sometimes a source of news and information, but one-quarter of the participants said they had never heard of the station.
  • Afterward, 54 percent said they’d visit Capital Public Radio’s website to learn more about the housing issue, and 26 percent said they’d be interested in becoming a station member.

ross shared that data back with the station, and she said it’s had an impact across the organization. “That data turns heads,” she said.

In the newsroom, the feedback has helped get buy-in from the newsroom to take on this kind of journalism. The conversations inspired a new reporting project on suicide in rural areas, ross said.

“There’s a lot more interest, support, and discussion in our newsroom and I think that’s because of all of this really powerful data coming out of our Story Circles. It’s the difference between me giving anecdotes and saying, ‘This is awesome people. We should do more!’  to saying, ‘Hey, look how it shifted people’s perception,’” ross said.

The membership team, meanwhile, has looked at this information and seen an opportunity to reach new audiences that can support Capital Public Radio’s work.

“It costs money to do evaluation, and it costs money to do these circles, but when I go to our CFO and our membership people and say look at this data about how it changes perceptions about becoming a member or about how they’re going to access us, that changes the perception on whether they should give more resources to this work,” she said.

• ‘Radical hospitality’: When organizing the Story Circles, ross took steps to make sure that the environment was welcoming.

That’s why she made a point to get food and also put flowers and candles in the middle of the circle where all the participants were sitting.

“That’s my specialty — radical hospitality,” ross said. “The atmosphere you set up when people first walk in the door has a huge impact. People don’t remember data, but they’ll remember the feeling they have.”

And she said she hoped the attendees would feel that “we’ve designed something special for them.”

ross’ goal was that by feeling happy and welcome, attendees would be more willing to share their stories.

“It opens up people to what we’re going to do in the circles, to have an honest, frank, and emotional border-crossing conversation,” she said.

• Don’t reinvent the wheel: Capital Public Radio’s Story Circles were based on a methodology  ross learned from Roadside Theater, a program in Appalachia that promotes community storytelling, where she used to work. She was also aware of a group called U.S. Department of Arts and Culture that runs its own Story Circles.

So when ross was thinking through ways to broaden the discussion in Sacramento about housing, she recalled the Story Circles format and decided to use the format at Capital Public Radio to discuss housing issues.

“[They] allow people who wouldn’t otherwise meet each other to share stories and figure out what they would like to do moving forward,” she said.

There’s no need to always build things from scratch. It’s worthwhile to look at different engagement methods that have worked in other communities and see if they’d be applicable to what  you’re trying to accomplish. (That’s kind of the point of Solution Set, tbh.)

The Future

ross has spent the past two or so years creating the Story Circles program, and she’s decided to take a break from the format for the time being.

Over the summer, she ran trainings for community groups so they’ll be able to run their own versions of the Story Circles. But for Capital Public Radio, she’s looking to find different ways to bring people together IRL.

She’s already experimented by using clips from a podcast to drive in-person conversations. ross also said she’d like to try to adapt the world cafe methodology for Capital Public Radio.

“What I’m trying to do, for myself here at Capital Public Radio and for the field, is build out a menu of different community convening methodologies…with a sense of the resources and time involved and how they achieve slightly different goals.”

Want to know more?

• Want even more detail on how to run your own Story Circle? Check out this step-by-step guide ross wrote about the process of hosting one.

• Current wrote a terrific profile of Capital Public Radio’s Story Circles earlier this year. I learned a lot from the story.

• Your Voice Ohio, a collaborative covering the Buckeye State, also used in-person gatherings to take on tough issues. Learn more from this issue of Solution Set.

Anything to add?

How’s your newsroom using in-person gatherings to bring people together? Are you using events as a revenue generator? Have you tried an even that totally flopped?

I want to hear about your experiences.

Email, text, or tweet me.

See you next Thursday!

Photos provided by Capital Public Radio.

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