Hello, all! Long time, no update. I’m emerging from a wild couple-month period at work and finally have some time to catch up and reflect. For now, please enjoy our first Special Guest Post from Gabriel Venditti, my CE colleague here at Shaker. Deconstructed Panels provide a wonderful opportunity for civic engagement for your residents. Gabriel has some great thoughts to share to help others run a similar program just as smoothly. -MK
My name is Gabriel Venditti and I am the Adult Community Engagement Librarian at Shaker Heights Public Library. I was asked to share with you a programming model I’ve come up with that arose as a response to a community need and has since become a valuable tool for engagement.
In the Spring of 2018, we noticed that there was a dramatic uptick in online community debate over the issue of panhandling in one of our few commercial districts. Located at a light rail and bus stop, residents and business owners in the upper middle-class neighborhood were complaining that there was a perceived increase in panhandling activity in that commercial district as it was being redeveloped. New businesses were opening up and with them, increased foot traffic. This increased foot traffic in turn was attracting more panhandlers. As things tend to happen in online forums like NextDoor and Facebook, the conversation became volatile. Commenters were spouting off half-truths and misconceptions and the resulting effect was a community at odds with itself and no experts to provide facts.
Because of this, I started tinkering with the idea of creating a panel talk on the issue of panhandling. However, it was clear from the online debate that the residents in the neighborhood really needed to have their opinions heard. Moreover, it was my personal assessment that a big reason why the online debates devolved was because of the relative anonymity of the forum. I wanted to come up with a new way for residents to have the opportunity to hear from and question authorities on the subject, but also be able to have a dialogue with each other. We needed a model where the audience could not just receive authoritative information, but also actively engage with it. The Deconstructed Panel Model for Community Conversations was the result of these intentions.
First, I should point out which aspects of a traditional panel conversations I felt fell short of our intentions. For a traditional panel, the panelists are at the head of the room, creating a visual distinction and a physical barrier between the panelists and the audience. The audience is typically in theater style seating; with rows of chairs facing the front of the room. With this model, the flow of information is a one-way street. Panelists are presenting to the audience, or rather speaking “at them” as opposed to with them. The audience has very little opportunity to engage and are encouraged not to do so by the layout of the room.
In some of my other work in community network building, the conversation circle is a method that many community groups use to talk about difficult issues. The intention of this conversation model is twofold. First, it encourages eye contact and accountability. You see the person you’re speaking to and just as important, that person sees you. Second, a conversation circle puts everyone on a level playing field and encourages participation. There is no one person who is physically positioned in a way that suggests their opinion or authority is above anyone else. However, what sometimes happens in a conversation circle is that the conversation goes the direction where the group needs an expert to answer a question and they don’t have that option.
THE DECONSTRUCTED PANEL
The Deconstructed Panel Model combines the best qualities of both the panel conversation and the conversation circle, providing both the authoritative knowledge of the panelists with a more engaging method of conversation for both panelists and attendees alike.
In developing your panel, it is important to look at each subject from multiple angles. For our panhandling conversation for example, we had a person who had previously panhandled and was homeless, a police officer, an ACLU lawyer with an expertise in poverty law, a homeless shelter coordinator, and the president for the local Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH). The intent was to have someone in the room who was able to answer questions depending on where the conversation went organically.
For the day of the event, chairs are arranged in a C shape. Panelists are directed to spread themselves out amongst the audience a little before the start time. As your audience arrives, they will fill in the gaps. This setup allows dialogue in every direction, with panel and audience members communicating freely and without barriers between them.
You will need to have a moderator. I will cover the moderator’s role in more detail below. Once everyone has arrived, the moderator welcomes the audience, explains expectations and purpose of the program, and briefly introduces the panelists.
Depending on the topic, it is very valuable to allow specific panelists to briefly tell their story to start things off, giving them 3-5 minutes to talk about their experience. This allows the conversation to start from a point of authenticity. For our conversation on panhandling, I called on our panelist who had panhandled in the past and was formerly homeless.
Once you’ve established that tone of authenticity, it’s the moderator’s job to gently guide the conversation from there. Start in with audience questions right away. Let them respond to the first panelists by asking follow up questions their stories or opinions. It is important throughout the entire conversation, for the moderator to use a light touch. Lay the groundwork from the beginning that you will do your best to allow everyone the opportunity to speak and to ask questions. It is useful to come prepared with a list of questions to keep things going. However, be careful not to dominate or lead the conversation. Let it go where the audience takes it.
Most importantly: be real and present. You may be doing this as an employee, but it does not work if you are inauthentic. Your sincerity is an absolute necessity, but it’s a gentle balance to also not let your emotions/opinions bias the conversation. This is for your audience, not for you.
We’ve had two conversations so far with this method and have more on the way. The responses from attendees thus far have been fantastic. Some of the audience members have been civic leaders, with one City Council member saying, “The library’s conversation last year on panhandling had a lasting impact, as the City is now working with business owners to promote the availability of County services (Frontline) for panhandlers and homeless individuals in our community.”
Audience members have said that they liked “the openness of the dialogue.” One attendee mentioned that she had unexpectedly bumped into one of her neighbors, stating “We had been just neighborly until now, but I was able to connect with her more deeply because… we both attended this conversation.” Even our panelists have expressed that they really appreciated being able to engage in a dialogue with audience members rather than just presenting to them.
The approach is not easy to do, but it can lead to great dialogue and possibly real change in your community, even if it’s just a change in attitude for a few participants. It has become a great tool for us to respond to what our community is already talking about in a responsible and informative way.