Story Circles: Contact Zones for Deep Listening

Participating in a Capital Public Radio Story Circle in August 2017, Harold Garcia describes how he survived on the streets. He now lives in an affordable housing community. Vanessa Nelson/Capital Public Radio

Like many cities across the country, Sacramento, California, is grappling with an affordable-housing crisis. We’ve had the fastest rising rents in the nation for two years in a row. We have record-high home prices, a skyrocketing homeless population and intensifying gentrification and displacement. We also have many neighborhoods of color that for years have been overlooked due to historic housing policies and a lack of economic opportunity.

In other words, residents from all walks of life in Sacramento are affected by the shortage of affordable housing, just in different ways. But there isn’t a place where this diverse range of community members can come together and find common ground.

Capital Public Radio, where I work as senior community engagement strategist, responded to the crisis by spending the past year digging into the history, politics and economics of housing affordability in California’s capital. We produced The View From Here: Place And Privilege, an eight-part podcast, hourlong radio documentary and online community platform.

To go beyond sharing content on-air and online, CapRadio tried something different. I organized “Story Circles” that brought wildly diverse residents face to face in intimate settings to talk about housing, hear one another and envision the way forward. It was an experiment in deep listening, radical hospitality and bridge-building. The results were astounding.

Story Circle participant Louis Mirante urges others to say “yes in our backyard” to new housing construction of all kinds. Vanessa Nelson / Capital Public Radio

A Story Circle is pretty much what it sounds like — a group of people sitting together and sharing personal experiences on a theme guided by a facilitator. In CapRadio’s Story Circles, I invited participants to tell a story about when having a home made a difference in their lives.

This deceptively simple process opened participants up to each other’s struggles, fears and dreams, creating an emotional intimacy and social bonding among people who usually wouldn’t be in the same room. Afterwards, group members explored what they heard and what it means. By the end, people saw both real differences and things their stories had in common. Most of all, they’d met people with different opinions, listened generously to their viewpoints and left with new insights.

One participant summed it up this way: “I’m coming away tonight with a more complete picture of Sacramento’s housing crisis because, frankly, there are a lot of people — people who experience homelessness, for example — that I don’t come in contact with in my daily life. And … hearing their stories and learning their struggles is, I think, a very important aspect that I didn’t have enough of before tonight.”

Designing for diversity

CapRadio partnered with 12 community organizations to co-host six Story Circles. I designed these events so that each gathering included residents with very different life experiences and perspectives on housing. Community partners brought homeless and low-income renters, social-service providers, activists who are people of color, affordable-housing advocates and developers to the gatherings.

CapRadio brought affluent, white homeowners — representative of our core audience — by marketing the events on-air and via our social media channels. I also recruited millennials from the regional YIMBY (Yes In My Backyard) group, business leaders, local government staffers and building-industry executives to participate in the Story Circles. We held these gatherings at affordable-housing complexes, community centers and public schools in low-income neighborhoods throughout Sacramento.

Public-housing residents and Capital Public Radio listeners share personal experiences about housing and belonging in a September 2017 Story Circle at Leataata Floyd Elementary in Sacramento. Vanessa Nelson / Capital Public Radio

Story Circle groups were kept small to promote intimacy and honest storytelling. We set the chairs in a circle with flowers and candles at the center to spark interpersonal engagement and convey a beautiful and inviting atmosphere. (Attention to beauty, radical hospitality and intentional curation are three of my core strategies for encounter design.) CapRadio staff personally greeted guests and introduced them to others in the room as they got dinner and sat down, creating a welcoming and inclusive vibe.

The Story Circles were two-and-a-half hours long. They began with thirty minutes to mingle and share a meal, as well as an opportunity to participate in CapRadio’s storybooth: a mobile portrait studio where guests could have a professional photo taken and write down their views regarding housing and home. The Storybooth closed during the story-sharing activities and reopened after the closing reflection for anyone who had not had a chance to contribute their ideas.

We collected the images and photos, sent participants complimentary copies of their portraits and posted images with text to the Community Voice section of the Place and Privilegewebsite and on The View From Here’s Instagram feed and Facebook page. The vast majority of Story Circle attendees — 85 percent — participated in the Storybooth.

Wanda Lewis gets her photo taken in Capital Public Radio’s mobile storybooth. jesikah maria ross / Capital Public Radio

During the Story Circles, participants shared, in turn, a personal story illuminating the role of housing in their lives. Then they broke into trios to discuss themes and patterns. The full group reconvened to identify insights, epiphanies and action steps. To close, I recorded audio of participants reflecting on what they took away from the experience, and each completed a brief, anonymous survey. We offered everyone a flower from the bouquet and mobile phone wallets with personalized thank-you cards tucked inside as gifts.

We staffed the Story Circles with four people: a community partner, myself and two CapRadio community engagement interns. We all participated in setting up the events, greeting people and getting to know them. Our community partner began the events with opening remarks and told the first story. I facilitated the circle while one intern staffed the StoryBooth and the other took notes to share back with our newsroom and our project evaluator. Each event cost about $400 for food, flowers, supplies and child care.

What we learned

To assess CapRadio’s Story Circle outcomes, I administered participant surveys, recorded reflections and observed while Lindsay Green-Barber of Impact Architects interviewed community partners and analyzed the data. Here’s what we discovered:

  • 82 percent of participants said they met people with whom they wouldn’t normally connect and heard diverse perspectives and life experiences.
  • 83 percent reported an increased awareness about local housing challenges, the root causes of the crisis and potential solutions.
  • 83 percent said their empathy for others increased.
  • 89 percent said they planned to talk to friends and family about the stories they had heard, the issues and solutions.
  • 91 percent said they were inspired to act, which they described as staying connected with others at the event, getting involved in projects they learned about, or writing publicly elected officials.

Many participants said they appreciated the rare opportunity to explore ideas with people who are different from them. As one participant put it: “What I gained from this event was just really the multiple perspectives. I mean, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t be interacting with a lot of the folks here. I think just being put in a situation where everyone is kind of on equal footing you’re in this circle. You just kind of just chat it up. And after a few minutes it really feels like they are your neighbors or people you like.”

While each Story Circle generated unique stories based on the mix of community members present, common themes emerged across the events. The top three that Impact Architects identified included:

Commonality. Community members — whether dealing with homelessness, experiencing difficulty finding affordable housing or concerned generally about the crisis in the region — expressed surprise at the similarity of their experiences. Community members expressed a desire for more opportunities to have conversations across perceived divides in order to deepen this sense of commonality and shared humanity.

Stigma. Participants attributed society’s poor treatment of people dealing with homelessness to a lack of contact across socioeconomic lines and institutionalized racism. Community members said that society blames the individual, rather than looking at systemic factors contributing to homelessness, poverty and inequality.

Hope and determination. Participants said that the shared sense of belonging to a greater community and the empathy and interest they saw in their neighbors during the Story Circles gave them hope that together they can tackle the challenges associated with the affordable-housing crisis in Sacramento. Community members told stories about overcoming challenges with the support of family and community, highlighting the importance of these networks.

Story Circle participants said they left with the feeling that there are solutions to the affordable housing crisis, as well as an increased sense that they could contribute to real, meaningful change. “I’m taking away hope that we can solve this problem,” one said. “… [I]t’s inspiring and encouraging to know that so many people are thinking about this. And I personally plan to get more involved, … contact public officials and … do my part more in the community than what I have.”

The Story Circle experience also increased participants’ sense of connection to CapRadio, something we are keen to do in this era of distrust in the media. Only 27 percent of those who attended the events were CapRadio members, and just 12 percent said CapRadio is their primary source of news and information. Twenty-seven percent had never heard of CapRadio. After the gatherings, over 80 percent said they were more likely to listen to the station, visit our website or attend upcoming events, while nearly 60 percent said they were likely to become members.

But here is my big takeaway. We surround ourselves — consciously or not — with voices and views that align with our own. We need Contact Zones like CapRadio’s Story Circles that bring people together across silos to engage in meaningful conversations about pressing social issues. Designing those encounters takes effort, skill and resources. The question is: Are public radio stations game to shift resources from their newsrooms or hustle additional funds to make it happen?

I’ve written elsewhere about Contact Zones and public radio’s unique position to create spaces for deep listening and community problem-solving. CapRadio’s experiment with Story Circles shows that we can design encounters that cause a shift towards empathy, often leading to a shared vision and collective action. These are the kind of outcomes that support democratic traditions and rebuild trust, not only among residents but also with the media institutions set up to serve them.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Current, the news publication for people in public media.

Creating Contact Zones

Community members share stories and solutions to hunger in Sacramento, California. Photo: Steve Fisch

Civic aspiration is a powerful thing — it gives moral imagination someplace to go.
 — Krista Tippett, Journalist

When you begin to imagine and act as if you live in the world you want to live in, you will have company. — Bernice Johnson Regan, Singer/Civil Rights Activist

These quotes that have been rolling around in my head a lot lately.

I’m the Senior Community Engagement Strategist at an National Public Radio affiliate, pioneering new ways to bring together journalists, community members and powerbrokers to explore issues and propose solutions for the places we live.

If there is any institution uniquely positioned to activate the public imagination these days, it’s public radio. We’re an independent public service network made up of artful storytellers and huge, devoted audiences. Because our audience represents a narrow demographic, the potential to reflect the distinct and diverse voices within our communities is seismic.

Which leads to me the question: How can public radio create a new kind of listening experience where wildly diverse people come together and imagine as communities, examining the world as it is and the world as it could be, and how to get from here to there?

Here’s one idea: by creating Contact Zones.

It’s a term coined by Stanford literature professor Mary Louise Pratt. She uses it to refer to “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.” Educators, artists and scholars have drawn on Pratt’s concept to explore what happens when you bring together people of varying relationships with power to share experiences, negotiate differences, make discoveries and apply them in their lives.

I’ve adapted Contact Zones to my work in a slightly differently way, designing encounters where people who wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths come together and wrestle with social issues and each other’s messy experiences of them. Where powerful radio pieces ignite personal story sharing and frank conversation — the kind that busts stereotypes and generates emotional border crossings — in an atmosphere that is beautiful, respectful and relevant. Food, music and movement are also part of the mix.

Capital Public Radio listeners and formerly homeless residents share personal experiences with housing affordability in Sacramento, California. Photo: Vanessa Nelson

I’ve started creating Contact Zones through participatory public radio events that are part civic meeting, part art happening and part dinner party.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

We dream better when we combine purpose with pleasure. When we infuse our public dialogue processes with delight, hospitality and regard. When curiosity, empathy and a sense of belonging act as the critical yeast for metabolizing tough issues.This requires paying careful attention to location, curation and facilitation. Because of the segregated communities in which we live, we can’t expect people from different walks of life to naturally gather or get along. It takes active outreach, a sincere and welcoming invitation and structured conversation. Community collaboration in event design and leadership is crucial.

Building trust between institutions and communities begins with creating spaces and processes for people to speak and feel heard. This is especially true between the media and disenfranchised and under-represented communities. Trust evolves as long as communal input and stewardship is welcome and flourishes and when the effort is mutually rewarding for everyone involved.

Susan Lovenburg listens to Wanda Lewis explain how she survived on the streets. Jackson now lives in an affordable housing community. Photo: Vanessa Nelson

Community visioning, bridge building and civic storytelling — this is what I’m experimenting with through my work at Capital Public Radio.

Over the next few months, I’ll share dispatches that document lessons learned from my most recent community engaged documentary project, The View From Here: Place and Privilege. My hope is that these reflections inspire and support others working to mobilize our public imagination toward building community capacity for empathy, equity and democratic change.

Stay tuned.

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Community members share stories and solutions to hunger in Sacramento, California. Photo: Steve Fisch

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Gather is a venue to explore my recent experiences working at the intersection of journalism, participatory documentary, and social practice art. It’s a place to share, learn, play, and conjure up new ways of doing this hybrid storytelling work.

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