I've been talking about conversations in the community development context for years without being aware of a project called - wait for it - 'Community Conversations'. Galling at first, then immediately inspiring.
Conflict and Change is a group of people working in east London who have backgrounds in mediation work, and they marry this with a community development approach to help local people explore issues of potential or actual disagreement, misunderstanding and conflict.
Conflict and Change recently published a set of learning points from their experience. They've run over 70 conversations with between four and 20 participants in each, including inter-faith, intergenerational and multi-ethnic encounters. I'm told they have just received funding for another three years, which seems like a good thing. The key learning points include these:
- Community conversations impact on participants by finding common ground and increasing respect for difference.
- Good facilitation skills – including an ability to work with conflict - are essential to ensure that participation and energy remain high, and that every person’s contribution is given value.
- It is helpful to develop and utilise partnerships with other agencies to help recruit participants and to ensure that there is a forum for any actions resulting from the conversations.
- The positive and future-focus of community conversations can enable participants to go on to take part in shared activities. In this event, it is helpful to provide training in participative facilitation skills to participants and to partner agency staff so that the inclusive approach can be taken forward.
This experience attracts comparison with Living Library. Community Conversations seems to have a less photogenic style with more emphasis on the local level, is more likely to work with groups, and is more likely to require effort put into the recruitment of all participants. But for both, I'd have thought the pre-negotiation of trust must be crucial; and there are sure to be common lessons which might profitably be shared.