I recently had the opportunity to chat with Lori Gilcrist of Mitchell County, the newest member of Carolina Public Press’ inaugural Regional Advisory Council. We spoke at length about some of the misperceptions of people in rural Western North Carolina and about how nonprofits and the media can do a better job of representing people in our part of the world.
We also spoke about the popularity and pitfalls of community forums, or gatherings of community members to give opinions and insight into research or reporting topics. I have attended and organized community forums such as focus groups and listening sessions, and I was interested in the particular insights that Gilcrist, a longtime nonprofit leader, brings as a regular participant in these events. Most important to Gilcrist is that nonprofits and media organizations take the time to listen closely to the diverse perspectives of people, even when those perspectives seem to challenge our previous knowledge of a person or place.
Published this week in NC Talks is a conversation the two of us had over email. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Question and answer:
Wilson: What is your opinion of the community forums that you’ve been to in recent years? As organizers of focus groups or listening sessions, how can we do better at making sure that diverse voices are heard?
Gilcrist: I’m talking about the convening of all the usual suspects in community forums. Those events are all the rage in WNC. They sometimes feel like some kind of indoctrination or a place for all of us to get our stories straight. They often prove to be an X in a box on a grant application or report.
Few to none of the people the programs theoretically do or will serve are in the room. The convening is seldom realistically accessible to them if they wanted to go, which they usually don’t. On the few occasions when someone does show up or is specifically invited, they are often treated poorly or are ill-prepared to participate. These are not user-friendly environments.
Wilson: It can be difficult for organizations and funders to hear that what people want and need is contrary to the services they provide or the preconceived notions they had about a population. That being said, I still believe that solid, impactful results can come out of community gatherings if we take the time to truly listen. Do you agree that these events can still have some value?
Gilcrist: Oh, I absolutely agree that community gatherings can be tremendously valuable and do a lot of good if we truly listen and if we do the research and outreach in advance that makes those community meetings accessible and desirable to the people we serve. Lots of small, targeted ones are generally more productive than large, countywide or multicounty affairs in my experience.
Wilson: We can’t learn and grow as individuals or as a field of professionals if we aren’t able to take in hard information from our supporters and our critics. How can we ensure that community forums achieve their intended goal of providing insight into what a community wants and needs?
Gilcrist: The people we serve are the experts in their own lives and in how the community works. They are not treated with the respect an expert should be able to expect.
I think we need to be asking residents and clients what they want and/or need, how they would like that to be done, as well as for a critique of the current situation, even when it reflects badly on us. And it needs to be a safe place for that kind of honesty and transparency. What happens instead is funding and program driven.
Wilson: At CPP, we are always working to improve our practices and take that kind of commentary seriously. We recognize the need for a different approach to telling the news, one that is rooted in community perspectives. Sometimes those perspectives are challenging or contrary to what we thought we knew. How can media organizations like ours make sure that community gatherings produce good reporting?
Gilcrist: It’s a little different when including a different perspective in a news story. Sometimes we have to be careful because of how nonprofit leaders have been trained in the aforementioned rooms. We often offer up clients to make our point to a reporter by “telling their story.” If we’re asking the questions and the questions are designed to make our preconceived point, we’re not asking them to tell their story; we’re asking them to tell ours.
Based on our training, we often offer up clients to reporters so they can share their circumstances and express their need or gratitude for what we do. It’s not empowering at all, and we’ve skipped a step: listening. We focus on what we can do in the inadequate system as it exists, not on thinking creatively and inclusively about what we could do if we weren’t all stuck in our echo chamber.
I think it is important for reporters to not be complicit in this less-than-optimal process.
Don’t get me wrong: I do not question the intentions of my colleagues. But I think it’s important to remember that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions in a road-building program financed with grant money or a state or federal funding stream.
Lori Gilcrist is a communications consultant and longtime leader of rural nonprofits. She has lived and worked in Mitchell County for two decades.
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