New England Secondary School Consortium


The Power of Inclusive Conversations that Bridge Divides and Unite Communities

“Yes it will be messy, yes it will take time, and yes there will be tension, but that tells you you’re having a real conversation.” —Bruce Mallory, New Hampshire Listens

In today’s divisive political environment, our national dialogue has become increasingly characterized by polarized argumentation, opposing ideologies, and entrenched conflict. Unsurprisingly, Americans are also more cynical about government and more distrusting of public institutions than at any time in our country’s history.

While this divisiveness and cynicism often bleeds into local politics, relationships, and conversations, public schools remain the center of many communities, particularly in the smaller, rural towns of New England. And public schools still have the power to bring people together in pursuit of a mission that nearly every American can support: educating the next generation and preparing them to succeed in adult life.

As public institutions, schools are beholden to the communities, students, and families they serve. And as more schools pursue non-traditional ways of educating today’s children and youth, they are not only realizing that they need to engage and involve their communities in more robust ways, but that unilateral decisions can alienate their most important stakeholders and undermine the very goals the schools are trying to achieve.

At the New England Secondary School Consortium’s 2016 High School Redesign in Action conference (Twitter #NESSC16), two organizations—New Hampshire Listens and Portland Empowered—came together to help school leaders and educators design and facilitate the kinds of inclusive conversations that are the foundation of successful school-community engagement.

The session was kicked off with a video—Take a Seat and Make a Friend—which shows that each one of us has something in common with everyone else. We all share similar experiences, emotions, aspirations, and perspectives, but it sometimes takes an unusual or unlikely situation—say, a chance meeting in a container full of plastic balls—to surface those commonalities that are so often obscured in our daily lives and public discourse.

The video was followed up by a short activity. The facilitators randomly paired two people in the room and asked each pair to uncover one unique thing they had in common. Short activities such as this can quickly surface shared values and perspectives in a diverse group of individuals from different backgrounds, which can set the stage for more productive dialogue.

“You cannot engage your community when they are not involved,” said Nolasque Isirabahenda, a father of three public-school children and an active parent advocate for Portland Empowered, a grassroots group working to elevate historically marginalized student, parent, and family voices in the public-school system in Portland, Maine. Mr. Isirabahenda’s resonant statement speaks to an essential element of effective engagement: you can’t engage without first involving, and you can’t involve without forging new relationships and adopting new perspectives.

Portland Empowered's Parent & Family Engagement Manifesto outlines six ways the school district can engage the community more effectively.
Portland Empowered’s Parent & Family Engagement Manifesto outlines six ways the school district can engage the community more effectively.

As part of its work, Portland Empowered brought together a diverse group of new-American parents and families to develop a Parent & Family Engagement Manifesto that invites Portland Public Schools to engage its community members in six ways that participants identified during a series of conversations with parents and families facilitated by Portland Empowered.

One of Mr. Isirabahenda’s most important roles, in his own words, is “ambassador to the community.” He reaches out to parents and families, especially those who do not speak English as a native language. His ambassadorial role often requires him to knock on doors and meet parents where they are, whether it’s a coffee shop in their neighborhood or a place of worship. When Portland Empowered hosts a conversation, they recognize that many parents need far more than an invitation to participate—they may require interpreters, childcare, transportation, or dietary accommodations, whether it’s gluten free or halal.

Parent advocate Nolasque Isirabahenda and his children were born in Burundi. Portland Empowered articulated the four ABCs of building capacity among parent and family advocates.
Parent advocate Nolasque Isirabahenda and his children were born in Burundi. Portland Empowered articulated the four ABCs of building capacity among parent and family advocates.

One participant noted that small communities with limited resources often find it difficult to provide services such as on-site translators. Pious Ali, a Portland Empowered organizer and the first African American elected to public office in Portland, Maine, suggested that groups seek out volunteers. In multilingual and multicultural communities, schools and other organizations can often find individuals willing to provide translation services, childcare, or shared rides.

New Hampshire Listens, housed at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, works to “complement formal government processes” and “expand the range, depth, and diversity of input from the public,” said co-director Michele Holt-Shannon. New Hampshire Listens has helped hundreds of districts, schools, municipalities, and organizations design and facilitate hundreds of community conversations that bring together diverse voices to solve challenging public problems. The organization’s mission: increase participation in public life, improve community problem solving, and create more engaged and equitable communities.

The top ten things communities should do when hosting an event or conversation.

“The counterpart to student-centered learning is parent-centered engagement,” said Bruce Mallory, adding that school leaders and others in power need to let go of some level of control if they want authentic conversations to occur. School leaders should also empower parents by not only listening to them, but also involving them in school governance and decision-making processes.

It is vital that facilitators of public conversations put aside their agendas and adopt an impartial stance. New Hampshire Listens emphasized the importance of establishing ground rules for community dialogue. For example, “It’s okay to disagree, but don’t personalize it—focus on the idea, not the person” is a deceptively simple ground rule that’s extraordinarily powerful in practice. So much of our public dialogue drifts away from ideas, perspectives, and policies into criticisms of individuals. When conversations become characterized by personal attacks, it often becomes impossible to make progress, solve problems, or achieve compromise.

The essential characteristics of impartial facilitation.
The essential characteristics of impartial facilitation.

All the presenters underscored the need for facilitators of public conversations to be aware of their own cultural assumptions and stereotypes. Bruce Mallory offered an illustrative example: When someone walks though the door wearing baggy pants and a hoodie, what are your assumptions about this person? Would you react differently if that same person walked in wearing a suit and tie?

Emily Thielmann of Portland Empowered called this kind of intentional self-awareness “self-work,” and spoke about her German heritage and how her family always expects people to be on time. Yet other families, and people from other cultures, may not value on-time arrival in the same way that her family does. In public situations, the hazard is that intentions are often interpreted through one’s own cultural perspective. If someone doesn’t arrive on time, for example, people may assume they don’t respect the process or care enough to show up a few minutes early.

In public education, certain groups are often perceived as not valuing education. But in many cases, these parents and families may be intimidated by the school system or they may not show up because they are working two or three jobs and simply don’t have the time. Authentic engagement begins with listening and finding out why people do what they do or think what they think.

The big takeaway: understanding others first requires understanding oneself.

The presenters (from left to right): Nolasque Isirabahenda, Emily Thielmann, Michele Holt-Shannon, Pious Ali, and Bruce Mallory.
The presenters (from left to right): Nolasque Isirabahenda, Emily Thielmann, Michele Holt-Shannon, Pious Ali, and Bruce Mallory.
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