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The Process

It’s a proposition that leads some to roll their eyes: a first step for authentic, high-impact community engagement is to hold many small group conversations – before any other production work begins.  That’s what The Harwood Institute proposed to Kevin Crane, Nashville Public Television’s Vice President of Programming and Technology, and Jo Ann Scalf, the station’s Director of Educational Services as the station kicked off its Next Door Neighbors programs – a series of documentaries featuring four immigrant communities.

Initial Thoughts

“We were very skeptical when the idea was first proposed that NPT should hold conversations with groups of 10 to 12 people at a time,” says Kevin Crane. “My first reaction was, ‘That would take forever to have any impact.’”

The Nashville team, participating in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting funded Community Engagement Initiative, agreed to give the approach a try.  “Now,” Crane says, “I can’t imagine doing a documentary without first doing community conversations.”

“I thought I knew what it meant to produce authentic stories,” remarked NPT producer Will Pedigo. “But, this experience took authenticity to a new level.”  Asked how he knew Next Door Neighbor documentaries were more authentic Pedigo replied, “People in the community said, ‘You really understand us.  That’s us!’”

New & Different Community Partners

NPT worked with a variety of community partners ranging from immigrant advocacy groups to Habitat for Humanity to organize dozens of community conversations, which produced many concrete benefits for the station.

NPT made the commitment to reach out to different parts of the community than it had historically when it tackled the Next Door Neighbor project.  This required the station to recruit a new set of partners.  This was challenging at times.  And, it took considerable time and effort on the part of Jo Ann Scalf and NPT’s Outreach Coordinator, Kathy Edson.

The groups most energized to promote conversation also tended to have advocacy agendas.  NPT had to find a comfort level to work with these groups and negotiate clear parameters for how the partnership would work.  The station even had to pull the plug on a working relationship with a group too fixated on advocacy.

The NPT team learned that to have a real impact it had to work with groups that journalists and broadcasting stations often shy away from.  NPT found that most partners are willing to work within their own comfort zones but are less prepared to reach out to the community beyond that.  Authentic conversations required more reach.

The pay-off with NPT’s new partners has been significant.  Not only is NPT able to reach out to parts of the community it hasn’t historically, the station’s standing in the community has broadened, too.  A far more diverse cross-section of Nashville residents are likely to say, “NPT has our best interests at heart.”

Starting the Conversation

The conversations begin by asking people to talk about the kind of community they want rather than an issue.  Asking people about their community provides a more authentic context to sort through issues.

Community conversations can also unearth tensions that could easily escape one’s notice.  For example, NPT held community conversations in partnership with the local Habitat for Humanity, which is building a number of homes for Somali immigrants and African Americans who will share the same neighborhood.

NPT’s community conversations uncovered these African Americans’ deep frustrations with their new neighbors, based on perceived inequities and indifference toward their concerns from the wider community.  Because so many Somalis are settling in traditionally African American areas, neighborhoods are developing rifts that can’t be seen by an outsider.

Discussion Leads to Discovery

“The focus of the first documentary focused on the Kurdish community,” explained Crane. “We assumed that an issue that would come up was religious tension between Christians and Muslims.  What we learned is that Nashvillians are very religiously tolerant.  That knowledge freed us up to focus on issues of greater community interest.”

The community conversations enabled the NPT team to expand their sources for the documentary, too.  It’s easy to fall in the trap of only going to experts, people with official titles and advocacy organizations when reporting a story.  The community conversations helped NPT producers identify the “unofficial” community leaders people respect.

A key source for Little Kurdistan, USA was a Kurdish-born car dealer.  He came to Nashville before many other Kurds and, now, his dealership is one of the essential gathering places in the community.

The community conversations elevated the interest of one of Next Door Neigbhor’s primary underwriters, too.  NPT’s development department was initially skeptical of the new strategy to lead with community conversations.  “I don’t want to go to underwriters and tell them they need to sit in a room and talk about a (hot button) issue,” said one staffer.  But, serendipitous things often happen when a station authentically engages their community, and this is the case for NPT.

Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), the underwriter for the first documentary, learned about NPT’s community conversations and asked the station to put on a forum at the company as part of its ongoing diversity training for its staff.  The people who HCA staff wanted to hear from most were not immigration experts but immigrants themselves.

That’s the power of community conversations.

The Community Engagement Toolkit is Funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting