A community member speaks at the Austin town hall in March 2016. (Photo: Michael Key)

City Bureau’s Spring Cycle is running on all cylinders now, so we wanted to take some time to reflect upon the lessons we learned from this Fall & Winter, and what we have tweaked about our program for our second go-around.

Information for this post was first shared in the Crowd-Powered News Network. If you work in community journalism, we encourage you join — there are so many great ideas shared there.

We are learning a lesson in humility when it comes to community building and dialogue facilitation. As journalists, we’re more skilled at directing a conversation and getting to the hard issues than letting community dialogue run free. It is definitely a skill that needs to be learned and practiced, and we have committed ourselves at becoming better at that — luckily, we work with partners who have experience in the matter. Going forward, we are hoping for more interactivity and more transparency in our town halls to help people feel comfortable with sharing and participating. I think our attention to the small-group discussion sets us apart from other similar town halls that focus on large groups and lecture formats, so we are committed to continuing that.

We will start going to community groups where they are, instead of just inviting them to come to us. In our first 2 meetings, we planned the events on our own and reached out to a long list of community organizations to attend. While that was successful enough, and it attracted a decent number of people, we decided we had limited the people at our events by those who “self selected” and took the time to venture to us. In the coming months, starting March 19 with the West Side Writing Project, we will partner with groups within the communities to co-host our events so community members will be attending a meeting with a group they already trust/know rather than taking a chance on a brand new organization like ours. We hope this strategy will help us build trust and a following. If you are involved with a neighborhood group that is interested in hosting a (free) City Bureau workshop, please reach out!

(Addendum: After hosting our town hall in Austin with WWWP, we have embarked on a Saturday series of events to be held at Sankofa Cultural Center in Austin, starting April 23. Follow us on Facebook for updates.)

Hands-on service-oriented portions of the event are helpful and entice people to come. After holding two large group discussions about police complaints and how Chicago Police handle the complaint system, the suggestion from community members was simple: Help us file complaints. We teamed with lawyers at the Invisible Institute to provide this simple service alongside our ongoing conversations. In journalism, the “takeaway” of a story is a message. In town halls, we can actually give attendees something tangible, like access to someone or something they can’t get elsewhere.

Hearken/soliciting feedback is essential to completing the engagement cycle.We are new users of Hearken but already have gotten some great submissions. We also find that having it available is a good way to follow up with people who attend our events — beyond just an email that says “follow us on FB!” or blindly soliciting feedback. Especially in Chicago, where there is a group of young activists who is wary of the media, we are getting them interested/engaged by inviting them into our reporting process. It also keeps people coming back to us instead of just saying “hey this is cool!’ and forgetting. Right now, policing is a hot topic in Chicago, so we are lucky to get a core group of stalwarts who are very opinionated and engaged in the issues. We’re hoping that with consistent engagement, we can get those people to spread the word to their own networks, to reach people who perhaps aren’t as naturally inclined to civic participation. In some ways, that’s become the holy grail for community outreach — attracting people who didn’t even know they’d be interested in what we do.

We are so grateful to our community partners for helping us to learn and grow at such a rapid rate. What we’re finding in Chicago, above all, is a latent desire for more community engagement and better, people-centered journalism. A lot of groups are doing impressive work, and for us, it’s a matter of bringing people together and using our strengths to bolster each other’s weaknesses — and vice versa. City Bureau, as always, loves to collaborate, so please reach out if you have an idea for a partnership. We’ll look forward to sharing more lessons as we go!