Over the past couple of weeks, I had the opportunity to sit in on two community conversations that I thought would be quite different from each other.

The first was hosted by the Aspirations to Actions team, including Cheri Coryea, Ashley Coone, and Alicia Exantus, for the Study Away 2024 students visiting from Indiana University Indianapolis Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Each student was given a role card of who they were 'playing' in the community, and there were actual community leaders present as well. The goal of this conversation was to introduce the students to the method of community conversations to allow them to think about how they could bring these methods back to their own communities in Indianapolis and beyond.

The second community conversation was hosted by The Harwood Institute at the DeSoto County Library for any resident of DeSoto County. About twenty residents, ranging from students to retirees, with all different backgrounds, attended. This conversation is part of the larger Harwood Project in DeSoto County. The conversations are a means of networking and collaboration; they can also help residents self-identify their aspirations for their own community.

You might look at these two community conversations on paper and assume they would be completely different—I assumed the same! In one, the students were given simulated community roles that they had about five minutes to prepare for, and in the other, residents of all ages talked about their own experiences in their community.

But as I reflect on these two community conversations, I am struck by the parallels between them. Despite their different contexts, both gatherings shared a common thread of fostering collaboration, dialogue, and collective problem-solving. Whether it was the Study Away students exploring philanthropic possibilities or DeSoto County residents envisioning the future of their community, each conversation highlighted the importance of active engagement and inclusive participation.

One element that really stood out to me was the emphasis both groups had on action. Before any “action” or “next step,” members of both conversations asked the questions “What’s next?” and “How can I help?” In both conversations, ideas were shared about who else might care about the issues being discussed and who might have been underrepresented in the conversation.

Additionally, in both conversations, the participants reflected on learning a perspective they hadn’t considered before. Through the exchange of ideas, perspectives, and aspirations, participants gained new insights.

The learnings from these community conversations help to affirm their value, but they also inspire me to focus on the power of listening, active collaboration, and bringing people together. These are not things that are unique to community conversations but rather things that we can strive to do every day.

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