Friday, December 30, 2011

Community Dialog on the Occupy Movement

This fall the Anchorage Public Library was approached by a representative from Alaska Common Ground. Their organization had a grant to start a series of community dialogs and were hoping to partner with the library. And so with the added partner of the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service, Let's Talk Alaska was born.

Here I am going to quote our formal introduction:
Let's Talk Anchorage is a joint program of the Anchorage Public Libraries, Alaska Common Ground, and the UAF Cooperative Extension Service. Our vision is a community of citizens who gather easily and often for public dialogue or deliberation on timely topics. LTA can help plan, publicize, and facilitate public gatherings that are welcoming, stimulating, and satisfying.

Our first dialog posed a very simple question: What is the Occupy movement? Without the library or Let's Talk Anchorage taking a stand for or against it, we convened to discuss. The worldwide occupy movement is extremely timely, garners lots of media attention, and has brought their issues to the forefront of our national conversation. Despite all this, there are still many of us (myself included) without a very clear idea of what the Occupy movement is, who they are, what they want, etc. As this event was planned, promoted, and presented I heard over and over again that people wanted to know more. Hey! That's our business as a library! We can do that! And so we did, but we didn't do it alone. We did it with a committee of volunteers, the Let's Talk Anchorage group, facilitators, and others who all pitched in.

This is getting wordy. Let me get down to technical details.

Program Structure
Date: Saturday December 17th; Time: 1pm to 4pm

Set up: 12 tables scattered "randomly" around the room for a World Cafe set up (that is a specific type of facilitated dialog). It turns out I'm not good at setting up tables randomly, I like to line them up in neat rows. Drink table with water, lemonade, coffee, hot water and tea. (I could not keep up with the coffee demands with two 12 cup coffee pots.) Snack table with cookies, crackers, cheese, and mini-oranges. (Snacks and drinks provided by the aforementioned grant money.) The participant tables were covered in butcher paper and participants were provided with markers for writing. (We also had flowers at each table, a very nice touch.)

The idea of World Cafe is that there is no "front" of the room, but we did have a video screen down to show a short film. We begun with quick introductions. The first film was a collection of clips about the Occupy movement edited together as an introduction. Then various members of the Occupy Anchorage group stood up and talked about why they were involved in Occupy Anchorage.

Then a break, an introduction to the World Cafe format and we broke into small group discussions. Each table had a facilitator and ideally 4 to 5 participants. For each 20 minute discussion time period a different question was posed. The facilitator was not there for their own opinions but to keep things civil, flowing, and prevent filibusters.

We framed the discussion around three questions. At the end of each 20 minute period, all the participants got up and moved to a new table for the next question discussion. (Facilitators stayed put). The idea was to find an entirely new table of people to talk to, to mix and remix the participants.

Our three questions:
What about this movement resonates with me?
What about this movement confuses or concerns me?
What do I want to explore and/or discuss more?

Then there was another break and an opportunity for group reflections and a closing.

We had about a two week lead time (or slightly less) for advertising this. I didn't know what to expect. We put out tables for 50, crossed our fingers and hoped for the best. 48 people came! They were primarily Occupy movement supporters (even if not involved in the project) and self-proclaimed "liberals", but we had a legislator and a legislative candidate (Republican nonetheless) come as well.

The evaluation forms were overwhelmingly positive as were the comments I received directly from participants. People were very glad we had the program and excited about the possibility of more. From a library point of view, we were thrilled with the turn out and response of the participants. From the Let's Talk Anchorage point of view, we were thrilled as well.

Overall the entire project was a win. Where there things we learned? Yes. Will we do things differently? Yes. But that is true of every program. We proved civic dialogs will work in our community, there is a market for them. The library has a great reputation as a neutral space and is the perfect venue for this type of community conversation. And such a conversation perfectly aligns with the library's mission to facilitate information transfer. I look forward to working further with Let's Talk Anchorage and hosting more community conversations at our various locations.

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