Community Conversation at Lib_smallCommon Knowledge was originally founded to put a more inclusive “public” in public participation. Over the years, we’ve grown to see it’s equally important to put more “unity” in community.

At Common Knowledge, we’ve designed hundreds of programs and trainings that bring people together to listen together and learn together. This cumulative experience leads us to one powerful conclusion: greater inclusion leads to greater innovation. And much of what we’ve learned has resulted from projects based in California public libraries. Libraries today are uniquely positioned to be the neutral “safe space” for inclusive community conversations that let people connect as humans and learn about what is possible when we listen and learn together.

Our cumulative experience leads us to one powerful conclusion: greater inclusion leads to greater innovation.

Here are three examples of library-based dialogues that sparked meaningful outcomes:

Engaging new voters

The “average” voter has higher education and higher income than the U.S. population as a whole. The Key to Community Project worked to close this education gap by inviting adult students to help design their own program for engaging with civic issues and voting. They started by inviting fellow students to help choose topics they were interested in and co-facilitated dialogues on topics such as jobs, criminal justice and education. These discussions led to significant shifts in perspectives, as one student told me: “My whole world opened up.” Thinking went from “it’s too overwhelming and I don’t have a say” to “hey, we could do something about this. At least I can start by voting.”

The discussions created increased demand for fun, hands-on voting workshops, also facilitated by the adult students. The Key to Community Project also led to the creation of the popular Easy Voter Guide, published for each statewide election in five languages, used over the years by 60 newspapers and thousands of organizations and libraries across the state. Ultimately, though, it was these real, personal and engaged dialogues on topics that the community identified that stimulated the most dramatic increases in voter engagement, including a doubling of turnout among audiences least likely to vote.

Bridging social divides

There’s been a lot of publicity and inflamed public commentary about the tech workforce displacing longer-term residents in the Bay Area. Two years ago, a focus group at the San Francisco Public Library invited tech workers and low-income residents to talk together about the challenges of living in San Francisco. Because the discussion was framed as a human-to-human conversation between equals rather than a polarized debate between “haves” and “have-nots,” participants empathized with each other and came to see that they were all struggling with some aspect of the changing city.

The opportunity to trade stories is powerful. Some of the low-income participants were surprised to discover that the young tech employees were having difficulty affording rent too. One tech worker shared that he camps out at least three nights a month so he can rent his apartment on Airbnb to make extra income. That was his solution to making ends meet. One of the participants who lives in a single room occupancy hotel responded: “Geez, at least I know where I’m going to sleep every night.”

The point of the focus group was not to reach a conclusion or solution about the city’s changing demographics. In the spirit of non-partisan community connections, the session led to a later partnership with library literacy students helping local leaders working in the field of civic tech. Together they tested a “co-discovery” process that puts direct contact with city residents at the heart of civic tech development projects.

Making it safe to talk about housing

Outside of the formal policy-making process, the Novato Public Library provided a “safe” space for community members to come together, share their experiences with housing issues, and learn about the current state of housing and transportation in their county. The attendees included a mix of ages and professions: a nurse, teacher, insurance broker, dog walker, health manager, administrative assistant and others. Their commonality is that they were not organized advocates who already had a strong point of view.

When they were invited to help pilot the “What’s Next Marin?” dialogue, a few expressed concerns based on past dialogues they had attended. “Will I need to wear a flak jacket?” one asked. By the end of the evening, however, the group confirmed that it was “informative” and “gave them hope.” They had a better understanding of how everyone was experiencing current conditions and identified some areas of common ground. They discovered more options for things they themselves could do to help the situation along with ways to get involved in the policy process. They thanked the facilitators for making this “a different kind of meeting.” That pilot launched additional forums at other branches, including a recent session specifically for young adults 21–29.

This fall Common Knowledge is pleased to be piloting Libraries Lead the Way, a comprehensive project-based Community Engagement and Facilitation Skills Training program, with public libraries across Northern California. We will keep you posted about the great examples of local leadership and what else we are learning at the library. And we invite you to support public libraries’ efforts to create and sustain community connections.

Inclusive Community Conversations generate three kinds of learning:

  1. About the issue: A more thorough and nuanced understanding beyond the oversimplified “good/bad” dialectic.
  2. About others: A fuller understanding of the experiences and things cherished by fellow community members.
  3. About one’s own role: A clearer sense of positive possibilities we can each contribute to.

In today’s environment, though it’s easy to despair about increasing divisions over income, housing, and political stances, what I’ve seen and experienced in public libraries makes me more hopeful than ever that it is possible to find common ground on common concerns.