You Have To Know How They Define Community Before You Can Tell Their Story

I don’t know what inspired me to do so, but last week I visited ProPublica’s website and learned that Free Street Theater and ProPublica Illinois were teaming up to offer theater-journalism workshops across the Illinois.

What caught my eye was that they put out a call for invitations to communities in manner reminiscent of the process Marc Folk said The Arts Commission of Toledo employed when soliciting feedback from different n eighborhoods of that city.

In addition to going to Toulon, IL, Free Street and ProPublica Illinois will be visiting Urbana, Carbondale/Jackson County, Rock Island/Quad Cities, and Rockford during May. So if you live in or near any of those places, check it out.

They did a trial run at the end of March in Chicago and have posted some of their reflections already. One of the things they recognized immediately was a need to do a better job of making people aware that they were having these workshops.

In the course of playing various games, they discovered that the terms people use to define their community, including how they defined community, had some bearing on how they composed the narrative about themselves.

We played a game in which we were asked to line up according to how strongly we agreed with various statements, from “We are living in a war zone” to “I love ice cream.” You’d be surprised at how many interpretations there are of what a war zone is, and how many people have strong feelings about ice cream.

In small groups, we talked about a time we each felt misrepresented in a news story, and how that directly affected us and our communities. It led to revealing conversations about how we each defined “community.”

[…]

At the end of the night, we returned to the sticky notes to ask: What do we want the story of our community to be? This is an important question — for us and for this project — that journalists rarely ask. But they should. If journalists don’t know how a community views itself, journalists don’t know what that community has at stake when it is represented or misrepresented.

If we never bother to ask — in real, concrete ways — it can seem like we don’t care. Journalists know how to fact-check names and statistics. But how often do journalists fact-check the underlying narrative of a community?

Since there is an ongoing conversation in the arts about how people want to see themselves and their stories depicted in performances and other forms of creative expression, these reflections by ProPublica reporter Natalie Escobar should pretty much be shared by those identifying with the arts and culture community.

Creating Connections To “Why Didn’t I Think Of That”

Last week Arts Midwest held a webinar to provide some examples of the way in which different arts organizations were putting the Creating Connection messaging and research into practice. They had representatives of the Eugene Symphony and two arts organizations from Klamath Falls, OR present talk about some of the successes they have seen.

Each of the organization links above will take you to pages with examples of brochures, videos, social media campaigns, letters and other pieces each of the organizations used.

There were a couple programs that stuck out for me as I was watching last week. One of the biggest “duh” moments for me was the Eugene Symphony’s use of a white board in the lobby to collect feedback from audiences. All those times we have tried to figure out how to get better response rate on surveys, something like this never occurred to us. So many grant applications ask for summaries of the feedback you have collected from the audience. It can’t hurt to have pictures of people enthusiastically participating in writing on white boards.

The people from the Eugene Symphony also spoke about how they shifted the focus of their fundraising efforts. At their gala auction, they placed fewer items up for auction and spent more time on storytelling about creating connections. In their donor appeal letter, they changed the message away from “support our excellence.” Instead, when deciding what to include in the solicitation letter, they ask themselves, “Is this going to be the story of their growth, their voice, their well-being or their happiness?” The repeated “their” being the letter recipient.

The images in their publications are focused on the experience the audience will have rather than on the organization. The “Meet The Conductor” video only shows Music Director & Conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong in the concert hall or in the process of conducting for a few seconds. Most of the video is him hugging people at picnics and while walking down the street, chatting at ballparks and sidewalk cafes.

Social marketing consultant Crystal Muno talked about work she did with the Ross Ragland Theater and Linkville Players in Klamath Falls, OR.  She said the Ross Ragland had been faced with the perception of being elitist. To combat that, they worked on messaging that presented the theater as a “kooky, enthusiastic, maybe a little eccentric aunt.”

One of the things I liked was that they used the image of a stick figure hugging the silhouette of the theater for all of their giving programs – donations, volunteer solicitations or asking people to join their guild. Depicting volunteers as loving the organization in the same way as large donors do has a certain appeal.

Crystal also spoke about how the Linkville Playhouse’s Little Linkville program, a group of adults who do shows for kids, started having kids usher the shows and design posters as a way of improving the connection with their core constituency.  She also talked about how their costume and prop philosophy was that they could only use and wear things that could be found around the house so that if the kids wanted to go home and replicate what they saw on stage, there would be few barriers to doing just that.

 

Repetition & Establishing Good Habits

I was recently involved with a strategic planning session for a non-arts group where  staff and representatives of community constituencies  were intermingled at different tables.

When we were asked to brain storm solutions to serve a greater segment of the community, I mentioned the need to go out and learn about the unfulfilled needs of the community rather than focusing on the quality and range of services the organization wanted to offer. I suggested possibly conducting community listening sessions.

People at the table thought it was a great idea and wrote it down on the paper on the easel. When it came time to report out, that idea wasn’t mentioned but we only had a couple minutes so it was no big deal.

But as the other tables repeatedly mentioned going out to new areas to talk about all the great programs the organization had to offer without ever mentioning making an effort to learn if any of the programs were relevant to community needs, something inside me started to rebel and protest.

That is when I realized I had really started to internalize the ideas that research, different advocacy and policy groups, and individuals like Trevor O’Donnell have been communicating for awhile now.  I have mentioned this before – The focus can’t entirely be on your organization and how great you and the stuff you do are. It has to be about how what you do fulfills expectations your potential patron/participants have about a product or experience.

In the case of this blog’s readers, that experience is related to arts and culture.

While I have written about this idea a fair number of times now, I will freely admit my practice in implementing this concept is far from ideal.  Still, I see the fact that I bridled internally upon hearing proposals that ran counter to this concept as a positive step.

The experience has also reinforced for me that making progress is probably going to be a long term process of repetition –both to myself and aloud to others as I had in the strategic planning meeting.

Intellectually, we know repetition helps to establish good habits, but it is easy to forget this when faced with tepid progress. Lack of immediate investment by others isn’t necessarily an indication that the idea isn’t good. Merely that the presentation wasn’t effective and needs to be refined or that the people listening haven’t heard or considered the idea enough times for it to make sense as a valuable course of action.

Probably The Only Time Comic Sans Is Appropriate In A Planning Document

Back in February CityLab covered an effort by residents of the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, MN to get people invested in contributing to the Small Area Plan for their neighborhood.  This was in part driven by the experience the Frogtown Neighborhood Association voted to refurbish an historic theater in town but the mayor choose to direct the money to a police shooting range because the theater wasn’t in the neighborhood’s small area plan.

Because Small Area Plans, like strategic plans tend to be dry documents that get put on a shelf never to be consulted, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association were determined to make their plan a living document with which people interacted. They did this by placing the plan and the feedback they received from hundreds of residents into the framework of a comic book.

What I admire about the document is that they create 8 characters who are experts on major areas of concern like land use, housing, transportation, education, arts, health and wellness, economic vitality and resource allocation.  They make each of these people representative of different demographic segments like long time residents, house owners, apartment renters, kids, married couples, single college grads, etc.

By doing so they put a face and connect expertise to different people in the neighborhood so it is more difficult to dismiss people as gentrifiers or cranky malcontents standing in the way of progress.

They reiterate their goal quite a few times across the book to employ design thinking to “Sculpt our community into a mixed income, arts, entrepreneurship and education centered urban village.”

Because it is a planning document it is still pretty text heavy, but this is an example of what is contained within the book.  As I sort of implied before, you could probably do worse than applying this approach to your strategic plan.

 

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