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Get People Talking About What They Know Best

By Jeanne Dasaro

NPi is in the process of planning its seventh quarterly community dialogue to be held in February 2010. Now a regular fixture in NPi’s calendar, these events came about quite randomly.

Back in June 2008, with help from advisor Bill Walczak of Codman Square Health Center, NPi gathered together a few community activists who were responsible for breathing new life into Dorchester, Massachusetts back in the 1970s. We asked three simple questions: What was your role in the Dorchester community development projects? What have you learned over the years as a community builder? And finally, what would you share with the next generation of community leaders? Three simple questions that brought about three different, but amazing answers. After this dialogue, we felt that these types of reflections from prominent community leaders were a valuable form of knowledge to share with others and would also complement to NPi’s media. The events could serve as an on-the-ground and in-person model of our work. And so once every couple of months we began bringing together community leaders to share and reflect on their work, talk to each other and attendees about what they know best.

What we realized from the beginning is that these events need to be a conversation, not a presentation to an audience. We avoided the typical panel discussion format since it didn’t allow the same kind of natural conversation to take place, the same personal and valuable information to emerge. So instead of pre-rehearsed presentations and fixed questions, we kept the agenda simple and purposefully limited. We decided just to ask a few open-ended questions and then open the floor up to audience questions. This allowed both the themes and the conversation to expand and contract naturally. While the feedback we receive is positive, this lack of structure and format can create discomfort for some people since it isn’t familiar. With only two or three planned questions though, the events always yield great results in the form of new conversations, ideas, and connections.

What we’ve found is that many people, especially those within the social sector, have a passion for their work and yet very rarely have an opportunity to connect with others who share that same passion in a casual setting where they can freely exchange ideas.

The purpose of NPi events is simply to create that opportunity for people to share knowledge and connect around very loose themes within social change, such as life skills education, internet organizing, youth initiatives, health care, etc. Organizational change expert Patricia Shaw says, “People share a common work and realize there is great benefit to being in relationship, especially if they can see new possibilities.” It’s a simple, but powerful concept. If you’re able to bring together those who share common work, what can develop out of those new relationships is endless.

Further reading: “Conversational Inquiry as an Approach to Organizational Development” by Patricia Shaw, Associate Director of the Complexity and Management Centre, UK. From The Journal of Innovative Management, Winter 2006.

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