Insights on curating conversations across difference, supporting civic engagement at the edges and building capacity for grassroots dialogue and action
In the Peterborough area, our community is changing. We know this in part because there’s data that tells us a story of change – our population is growing, we’re urbanizing, we’re becoming more diverse, our economy is shifting – but we experience this change first and foremost in our day-to-day lives.
Teenagers who crave shawarma after class. Neighbours sharing new languages and recipes. Earnest ideas stuffing empty factories. Placards waving in public spaces. Increased traffic zipping past our homes. Long bus rides to school. Roads and houses built where we used to play. Churches for sale. New condos in old, empty buildings.
How we feel about these changes depends on where we’re standing. It’s almost always a mix of anxiety, excitement, dread, nostalgia, despair, optimism, outrage, courage, surprise, and, perhaps, love. Love for our community, for everything that it is and everything that it could be.
Change is happening; that is certain, and so is the fact that we often disagree about how to deal with it. Where some see development, others see destruction. Where some see opportunity, others see exploitation. Where some see efficiency, others see loss. What we need to do as a community is to understand the changes we’re facing and find ways to work together, to use our different experiences and perspectives to find the best way forward for all of us. That’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a task that calls us to take a step back, look at the big picture and have some hard conversations.
That’s exactly what happened in Peterborough in the fall of 2017. In the face of growing polarization, cynicism and high-stakes change, more than 750 friends, neighbours and colleagues sat around a table to share a meal and have a conversation about the things that really matter in our community. We talked about how many new jobs in our community are low-paid positions like food service workers, and what it means to have a population that’s growing in the city and shrinking in the county. We talked about whether kids growing up in Peterborough will want to live here as adults. We talked about belonging, how it feels and who gets left out. And we talked about what actions we can take today, big or small, that will help build up the vitality of our community in the long-term.
This was Vital Conversations: a civic engagement initiative led by the Community Foundation of Greater Peterborough in collaboration with the Atkinson Foundation. It started from observations about our community; we noticed that change was causing a great deal of tension. That tension has sparked some important local movements, but it has also chipped away at the social and political fabric of our community. Whether about closing schools, paving over parks or building casinos, every big decision is causing fissures to snake across our community. Divisions of age, class, location and income are entrenching the idea that difference is inherently hostile. Public dialogue seems to be growing thin, peppered with false information, lacking in nuance and context, silencing key voices. At the same time, there are growing demands for more responsive leadership and more community involvement in decision making, and those demands are getting louder.
Vital Conversations grew out of a need to nurture the civic arts in Peterborough, including dialogue, participation and critical thinking. We wanted to know if it’s possible for people who share a love of community to connect across difference, especially where there’s disagreement. How could we bring more people into civic spaces? What would it take to build our collective capacity for truly meaningful civic engagement?
We went out in to the community and we listened to people at the grassroots , in neighbourhood associations, faith groups, sports leagues and non-profit organizations, people who are advocates, activists, organizers and teachers. We were inspired by initiatives that were exploring similar terrain, seeking ways of working through – not around – difference to spark real human connection and meaningful community engagement. The On Being Project, The People’s Supper and One Table were a few of our favourites. Sally Kohn’s Ted Talk on emotional correctness, Shakhil Choudhury’s book Deep Diversity, and a 2016 convocation address from James Ryan, Dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, were some of the influences that shaped our approach.
Based on what we learned through research, community consultation and a series of focus groups (where we tested and refined six prototypes), we developed the Vital Conversations Card Game, a unique tool for facilitating conversations. We asked people in our community to host a small group of friends, neighbours or colleagues to share a meal and play the card game. The meal could be simple, a potluck in the park, coffee at a favourite cafe, or lunch around the kitchen table, and there was funding available for people who wanted to host but were concerned they couldn’t afford to do it.
The response was incredible. Ordinary people signed up as conversation hosts, the kinds of people who coach hockey teams or volunteer at their kid’s school, who cut their neighbour’s grass, support local businesses or donate to the foodbank. There was Anna who cooked dinner for her neighbours, and Jane who booked the common space in her apartment building. Cindy used her birthday party as an occasion to play the game. Max brought some fellow grad students together over pizza and beer. Zebiba organized three conversation groups at her mosque. Sylvia invited youth to join a few seniors at a local retirement home. Allies and advocates in local organizations serving youth, people experiencing homelessness, artists, newcomers and people with disabilities hosted conversations, amplifyingthe voices of those who are often marginalized in civic spaces.
They are the heroes of this story – the everyday people who stepped up to host the conversations. We gave them a tool and some simple guidelines and they did the rest. Because of their leadership, 109 conversations were held in the region over the course of a month. In total, over 750 people participated. People told us that they loved the opportunity to sit down, slow down, and have a meaningful conversation. They told us that they learned a lot about their community. They said that they made new connections and gained new perspectives. Most people walked away better equipped for community dialogue, empowered to take action in the community.
Those 109 conversations generated 654 ideas for actions that could help build a better future for our community. Despite our unique perspectives, despite our individual sense of what community is and the differences in our experiences and identities, there was a great deal of common ground in those ideas. So much, in fact, that we were able to summarize the ideas into a list of just ten community priorities – our community’s to-do list – published as 10 things to do to build a vital community.
Reading the ideas, notes and comments that came from each of those conversations is incredibly inspiring and deeply moving. There’s an authentic passion and dedication that emanates from those words, whether they were scrawled by hand or typed out in orderly bullet points. While there is anger, frustration and confusion in those notes, there is also hope, excitement and an earnest willingness to dig in. The responses from those 109 conversations made it powerfully obvious how much people truly care about our community.
Vital Conversations grew out of discussions around better ways to engage more people in community building. Along the way, we kept asking ourselves: is dialogue even possible? Can we actually build bridges across difference? Do people care enough to have hard conversations and get involved in new ways? Are there ways to tap into the experiences and knowledge of people who are disengaged and under-engaged? The feedback from Vital Conversations helped answer those questions – in short, yes! Vital Conversations also gave us valuable insight into how people understand and experience our community, what their hopes for our shared future look like and how we can build it together.
We learned that our local connections to grassroots and non-profit organizations are an invaluable resource worth investing in. We saw how significant peer-to-peer relationships can be in motivating community engagement; people who are connected to neighbours, friends and groups are more likely to participate. We noticed that capacity building works best in action, and over the long-term. We discovered that we needed to know more about the complicated ways that individuals form private opinions and behave in public spaces, and what barriers are actually getting in the way of civic engagement. We saw some promising signs that simply reminding people that ‘we can be different in some ways and the same in others’ helps pave the way for small patches of common ground to emerge.
But perhaps the most important thing we learned, was that people truly care about their community and they genuinely want to make a difference. That’s a powerful common denominator and a compelling antidote to cynicism and disconnection. Our communities are changing — for better and for worse. We experience those changes in unique ways in our day-to-day lives. We each feel differently about it, and we disagree about the best way forward. That’s a challenging environment to navigate. But a shared love for community and desire to make our communities better places (even if we disagree on what that looks like) is a remarkable place to start.