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.

Want to start evaluating your engaged reporting? Here’s what I did

I am on a mission: I want evaluation to be a newsroom norm, not something that would be nice to have. Weaving evaluation into my projects has been a game changer, giving me the data I need to understand the impact of my work and communicate it’s value to funders.  

That’s why I want to share a case study of how I activated Capital Public Radio leaders to support a robust assessment of a recent cross-platform documentary project. This is not a treatise on the value of evaluation, or a how-to guide. It’s an explanation of how my planning process brought in money, secured colleague and community support and delivered a plan we could execute and replicate. 

I hope my experience helps jumpstart evaluation in your newsroom as we collect and share the data we need to grow the engaged journalism field.

Rope your bosses into brainstorming

Since I joined Capital Public Radio as the senior community engagement strategist five years ago, I have experimented with different ways to gauge outcomes from our documentary series The View From Here. For example, here’s our theory of change, an early assessment matrix, and some guiding values. Our most recent production, Place and Privilege, was my biggest assessment challenge yet. 

Not only did the project aim to tackle one of the thorniest topics in California —  housing affordability and residential segregation — the team also wanted to produce the station’s first podcast series, test out a new marketing strategy and pilot different kinds of in-person engagement experiences. As we got underway, I wondered: How the heck are we going to assess all of this? 

To begin answering that question, I whipped out my Impact Pack, a set of playing cards developed by Dot Connector Studio to help teams prototype their media engagement plans. I roped TVFH Senior Producer Catherine Stifter and Chief Content Officer Joe Barr into our conference room for 30 minutes of out-of-the-box planning. 

Rearranging the cards and playfully challenging each other’s ideas, we laid out the project goals, audiences, platforms and assessment strategies. By making it a game, I pulled us out of our rote ways of thinking. After a good amount of laughter and some poker faces, we arrived at a shared vision. Take a look at our layout to see how we placed TVFH’s core values at the top and the community impact we wanted at the bottom. In between we located what we wanted to do, why, how and for which audiences. 

By involving key internal decision makers in the initial prototyping process, I built alignment from the get-go and ensured that that no one felt blindsided as I moved the evaluation process forward.

Take a chance ask for outside help 

Given the grand scope of our project vision, I knew we would need serious funding to evaluate it. While CFO Jun Reina and other newsroom leaders were mulling over my pitch for financial support, I had a flash of inspiration: Would a big evaluation firm do some pro bono work to get us started? I knew that Harder+Company, a national research group with a branch in Sacramento, had recently conducted an evaluation of community engagement in the arts across our region. Could I entice those evaluators to help by convincing them that it would be an easy lift to collaborate on some initial planning? And by highlighting the value of associating with a high profile public radio project focused on California’s capitol?

I could! All Harder+Company agreed to facilitate two pro-bono evaluation planning sessions that included CapRadio leaders, TVFH producers, and Place and Privilege community partners including the Sacramento Housing Alliance, UC Davis Center for Regional Change, Sacramento Public Library and AARP. Harder+Company valued their work in designing those sessions, leading them and reporting back learnings at $10,000. This number not only raised eyebrows (in a good way!), it lent gravitas and validation to the process. 


Get your colleagues and community excited 

At the first planning session, Harder+Company helped the group take stock of TVFH’s community engaged journalism model and reflect on the value it brings to the station, our audience, community partners and wider public. Then we discussed the benefits of evaluation: What did the group hope to discover and share through evaluating Place and Privilege? What resources were available to do this? 

By the end of that first meeting, we had mapped out evaluation goals, desired impacts, existing data sources, and internal capacity. The bigger impact, however, was this: by inviting station leaders, project producers and community partners to be co-creators from the start, I demonstrated that evaluation was a process and a product we could all benefit from. 

During the second session, Harder+Company presented a draft evaluation plan for Place and Privilege, which the group reviewed and modified. It centered on three big-picture goals:

  • Document the value that the community engaged documentary model brings the public, project partners, advisors, and Capital Public Radio.
  • Build evaluation capacity to assess the implementation of the community engaged documentary model by Capital Public Radio and project partners.
  • Support internal learning and information sharing with funders and community stakeholders (e.g., the public, journalist community, public broadcasting).

The plan articulated a set of research questions to guide us. 

Outcomes

  • How does the community engaged documentary model shift perceptions of and connection to CapRadio (e.g., among partners, new/non-traditional audiences, etc)?
  • To what extent do content and events increase public awareness, empathy, and involvement on the topic?
  • What are the impacts of Place and Privilege for communities, including new and/or strengthened relationships?
  • What works about CapRadio’s Place and Privilege project, and what doesn’t, and what does that mean about what we should do next?
  • To what extent were CapRadio’s guiding principles for community engagement followed, what difference did that seem to make and should we adjust anything?

Informing the Work

Outputs/Reach

This draft plan laid out possible measurement tools and indicators for each question in a color-coded matrix. I was in evaluation nerd heaven! 

Even better, I saw CapRadio staff and community stakeholders get excited about evaluation. I had delighted leaders who had the power to invest in evaluation at CapRadio going forward.  I also got community buy-in. Having those partners at the table from the beginning meant they were more willing to participate in evaluation activities down the line by filling out surveys and doing phone interviews.

A note about consultants: I thought working with Harder+Company would take a huge chunk of work off my plate. Wrong! We still needed a knowledgeable staff member to closely manage the process to get accurate and relevant results. I ended up spending upwards of 40 hours crafting the planning sessions and materials (and up to 25 percent of my time in later parts of the process). Outside experts bring fresh eyes and new skills, but on-the-ground staff can best frame and implement plans. You need both.

Work in a team, if you can

Harder+Company’s planning process generated a shared understanding not only about the value of doing evaluation, but the level of resources needed to make it happen. It became clear that this wasn’t something I could jam into my current job description and work plan. I was given a $20,000 budget and given the go-ahead to bring in an evaluator. 

Enter Lindsay Green-Barber of Impact Architects. Lindsay and I had collaborated on evaluating a previous TVFH project — she already understood CapRadio’s approach to community engaged reporting. Together we revised Harder+Company’s initial framework to align more closely with the station’s needs, resources and timeline. Here’s the evaluation plan we came up with. It details key indicators that speak to each of our research questions, as well as how we’d collect the data. The Impact Architects’ scope of work included producing interim memos to inform ongoing planning and working with me to design assessment tools. That built in feedback loops for strategy and learning as well as refining my ability to lead evaluation work on future TVFH projects. 

But, evaluation nerd that I am, I wanted more and different input to the process. I carved out funding to include a journalist and social scientist and in this evaluation effort.  Jessica Clark of Dot Connector Studio and Yve Susskind of Praxis Associates gave critical feedback on the evaluation plan by reviewing tools and commenting on reports. 

Yve taught me about development evaluation and challenged me to articulate the principles that guide TVFH (more on that in a future blog post) while Jessica shared key impact assessment research and helped position my work within larger national trends. Meanwhile, Lindsay kept me focused on what was working and what wasn’t so that I could improve and replicate our engaged journalism model.

Lindsay, Jessica and Yve are all linked to different national journalism initiatives. They brought best practices and emerging needs from the field into our planning and implementation. Even better, they plugged our dialogues and data into national reports and convenings which, in turn, raised Capital Public Radio’s profile in the engaged journalism space. Working with them made me a better engager and evaluator.

Check out our Impact Report for details on how we implemented the evaluation, what we learned and why it matters.

Fruits of the labor

You might be thinking, “Evaluation sounds like a lot of time and money I don’t have.” The Place and Privilege project evaluation was resource-intensive, but I believe its lessons are valuable regardless of your budget: 

  1. Invite your supervisor to brainstorm with you about the benefits of evaluation. This could be just one or two meetings.

  2. Ask for outside help. Even if this just means pulling in examples of evaluation wins from others, gather support that lends weight to your endeavor.

  3. Get your colleagues and community excited and involved. They will be more willing to participate and share data down the line.

  4. Work in a team if you can. This is tied to getting outside help. When imagining how to evaluate the efforts of your own organization, perspectives from other disciplines are critical.

Thanks to these early steps, our evaluation process was a real success. We got feedback that improved the way CapRadio does community engagement. We generated data that we could share back with project partners in their effort to address the housing affordability crisis. We boosted internal interest in, and evidence of, the value of engaged journalism. As a result, our next engagement effort got funded from the get-go. 

The engaged journalism field is emerging. We are all looking for ways to articulate the value of what we do, illustrate our methods, deliver concrete results and have a way to prove it. Evaluation is key to making all that happen.

Huge thanks to Olivia Henry for her wise and substantive edits on this piece. You can read more of her amazing work here.

jesikah maria ross produces participatory media projects that generate public dialogue and community change. She is the Senior Community Engagement Strategist at Capital Public Radio, Sacramento’s NPR affiliate and part of the inaugural #50WomenCan Journalism cohort. @jmr_MediaSpark, jesikahmariaross.com

How ‘engaged’ radio journalism helped a community tackle suicide

Olivia Henry holds a microphone for Amador resident Ashley Moore, a key source in CapRadio’s reporting. Vanessa Nelson / Capital Public Radio

Climbing the western slope of the central Sierra Nevada mountains, California’s Amador County is known for its wild beauty, Gold Rush history and small-town quality of life. It’s also home to a darker landscape — one of the highest suicide rates in the state. Last year, Capital Public Radio’s Sammy Caiola was awarded a USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism California Fellowship to explore why that rate is so high — the third-highest in California — and how journalism could play a role in suicide prevention.

Sammy invited us to design an engagement process to serve those goals. Here is a case study of what we did. This nuts-and-bolts account demonstrates the newsroom and community effort that goes into wraparound engaged journalism, as well as the impact it can generate.

Our recipe:

  • Write up a plan.
  • Reread and revise it often.
  • Introduce yourself and involve trusted sources of information.
  • Ask local experts to frame the issues and solutions.
  • Act on community feedback.
  • Stay in touch.
  • Find opportunities for synergy.
  • Evaluate what happened.

Background

jesikah is CapRadio’s Senior Community Engagement Strategist. She has spent the past three years leading engagement efforts on housing, education and hunger in the station’s documentary unit. Olivia is the engagement editor at the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, where she mentors California reporters in engagement techniques such as crowdsourcing, community consultation and collaborative storytelling.

This project was launched through Sammy’s USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism California Fellowship. As part of the support that the Center provides, Sammy participated in a training program at USC, received reporting and engagement grants, and got six months of mentoring in engagement and reporting.

Step 1: Write up a plan. Reread and revise it often.

Our first step was to generate a shared vision for our work. Together with Sammy, we listed reporting goals, who was most affected, what organizations were working on suicide prevention, who had the power to make change, and possible outcomes of her reporting. We referenced and tweaked these lists often as we learned from the community over the following months.

Step 2: Introduce yourself — and involve trusted sources of information.

Our next step was to introduce ourselves to Amador residents. First, we helped Sammy meet community members at a 5K run for suicide awareness. She wrote about that day in an essay for the Center for Health Journalism:

I packed up CapRadio posters and business cards, and made a special half-sheet describing my project. I even grabbed some granola bars for the runners. Then I set up an activity to get people curious. I laid out brown butcher paper and a pile of Post-its and markers. I asked people to write down answers to the question, “What gives you hope?”

Sammy met people at the run who became key voices in her story: the CEO of Sutter Amador Hospital, the mother of someone who recently completed suicide, and a woman who had recently sought help for mental illness.

We also published an online callout using a powerful survey tool called Screendoor to meet people who cared about prevention, wanted to offer resources or had personal stories. We submitted an op-ed to the local paper, the Amador Ledger Dispatch, to introduce Sammy and share the callout link. We also booked an interview for Sammy on local commercial radio station KVGC 1340 AM to further acquaint residents with Sammy and the reporting project.

Broadcasting from downtown Jackson, Calif., KVGC Hometown Radio is one of Amador’s local news sources. Craig Howell / Flickr

Working with local media would become an indispensable part of this project. Amador County, while inside CapRadio’s broadcast footprint, is not the subject of regular coverage. Residents told us that the station didn’t have much traction in the area, which was a barrier to trust. With that in mind, we appeared multiple times in the Ledger or on KVGC — sometimes with a task or a request, but other times just to check in. We were and remain very grateful for their help.

Step 3: Ask local experts to frame issues and solutions.

Using jesikah’s principles for designing powerful conversations, we brought Sammy’s growing list of contacts together to get guidance on reporting topics and learn how residents could use this journalism to advance community health. We convened about 50 people at the Sutter Creek Community Building. Participants included county employees, clinicians, veterans’ advocates, tribal members and folks with personal stories of suicide. Four of the people who responded to our newspaper callout also attended.

The group rotated among four tables to discuss:

  • Why is this happening in Amador County?
  • What resources exist? What are the barriers? What’s needed?
  • How can you use these stories in your work? How and where might you share them?
  • What plans do you have for Suicide Prevention Week? What might we do together?

Residents of Amador County, come together to address suicide crisis in the Sutter Community. Vanessa S. Nelson • Capital Public Radio

We transcribed each table’s notes, then Sammy compiled them in this article about what she learned. A week later, we were delighted to see that a participant also wrote an op-ed about the convening in the Ledger Dispatch.

Step 4: Act on community feedback.

We now had a deep bank of sources and a road map generated by the community. Over the next few months, Sammy got to work on four radio features guided by the connections we helped her make. In the meantime, we made it a priority to keep the momentum alive — both with people we met at the convening and with Amador residents in general. To do that, we worked with Sammy to regularly publish to a project page on CapRadio’s website. She reported several online-only articles on issues that surfaced at the gathering:

Amador County resident Heather Saxton often drives 45 minutes to see a psychiatrist in a different county. Vanessa Nelson / Capital Public Radio

At the convening, people told us they wanted CapRadio to share stories of Amador residents who faced mental-health challenges and sought help. In response, jesikah and Sammy published this online Conversation Kit, a discussion aid with pictures, audio clips and questions related to suicide prevention.

Step 5: Stay in touch.

Another part of keeping momentum alive — and being accountable to the people involved with the project — was sending regular emails to our ballooning contacts list. To reach folks not on that list, we booked Sammy for another update interview on KVGC. We also published another op-ed in the Ledger Dispatch to let residents know where Sammy was in her reporting process.

Step 6: Find opportunities for synergy.

Convening participants told us they wanted CapRadio to participate in September’s Suicide Prevention Week in some way. We were game but needed a partner to help map our ideas to local needs and efforts. Stephanie Hess, who coordinates the county’s Mental Health Services Act working group, and her colleague Vanessa Compton were eager to collaborate.

We quickly landed on three shared goals: bringing the community together to explore a taboo topic, naming challenges and lifting up suicide prevention resources. We agreed that a community conversation and resource fair would be the right format to achieve those aims. We sketched out an agenda, found a venue and set a date.

Two weeks before the community conversation event, there was a murder-suicide in Amador — the second in five months. We weren’t sure if this was the right time to host a conversation about suicide, but our partners assured us that it was. To be safe, we arranged to have two social workers on hand to support people as needed.

Sammy’s four features aired daily during National Suicide Prevention week, first on CapRadio, then on KVGC. The series was prefaced by this note from project editor and Amador resident Linnea Edmeier. She made a case for why, even at a difficult time, this reporting was important. Not everyone felt the same way, though. The Ledger Dispatch shared Sammy’s articles on Facebook, and some commenters accused CapRadio of exploiting a tragedy.

Over 100 people attended a community conversation about suicide prevention co-hosted by CapRadio. Vanessa Nelson / Capital Public Radio

We saw a huge spike in RSVPs in the days preceding the event. More than 100 people packed into a space originally billed for about 70. That was in large part due to our community partner’s ability to promote the event in local networks. We saw lots of familiar faces, too: Among the attendees were people who responded to our original callout and came to the first convening.

The event agenda was simple: Over a shared meal, Sammy explained her reporting process, her data and what she discovered as a “city kid” reporting on rural issues. Then attendees listened to clips and discussed them in small groups. People shared reactions, asked questions and traded resources. We saw connections sparking around the room: School-district staff learned about programs that could come to classrooms, a nurse grabbed stacks of literature for her patients, and people signed up for safeTalk trainings on the dessert table.

Event participants discussed challenges and opportunities around suicide prevention in Amador County. Vanessa Nelson / Capital Public Radio

After the event, we circled back with everyone who participated and responded to a few new requests. We sent thank-you emails, published an event summary to the project website and wrote an explainer of the project’s data after hearing questions about it at the event. Responding to an invitation from school staff, Sammy presented at a local high school about her project. jesikah visited the MHSA working group to demonstrate the Conversation Kit in more depth and was thrilled to hear members immediately brainstorm ways of using it in their suicide prevention work.

Step 7: Evaluate what happened.

Not only did we and our partners feel that the conversation event was a success, but we had numbers to back it up. Working with Eric Garcia McKinley of Impact Architects, we administered an event survey to measure how well we reached both our reporting and community goals. We discovered that:

  • 86 percent of participants reported being more aware of the high suicide rate in Amador County and what causes people in rural areas to take their own lives.
  • 83 percent of respondents said they would be more comfortable talking about suicide and suicide risk factors with friends and/or family.
  • 88 percent of respondents said they were motivated to address challenges facing Amador County and its ability to lower the suicide rate.

In addition to the event results, Impact Architects wrote an extensive evaluation of the project that captured some enduring impacts:

Amador County Behavioral Health credits CapRadio with providing the resources, platform, and expertise that helped bring together the community. The organization now has momentum and is in the process of forming a community-involved suicide prevention coalition. According to [MHSA Programs Coordinator Stephanie] Hess, “Without the help of CapRadio and the way they engaged the community they did, this wouldn’t have been possible.” [Peer Personal Services Coordinator Vanessa] Compton added that … CapRadio “gave us voice that we didn’t have the capacity and power to do on our own, to reach the entirety of Amador County. … I’ve gotten to know 100 more people because of this.”

Conclusion

For us, the indispensable ingredient in this project was our capable and motivated partners. Local media, callout respondents, event participants and community collaborators stepped forward with CapRadio and the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism to advance suicide prevention in Amador County.

Those relationships were not accidents or good luck. They were built on returned emails, answered questions, picked-up phone calls, proffered meals, swept floors and emptied trash. It was that unglamorous and often invisible labor that made it possible to build community around this reporting. We celebrate that work and thank our partners for sharing it with us.

For a deeper dive into project outcomes and challenges, check out “Refining and Scaling Community Engagement: Impact and Lessons from Capital Public Radio’s Rural Suicide Project.”

jesikah maria ross, Capital Public Radio
Olivia Henry, USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism

This story originally published in Current.org.

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she makes media work.
for change, for social justice, for art. for everyone.

Get in touch with jesikah maria ross
(530) 320-1819

jmr@praxisprojects.net
@jmr_MediaSpark