In the sections below, we start by summarizing the characteristics, values, activities, and roles that we observed in the experiments we’ve been part of and those we’ve seen from a distance. We then present what we learned about the nuances and details of the three principles that emerged in EE2015.


Qualities we’ve observed in civic communications:

  • Generative – focused on interactions that help generate new ideas and discover possibilities.
  • Interdependence and reciprocity between those who practice the communications arts and all other parts of communities.
  • Inclusive, with community at its heart, it makes room for all voices to be heard, all peoples to be seen, with compassion, curiosity, and respect.
  • Increases understanding, conveying meaning while making use of facts.
  • Emphasizes inquiry, deliberation,and dialogue over debate and advocacy.
  • Connects people across differences – e pluribus unum – out of many, one.
  • Helps people understand issues and each other in context, how we fit together as a community and society.
  • Encourages authentic expression, in which difference becomes useful, creative tension.
  • Moves communities toward actions in which everyone can see some aspect of his or her contributions.
  • Inspires accountability on behalf of ourselves, others, and the whole.
  • Shifts power so that decisions are made by those most affected – with the context and information, including facts and feelings, for making choices.
  • Is transparent about actions and motivations.


Participants at Experience Engagement 2015 observed that many traditional norms of journalism are changing or expanding. New values are emerging:

Traditional norms AND Emerging Values
Speaking truth to power Speaking truth to empower
Objectivity, neutrality Engagement, empathy, inclusion
Independence Interdependence, connection
Revealing what is wrong Appreciating what is possible
Giving voice to voiceless Helping people find/use their voice
Journalism for people Journalism with people
In the ongoing developmental evaluation work with the projects, we saw some other values emerging as we observed the projects. Additional values words and phrases that we often heard included:
  • Sustainability
  • Thriving
  • Trust
  • Shared vision
  • Collaboration and cocreation
  • Commitment – being there for the long haul
  • Being in and of the community – participants and others engaged in dialogue have “skin in the game”
  • Engagement work is additive and enhancing, not extractive for another purpose


Some of the key activities common among the projects included:

  • Meaningful conversation, especially face-to-face, that deepens understanding and connection.
  • Community arts and storytelling that help imagine previously unimaginable possibilities and discover our shared humanity in each other’s stories.
  • Abundant, trustworthy journalism where people not only access accurate information, but create and share it in a way that helps them understand context, themselves, each other, and the world by seeking understanding and meaning even in challenging situations.
  • Accessing information, participating in civic life and open government to inform and help community members engage in the decisions that affect their lives and communities.
  • Growing media, storytelling and communications talent among local residents.
  • Orienteering – a process that can involve a coaching role, to keeps a community “on the same page” and in harmony with agreed-upon principles. We played this coaching role with Macon Listening Post and One Issue Many Perspectives in Portland.

These activities parallel a pattern of change that we have seen in other contexts, including community-based and participatory research and dialogic whole systems change work. The patterns involves:
  • Listening, reflecting, and synthesizing/learning
  • Dreaming together of possibilities
  • Discerning the path(s) to pursue among alternatives
  • Focusing on generative images that move us to act on shared aspirations.

We have seen that this pattern enables people to discover, connect, dream, and act on behalf of ourselves, our communities, and our society. (LeGreco, Ferrier and Leonard, 2015; Holman, 2010). We suspect that similar patterns would result in the civic communications sphere.


We see several new functions or roles that may be required for civic communications to function. As we observed the projects, themes emerged related either to the functions that some of the leaders were engaged in, or roles that, in hindsight we think would have been helpful. The functions in the following list are not mutually exclusive (one person might serve more than one function and a group of people might take one on):external image image?w=316&h=213&rev=46&ac=1

  • Community weaver: This is a function that connects people to each other and to information. Weavers broker and strengthen relationships, catalyze community conversation and storytelling, mirror so that people feel heard, and bring partners together where there are fractures.

  • Guardian(s)/Steward(s): This role especially may require a group or council. The function is to foster commitment to its principles, values and to the people most impacted by the issues the project addresses. This role facilitates ongoing participatory regeneration of and orientation toward a shared vision, ensures inclusiveness, has a clear view of the changing community, constantly reviews conditions to ensure continuous learning and accountability, and pays attention to outcomes (e.g., measuring the impact of an engagement project on people’s empowerment actions).

  • Coach: In each of the projects we looked at most closely, we found that we often functioned in a coaching capacity, supporting and advising the projects’ leadership around the meaning of engagement and helping to reflect on ways to strengthen congruence with engagement principles. As coaches, we also facilitated sense-making activities.

  • Allies/Partners: We observed that the partnerships that make these projects successful were different from the kind of “missionary”-like involvement that have historically frustrated and often done more harm than good in disenfranchised communities. This function is not really a separate role, but a way of describing all partners in successful engagement work. Allies:
    • Are there for the long haul
    • Have listening built into their values
    • Have a social change / justice orientation and organizational culture
    • Have skin in the game(e.g., resources committed)external image image?w=316&h=140&rev=32&ac=1
    • Have real human connection to people in the target community (connections to others who are interested in and experiencing the problem)
    • Are connected to grassroots efforts but free from control by large non-grassroots institutions (able to be more committed to the community),
    • Demonstrate commitment to underrepresented communities by supporting their leadership and not making decisions for them (e.g., instead of doing the work of “processing the feed” and figuring out what to do with it each week, train community members to analyze the feed and ask good questions that link to where the decision-making is happening)

  • Other skills: We observed the following additional skill sets in play:
    • Dialogic practices
    • Generative storytelling
    • The investigative, verification, and storytelling skills often held by professional journalists, which are critical to deepening public understanding
    • Community asset mapping to amplify existing people, projects and resources
    • Ethnography and other means of making a community’s daily life more visible to itself

Deepening Understanding of the Principles

The three principles that emerged from EE2015, as described in the Developmental Evaluation __report,__ seemed to be operating in the projects that we observed, and we were able to learn more about them.

Nothing About Us Without Us

This principle of inclusion is a reminder that all community stakeholders should be represented in all aspects of the storytelling, not just as subjects. Based on our work with Macon and Agora, ‘Nothing about us without us’ means:

Consciously and continuously reexamining who is engaged. For example, ask:
  • Who is in and who is out?
  • What power dynamics are involved?
  • Whose story needs to be told and why?
  • Who decides what story is worthy of being told, and on what grounds (i.e., what is newsworthy)?
  • Who tells the story? external image image?w=316&h=128&rev=78&ac=1
  • Is the work being done with and by the community (as opposed to “to” or “for” them)?

Being clear and honest about who the work is for. This entails, for example:
  • Again, asking what power dynamics are involved and consciously deciding what it would mean to commit or not to commit to those who have less power.
  • Examining why are we telling this story – for what/whose purposes? Whose well-being is enhanced by the storytelling (or is the work extracting from some group to enhance another group?).
  • Ensuring that the people whose story is being told have input (if not full authority) in decisions about their own engagement.
  • Considering and being transparent about commitments not only to people, but also to values, principles and impacts (and set up systems to track fidelity to those commitments).
  • Creating strategic partnerships with people and organizations already engaged with community residents.

Based on our work in other engagement contexts, we suggest these as examples of some activities that are congruent with the “Nothing about us without us” principle:
  • Be Seen: Make the community visible to itself. Use communication audits and network mapping as well as other demographic analyses to understand who is in the community and who needs to be represented at the table. Understand the local “soil” into which we are seeding experiments. Where are conversations already happening? How can we connect and amplify them? What are the motivations of those who are initiating the community actions?
  • Be Heard: Bring together community diversity to imagine opportunities/issues for the community to address.
  • Map community assets to leverage existing assets, discover possibilities, and identify actions. Find opinion leaders and others to create bridges to underserved and underrepresented communities.
We recognize that this principle can raise serious problems for traditional journalists, and that more exploration around the changing view of the ethics of engagement is needed.

Speak Truth to Empower

The principle “speak truth to empower” originated at an earlier conference called “What Is Journalism?” at the University of Oregon George S. Turnbull Center in October 2014. A traditional motto of journalism has been to “speak truth to power.” Participants in the earlier conference expressed that idea that, in an interactive world, journalists must also speak truth to empower people to act in their own self interest. They also postulated that the principle is mutual in that it is through the public’s willingness to engage with journalists that journalists are empowered to be a voice on behalf of people.

Based on our work with Macon and Agora, we learned that “Speaking truth to empower” does not only rely on journalists being the ones to speak that empowering truth; empowerment comes when people use the tools of communication to tell their own stories in order to build their own power and act toward self-determination. This finding is consistent with our earlier research on empowerment and participatory change processes (Susskind, 2010; Ferrier, 2007). external image image?w=316&h=242&rev=27&ac=1

“Speaking truth to empower” involves recognizing the multiple ways that information empowers:

  • The power of information to support people to be free and self-governing is not only found in providing people the news and information they need (especially if those people are left out of the process of deciding what information is needed). Power also resides in the role of information to support people to discover, create, share and utilize information.
  • Empowerment entails having a fully informed say in what story and information one chooses to share with journalists and other storytellers.
  • Empowerment is an outcome not just a process; it must lead to real change in the influence people have in society and equality in social well-being.

Inquiring into and understanding the power dynamics and the opportunities to increase self-determination, autonomy and social justice (both within the community and between the community and the rest of society), requires asking:
  • Who has power over others here? Who has relationship power through ties to others? Who lacks power, in what contexts and why?
  • On what issues are these power dynamics most relevant/what power dynamics are relevant in the stories and issues that we are focusing on (related to questions above, such as who decides what is newsworthy, which stories are told)?
  • Whose empowerment are we working towards and what does this mean about other people’s power?
  • What different expressions of social power are involved, considering that power to, power with and power within do not diminish other people’s power; only power over does that.
  • Even among the supportive partners, what power dynamics are at play? For example, if the project is initiated, implemented and substantially led by an ally who is not in and of the community, what is the project doing to build opportunities and capacities for community members to govern the project themselves? Also, allies who come from outside the community must inquire into their own motivations, values, assumptions, prejudices and privileges.

Examples of some activities that would be in harmony with the principle to Speak Truth to Empower are to:
  • Enhance opportunities for people to use the stories that are told, content that is produced, information that is shared, and engagement that occurs to take action to influence issues and decisions. Beyond following the news more closely and talking about it with others, support people doing something with the information, such as advocating on policy, taking direct action, creating new solutions, attending public meetings.
  • Connect the stories and their storytellers to where decision-making is happening. Ask whether this project is increasing the target community’s access to and influence in the rooms where decisions are made.

Listening is our Superpower

Operating in all three spheres, “listening is our superpower” is most notably in the emergent community of practice sphere. It is the common space between community and journalism.

Based on our work with Macon and Agora, “Listening is our Superpower” means:

Being relational, not transactional because:
  • It’s part of a multidirectional conversation that takes place within relationship(s).
  • It’s an activity of ALL stakeholders.external image image?w=316&h=201&rev=25&ac=1
  • It’s not happening if people are not feeling heard (communities feel journalists often listen for purposes of their story frame, not to understand whether the frame reflects their lived experience).
  • If we listen well, we can hear that certain conversations need to happen, want to happen and are about to happen, and we can bring those conversations together.

Supporting authentic truth-telling by:
  • Using practices that help people connect to their own truths and supporting and protecting them to be truthful out loud;
  • Listening to individuals, not organizational proxies for them;
  • Appreciating that different individuals or groups may have differing “truths.”

Learning and discovery happen when:
  • It is two stage; first individual learning, then place for shared meaning and collective learning;
  • People really hear each other across differences and are open and curious about why others feel the way they do, and, how their backgrounds and experiences influence their perspectives;
  • What is being heard is allowed to influence what happens next;
  • It is used to uncover and amplify the quiet and underrepresented voices.

Examples of activities that align with “Listening is our Superpower” include:
  • Appreciative inquiry “is the cooperative, coevolutionary search for the best in people, their organizations and communities, and the relevant world around them. It involves systematic discovery of what gives “life” to an organization or community when it is most effective, and most capable in economic, ecological, and human terms.” (Holman, Devane, Cady, 2007).
  • Other dialogic practices, including__Circle Dialogue__,__World Cafe__,__Open Space Technology__ that engage people in conversations that lead to self-organization and action around shared meaning. (Holman, Devane, Cady, 2007).
  • Creating both physical space and online spaces that encourage community members to engage when and how they are able (LeGreco, Ferrier and Leonard, 2015).

Indicators of Success

As we worked with what we learned from Macon, Agora, and other efforts, we noticed the following outcomes emerging. We see them as indicators that civiccommunications is happening.
Civic communications…
  • foster trustworthy relationships,
  • encourage learning,
  • develop the capacity for holistic thinking;
  • inspire organizational responsibility and accountability,
so that communities and democracy thrive.

Foster trustworthy relationshipsexternal image image?w=316&h=401&rev=72&ac=1

When authentic interactions happen, they encourage reciprocity, which sparks a virtuous cycle that cultivates trust. We noticed that working with the principles encouraged these qualities. Interactions became relational, as opposed to a extractional or transactional. Being relational describes a way of engaging that turns passive audience into active, engaged and powerful community agents. Increasingly trustworthy relationships improve the capacity to see and engage power dynamics, a theme that arose throughout the principles. Local stakeholders, including journalists, politicians, residents, nonprofit organizations and other community agents with different roles and areas of expertise, work together to answer questions. Solutions emerge from a conversation where maintaining trust, transparency and accountability are paramount.

Encourage Learning

The idea of “continuous learning” helped make sense of some of what we saw in the Guiding Principles. Projects were most successful when they cultivated, openness, curiosity, and a willingness to return iteratively to challenge assumptions.

In a social context, we saw that learning is about curiosity, deep listening and compassion, getting out of oneself and truly seeking to hear and understand another person’s perspective. This is learning in service to relationship building.

Develop the capacity for holistic thinking

Holistic thinking, or “systems thinking” entails the elements of interrelationships, perspectives and boundaries. Interrelationships refers to the way things are connected, the cause-effect relationships among component parts. The idea of boundaries helps make systems thinking useful and manageable by differentiating between what is in and what is out, what’s relevant and what’s irrelevant, based on intentions. The concept of perspectives comes into play when we make decisions about where the boundaries lie. What’s important and what’s relevant depends on your perspective and your purpose (Williams and Hummelbrunner, 2011).

How do we help a community become visible to itself? As it develops a more inclusive sense of “us”, differences become a source of creative tension leading to breakthrough solutions rather than conflict. __Community asset mapping__ and other means of identifying who makes up the whole system – geographically, demographically, psychographically – helps us to understand who to involve. Discovering that helps when navigating questions such as who the “us” is in Nothing About Us Without Us. How pluralistic is that “us” and what do we do when interests and perspectives are in conflict? How do we decide who the project is committed to when choosing a boundary that leaves some people out?

Thinking about power requires considering multiple perspectives. Often, increasing someone’s autonomy and self-determination means decreasing another person or institution’s power over them. As community members from different parts of the system engage, they begin to discover that, like the metaphorical blind men and the elephant, they need each other to understand the dynamics, challenges, aspirations, and tradeoffs for making choices in which the whole community has a stake.

Inspire organizational responsibility and accountability

One hard lesson from the projects we worked with is to be clear about your purpose, intentions and who you wish to serve so that you know what to look for when seeking compatible partners. Understanding what draws them to the project – their intentions, who they see themselves serving (community members? funders? donors?) – matters. In a sense, fostering trustworthy relationships among partner organizations is as critical as the relationships created with community members once the effort is underway. Establishing clear expectations with partners reinforces responsible behavior towards the community because once under way, expectations of participating community members are raised.

Being accountable requires attending to those expectations. To miss expectations is a sure way to put trust at risk. The idea of accountability came up as we considered that engagement improves the health of civil society, but that society contains many different and often conflicting interests. We recognize that all stories are important, but there are often power differentials between the storytellers and the people whose stories are told. We saw that often we needed to think about which interests a project was serving, and that ignoring this question more often than not meant inadvertently committing to an existing power structure that exploits and mis-represents disenfranchised communities.