If I had to choose the mementos that best speak to the disruption and catharsis of 2020, my “facilitator kit” would make the top of the list. What people don’t see on the other side of my Zoom setup is the pile of dried-out markers and sharpies, musty chart paper, and a double-sided copy of the last set of slides I presented at a community meeting.
During the first weeks of the pandemic, I was certain that it was only a matter of time until we were able to meet in person. Suddenly, that sense of optimism—the kind that shelters you from grieving and from letting go—started drying out faster than my markers. Most of what was critical to my understanding of equitable community engagement was gone. I missed people, the random life-changing parking lot conversations, reading the energy of a room, supporting a team through difficult conversations, savoring the “aha moments”; I even missed cold pizzas and the occasional fancy seltzer water “donated” to the community meetings crew. I also knew that staying in place and connecting with people—whether via Zoom or Google Meet—was and continues to be the most radical way of loving the very communities I dearly miss.
Community Conversations Continued—and That Was Good
Needless to say, this past year has been a year of reflection, corroboration, and shifting of priorities. If there was ever a doubt of the power of community engagement, Covid-19 pressurized the need to center family partnerships in the way we do school. If we thought that our nation could collectively dodge conversations about racism, we now know that these conversations are more important than ever. As I look back and reflect on the past ten months and my work in family, student, and community engagement, it was refreshingly clear that we can’t shy away from having community conversations.
As an educator and parent, I have designed, facilitated, or participated in countless virtual conversations about: the needs of students and families, as well as their hopes for the academic year; racism in America; educational equity; anti-racist practices; and the list goes on. Some of those conversations have been well-intentioned, but messy. And that is okay. I have also experienced how poor designs not centered in raising marginalized voices have resulted in furthering inequities for our students, families, and communities. Other conversations beautifully translated the core principles of equitable community engagement into graceful, powerful, and empathetic virtual exchanges. People showed up with grace and humility on the screen.
All of this sounds like too much work for us to take on and sustain during a global health crisis. But, I can’t stress enough the importance of dialogue and a commitment to the ongoing process of building and sustaining trusting relationships—especially during a crisis. We are at a unique moment in our history as a nation when years of community organizing and mobilizing against racism and being in the midst of a pandemic have raised a question we can’t ignore: What is my role in sustaining or dismantling racist institutions and practices?
Community Conversations: A Toolkit for School Communities
In community conversations, facilitators are essential to creating inclusive, graceful, and brave spaces where people are able to listen to each other, build relationships, and articulate bold and joyful futures. This brings me to a set of tools and resources we developed to help folks involved in organizing or facilitating community conversations brush up on or develop their facilitation skills. We have collectively built these tools from years of co-creating with schools and communities, and from the ways we translated what we knew best about equitable community engagement to the virtual world.
- Community Conversations Checklist: The purpose of this checklist is to provide practical guidance to community groups, school leadership teams, or other groups that are planning community conversations. These conversations are intended to allow school leaders to hear the voices of community members (including students, family members, and others) in discussions of recent events, important issues, school policy questions, or other topics. While most of the considerations are applicable to both in-person and virtual gatherings, we have added some pointed considerations and tips for virtual facilitation because we know that figuring out the technology and being humans on Zoom or Google Meet is not easy.
- Strategies for Facilitators: What is your role as a facilitator? Looking for practical “facilitator moves?” The purpose of this resource is to help facilitators of community meetings think through possible facilitation challenges; it also provides moves that can be used to address them.
- Opening Prompts and Ice Breakers: Looking for new opening prompts to kick off your next community conversation or meeting? The activities and prompts listed here are intended to help participants connect at the start of a meeting and feel less guarded.
- Debrief Protocol: The community conversation is done. What comes next? This protocol is intended to help facilitators and coordinators of community conversations to debrief after a community event and think about what they might like to do differently or keep the same next time.