Listen and Create a Welcoming Atmosphere

All Voices Heard

In any community-engaged strategic planning process, it is essential to create a range of opportunities for community members to become involved and make their voices heard. While the work team structure enabled the participation of 70+ district staff, teachers, parents, students, and community members, we knew there had to be additional opportunities for the community as a whole to provide their input.

To this end, we held three Citywide Conversations that were open to the entire city of Salem. Each of these conversations allowed ample time for community members to have substantive discussions of the elements of the strategic plan in small groups. The first and second Citywide Conversations contained the same material, but the first was held in English with simultaneous Spanish translation and the second was held in Spanish with simultaneous English translation.

The third Citywide Conversation was held in English with simultaneous Spanish translation.

Goals of the Citywide Conversations

The key goals of these conversations were:

  1. To introduce the community to the Salem Public Schools Strategic Planning Process,
  2. To invite the community to help shape the future of the district, and
  3. To bring all of the relevant stakeholders — parents, students, teachers, administrators, business leaders, community partners, elected officials, and citizens—together for meaningful conversations about teaching and learning.

These conversations were held in a middle school cafeteria and a high school auditorium; in each case, we set up round tables and assigned a facilitator to each table. Dinner was served and childcare was provided at each Citywide Conversation.  Translation services were also provided to ensure that the dialogue was accessible to all attendees.  

Following each Citywide Conversation, we analyzed the data from the worksheets and surveys that participants handed in to us and identified patterns and themes. We also created a synthesis–much like the syntheses we created for each work team meeting–that summarized each Citywide Conversation and the themes that emerged. These syntheses were important inputs into our process and ultimately helped shape the direction of the recommendations in the strategic plan.

Small Table Facilitated Conversations

When we first conceived of the Citywide Conversations, we knew we wanted them to consist of smaller, more intimate conversations at round tables of 8-10 participants.

We wanted each table to have its own discussion facilitator who would make sure that everyone was engaged, included, and understood what was going on. To this end, the district enlisted the help of administrators and staff to serve as discussion facilitators at each of the round tables.

The district made an effort to ensure that several of these facilitators were bilingual in English and Spanish, so that some of the small table discussions could be carried out in Spanish for Spanish-speaking community members. This served a dual purpose of also broadening the number of people who were engaged in the strategic planning process and developed a sense of ownership among the facilitators.

Facilitation Guide

Prior to the Citywide Conversation, we created a facilitation guide with a detailed agenda for the evening and guidance for the facilitator on how to guide the conversations–including detailed talking points to guide each portion of the agenda.

We also included space for the facilitators to take notes directly in the facilitation packet, which we then asked them to turn into us so we could synthesize the notes from all of the small group discussions. We asked facilitators to arrive ~45 minutes before the start of the event so that we could walk them through the facilitation guide and accompanying materials (handouts and worksheets for the participants, feedback surveys, etc.) and so that they could eat dinner before participants began arriving.

We wanted to make sure they felt appreciated and were well-fed because they were doing us a favor by playing an absolutely critical role for us by facilitating the small table conversations. 

In the facilitation guide, we emphasized the following principles of good facilitation:

  • Remain neutral as a facilitator to ensure that others' opinions are not influenced by your own
  • Help group members identify areas of agreement and disagreement together
  • Invite people to share differing points of view and share differing perspectives if they have not arisen naturally in conversation
  • Create opportunities for all to participate and invite in voices that have remained quiet
  • Summarize key points and seek clarity so all can seek common ground

We also recommended to facilitators that they agree on group norms at their tables to ensure that the discussion ran smoothly and efficiently. We provided the below list of commonly utilized norms, and recommended that the facilitators read these aloud to their tables and ask whether anyone had any additional norms they wanted to add:

  • Remain focused and on task
  • Safe zone
  • Assume best intentions
  • One mic, step up and step back
  • Respect all opinions
  • Be mindful of time
  • If there is a discussion of something personal or candid, people can request that it stay in the room. Be explicit when something is confidential.
  • Honor all voices

More about: Citywide Conversations

key takeaways

  • Take care
    People will contribute more fully when they feel well-cared-for. While providing dinner may seem like an unnecessary expense, we felt it was essential. We even rented tablecloths and created simple centerpieces to give it a festive look and create a welcoming environment.
  • Voices
    Bring as many voices into the room as possible. This may necessitate individual invitations to those who typically may not feel comfortable or welcomed in these contexts.