Cultivating Community Conversations for Change

By Karen Terry, Extension Educator/Water Resources

February 2018

A project called Cultivating Community Conversations for Change (C4) kicked off in January in Fergus Falls. Based on the premise that more frequent, more meaningful, facilitated conversations between local citizens can lead to positive change in the community, the project has brought together two diverse groups of people to engage in structured discussions about what is going well in Fergus Falls, what is not going well, and what types of barriers keep change from occurring.

Funded by a Bush Foundation grant, the project – led by Extension Educators Karen Terry (Water Resources) and Jody Horntvedt and Brian Fredrickson (both Leadership and Civic Engagement) started out by providing facilitation training for eight team leaders. Those eight people worked together to identify citizens to participate in the conversations – 14 people who were divided into two teams. Each team follows the same process: using the study guide called “Building a Healthier Community: What can we do to make and keep our community healthy, strong, and vibrant?” and led by the trained facilitators, they will meet once a week for four consecutive weeks. The intent is not to solve problems or identify projects or take any action whatsoever; it is strictly to have conversations.

Division: Coming Together

One team did an exercise to graph how they felt Fergus Falls was doing on specific issues in the past, present, and future. This graph focused on divisiveness in the community. Each line connecting three dots represents one person's sense of the issue.

The study guide lays out a framework for the four weeks of conversations. Week 1 is devoted to allowing the team members to get to know each other and to explore ways in which they are connected throughout the community. Week 2 helps them explore the challenges that their community is facing, and followed by a look at the community’s strengths and how those can be harnessed to better the community. The culmination in Week 4 provides the team members the opportunity to discuss specific ways that they could make a difference in Fergus Falls, either as individuals or as a group. But again, the project ends with the conversation; there is no requirement to act on the action items identified.

There is a sense that today’s society is more divided than ever before on many important issues. One way to heal the divisiveness is to bring people together and lead them in having conversations that explore where they agree and where they disagree and where is the common ground upon which they can build. If the C4 conversations in Fergus Falls are deemed to be successful (and at the halfway point, that already seems very likely), the educators from both Centers will look into creating study guides focused on water resources issues and use them in communities around the state, to find common ground upon which we can build together.

If you would like to learn more about this project, contact Karen Terry at kterry@umn.edu or 218-770-9301.

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