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Unable to bring people together in person, a Kansas City nonprofit weaves digital dialogue during COVID-19

Consensus KC’s stated purpose is straightforward: to bring people together “to learn, to talk, and to find common ground for action.” 

And by “bringing people together,” the nonprofit organization means a lot of people – 50 to 300 – to participate in facilitated dialogues on often divisive policy issues that can range from immigration to the federal budget. 

So how does an organization like Consensus KC do that when most of metropolitan Kansas City is still sheltering in place to help fight the pandemic? Well, it adapts. 

“Our bread and butter has always been in-person meetings,” says Heidi Holliday, Consensus KC’s executive director and a resident of Kansas City, Kansas. “It’s never been online facilitation.” 

Yet hosting online meetings is what Holliday finds herself doing these days. Canceled are two events Consensus KC had scheduled for April – one on health care and another on status and privilege (although plans are in the works to host the health care event online in May).

In their place, Consensus is holding weekly “lunches,” “coffees” or “happy hours” on Zoom that have attracted up to a dozen participants interested in sharing how they and their communities are coping.

Plans are also in the works to host a Zoom meeting in Kansas City, Kansas, with Livable Neighborhoods, which serves as a forum for neighborhood organizations to increase community engagement and inform problem-solving in city government. Established by the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, Livable Neighborhoods, and the more than 80 neighborhood groups it assists, depends on face-to-face meetings to do its work. 

It has already had to cancel two of its monthly meetings, large gatherings of neighborhood leaders, nonprofit organizations and residents where government officials provide updates about activities and answer questions from participants. Without the meetings, the city has lost a critical communication tool, creating a gap that online tools can’t quite fill. 

“Word of mouth is huge in our community,” said Livable Neighborhoods Director Andrea Generaux. “That’s how we communicate.  It’s relationship based. People share the information they get at church and neighborhood meetings and personal actions and coffees. That’s really hard to do right now.”

Holliday said she hopes Consensus KC can help Livable Neighborhoods, and others struggling to keep grassroots efforts afloat during the pandemic, find ways to engage residents and organizations. 

“Right now, what I’m trying to do is provide the immediate need for human connection people have,” Holliday says. 

To help forge those connections, Consensus KC has joined a national movement,  #WeavingCommunity, launched this past spring by the National Conversation Project. Just before the pandemic hit and shelter-in-place orders spread, leaders at the National Conversation Project were preparing for this month’s National Week of Conversation, which would have included Consensus KC’s health care event. But they soon realized they would need to cancel the event and adapt the nonprofit organization’s principles for civil discourse to address the fear, anxiety and isolation the pandemic has sown.

This is about a deep need for the very thing we’ve been championing: coming together in conversation, including with those with whom we disagree,” says Executive Director Pearce Godwin. “The new reality is an encouragement for Americans of all stripes to connect, converse and care for one another.” 

The National Conversation Project has created a #WeavingCommunity website that offers simple guidelines for holding these conversations, echoing principles of civil discourse that have been promoted in recent years as an antidote to the rancor and finger-pointing that characterize too many public policy debates. “Avoid assumptions about others and listen first to understand them.” “Trust each other to speak honestly.” “Respect each other’s fears and vulnerabilities.” 

The website also offers organizations such as Consensus KC a platform for promoting their events and suggesting ways to maintain and even strengthen their communities. A map is available to “pin” these conversations, illustrating the “weaving” that’s taking place across the country. 

Our desire is to amplify where conversing and caring is taking place,” Godwin says, ”to recognize where people are doing that work, and encourage those not engaged in that work to begin building those local relationships.”

Holliday is already seeing how connecting around the pandemic is helping people begin to weave a stronger social fabric. The weekly Zoom events provide a forum where participants share ideas for supporting one another. It’s a place where, for example, people are encouraged to buy gift cards at local businesses and contribute to virtual tip jars for local artists performing online. 

Just as important, it has helped participants identify issues that the crisis has brought to the surface, such as the need for improving communication in their neighborhoods through block captains and text chains.

“Without the pandemic, without a pressing reason to bring people together to talk and share ideas, this probably wouldn’t have happened,” Holliday says. 

To call the pandemic a blessing would be a stretch. But it has created an opportunity for people to talk with their neighbors and, in the process, get to know them better. 

“The great problem we’re faced with as a society is we have to figure out a way to talk with one another,” Holiday says. 

“The coronavirus is giving us a common ground where we can do that. It gives us an opportunity to talk with people we might not have talked with before. It gives us an opportunity to build community in a way we haven’t before. And if we’re able to maintain these new connections, then I think that can help us work with one another later. That’s what we hope.”

(For updates on Consensus KC activities, including its weekly gatherings, go to: https://www.facebook.com/ConsensusKC/ )

The Journal, the print and digital magazine of the Kansas Leadership Center, is publishing a digital newsletter that explores what is working, what isn’t working and what’s being learned during the response to COVID-19. To receive updates, subscribe here: https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/contact-us/join-our-email-list/

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