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Meeting the Community on
Their Own Turf

vollmer

The most important feature of the [conversation] is that it takes place on the community's turf at the community's convenience. This must be understood: we are going to them. This stands in sharp contrast to the traditional approach to public engagement, which too often revolves around meetings and activities held in the evening at the school. Maybe asking the community to come to us made sense years ago when the pace of change was slow and most people had kids in school. But today, with demographic realignment, rapid social restructuring, and the erosion of public trust, attempting to engage the community on our turf at our convenience just doesn't cut it. We must go to them.

This shift in venue provides six major benefits.

1. By going to them, we greatly expand the size of our audience. The number of people who hear our message is no longer diminished by conflicts with competing community activities, sporting events, or prime time TV. It is not reduced by disinterest, forgetfulness, fatigue, or discomfort with the setting. This last point is key. There are hundreds of grown-ups in every community who are scared to death of school, and many more who carry a grudge: they had horrible experiences inside the selecting system when they were kids, and, years later, it still gives them the willies just to smell the place. Choosing the school as the venue may be logistically sound, but the site acts as a filter that suppresses turnout. It all but guarantees that only certain kinds of people will attend.

The proof of this assertion is clear in the factual record. Districts everywhere go to great lengths to invite the people of their communities to "important meetings" held at the school. They send letters home with the kids. They put announcements in the district newsletter. The superintendent writes an article for the local paper. The meeting is promoted on the radio, details are publicized on the district's website and cable channel, and an email campaign is launched. Handwritten notes are sent to VIPs, and posters blanket the town. All this and more is done to encourage attendance. And if the meeting has nothing to do with raising taxes, downsizing the sports program, or choosing cheerleaders—and if there is no free food—who shows up?

That's right, 12 + 1: the same twelve parents and the one weirdo who comes to all the meetings. This hardly qualifies as a robust conversation.

The trends of time demand that we engage a much bigger audience. By shifting the venue, by sharing our message on the community's turf at the community's convenience, we get the audience we need.

2. By shifting the venue, we increase audience receptivity. People listen and respond differently when they are sitting among their peers in a safe, familiar environment. Comfort levels are up. Defensive shields are down. This combination of factors greatly improves the chances that more of our message will be heard, absorbed, and remembered.

3. Our audiences are better behaved on their turf. Peer groups tend to police their own. They moderate the contentious or boorish behavior of their members, especially when they are on a tight schedule. I think of this as a classroom management issue, and it's a big deal in my experience.

Numerous times, I've sat in meetings held at the school and watched a community member—let's call him Frank—go on and on about some real or perceived problem that has nothing to do with the evening's presentation. On the surface, it might appear that we would have more control of the situation in "our house." But the dynamics are not in our favor. We invited Frank to join us. He inconvenienced himself to come to our meeting. He invested his time and energy. He has been explicitly or implicitly asked for input, and, by golly, he's going to give it. Whether he is a parent or not is irrelevant; he's a taxpayer. The poor presenter has little choice but to stand and listen with a fixed expression of interest on her face as her stomach acids slowly rise and dissolve the lining of her esophagus. Meanwhile, as the clock ticks away, the rest of the people in the auditorium squirm in their seats, ruing their decision to attend, and praying for someone to put them out of their misery.

Change the venue, however, and the dynamic shifts. Frank is now surrounded by his peers and bound by the rules of behavior established by the group. Their meetings follow a concise routine. They have places to go, and they are eager to get on with the show. If Frank goes on too long, they have the standing and the inclination to say something that we could never say: "Frank, sit down and shut up."

Shifting the venue will not eliminate extraneous comments or questions. And, as we shall see, courtesy requires that we always take a quick moment to acknowledge the feedback and promise a personal response following the event. But when we are in "their house," even without their help, we can control the situation by referencing the group's desire to end on time. In one stroke, we demonstrate our respect for their busy schedule, and we keep the audience focused on our message. It's a big win-win.

4. The time constraints imposed by most meetings in the community force us to sharpen our message. We have to tailor our remarks to ensure that we finish within the allotted time. This is especially important for presenters who are more predisposed to talk than listen—a not uncommon trait among teachers.

5. By moving the Conversation to the community's turf we change perceptions of "us" and "them." Teachers and administrators get out of their buildings to see and be seen. They learn more about the people, the organizations, and the businesses surrounding their schools. On the other band, community members get to see and speak with educators beyond the usual representatives of senior management. Knowledge and familiarity grow among parties. This is especially valuable in those districts where many members of the staff—sometimes as much as eighty percent—either choose or are forced by finances to live outside the community.

6. The sixth and final benefit is huge: by shifting the venue, we can easily and precisely monitor the diffusion of our message throughout the community. Taking our show on the road enables us to create a tracking system that provides a precise record of where we have been and what has been said. We can quantify the size and composition of each audience, and we can record their response. Conversely, at any point in the process, we can see where we have yet to go: we can see the geographic and demographic holes in our coverage area, and we can plan our next steps accordingly.

Together, the benefits that accrue when we take our message to the community's turf are priceless. We dramatically increase the size of our audience; we gain greater control over the flow of our information; we enjoy positive changes in the audience, the message, and the messengers. By making the effort to meet the people where and when it's convenient for them to meet— where there is no fear or resentment, and where everyone feels welcome—we set the stage for a discussion that is more relaxed, authentic, and productive. We no longer have to hope (pray) that the people will come to us. We go to them. In doing this, we ensure greater exposure to and acceptance of our message.

Reprinted with permission of the author from Schools Cannot Do It Alone by Jamie Vollmer. For more information, visit www.jamievollmer.com.

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