What should we be talking about today?

What should we be talking about today? “Community Engagement” is a tidy turn of phrase. To start with, “engagement” is a slippery word. It has been co-opted and adapted to refer to just about anything that holds anyone’s attention. But as overused as “engagement” is, it’s nothing next to “community!” Instead of jumping through hoops to offer a comprehensive definition of community engagement, I would rather point to the title of the first conference session I participated in in 2021: What should we be talking about today?Daniel Aguirre and I presented this session at the UK Science Festival Network Annual Conference on January 19. We were asked to give this presentation to discuss the community listening sessions that we put together in 2020. I think I suggested the title, but only because it is one of the many things that I’ve picked up from watching Daniel work. In the community engagement conversations that he puts together he often turns to some version of this phrase to start conversation. This question is deceptively simple. It is such a natural opening that you may not notice it. There is an invitation here, an accessible entry point for a group conversation. But the essential thing to me is that it makes it clear that here is no set agenda more important than what the participants have on their minds. The agenda, such as it is, is made in the moment out of what the participants bring with them, and the phrase sets the tone that we’ll only be talking about something because it matters to the participants. You can see the power of this simple phrase in 2020’s community conversations. There were two series of these sessions, one set of five sessions in May and June, and another set of four sessions at the end of August. Most of these sessions drew around 80 – 100 professionals, mostly from science engagement. These professionals were only able to join in “listen-only mode,” and were asked to refrain from using chat. Each session was scheduled for an hour-and-fifteen minutes, and featured community engagement conversations assembled and facilitated by Daniel. There was a planned topic for each session, but as it turned out those topics were not always what participants needed to be talking about at the time. The first series of conversations was originally intended to address the digital divide amidst the first months of COVID restrictions, with conversations over the course of 10 days with students, parents, teachers, and social-emotional practitioners. However, the first of those conversations was set for Monday, May 25. This was the same day that George Floyd as murdered by police in Minneapolis. As you might imagine, opening the conversations without a specific agenda meant that they quickly veered off topic. It also allowed the conversations to go much deeper than anticipated. Remarkably, because Daniel allowed the conversations to follow their course, I felt like I learned far more about the digital divide than I think I would have had Daniel insisted that everyone stick to a narrow topic. I could go on describing the conversations here, but there is too much to sum up. Our second series was arranged around the theme of talking through racial divides, with the added request that listeners join the sessions with a listening partner. Both sets of conversations were recorded, and are available on this site. What does all of this have to do with science festivals? If a festival is anything, it is a shared, participatory, public celebration. So of course any festival organizer is going to have their ear on the streets, so to speak, listening to what is top of mind for the many different people that the organizer hopes to get together. This just seems plainly obvious to me, and since it began over ten years ago the Science Festival Alliance has always made sure that community engagement was a topic covered at our meetings, in webinars, and so on. Yet over time I have begun to realize that while everyone in the room agreed when we would talk over community engagement principles, there weren’t many that walked the walk. Year after Year we ramped up our emphasis on community engagement: the theme of the last in-person Science Events Summit was “Community First.” But despite vigorous head-nodding, it seemed to me like there was still some disconnect. People were capable of using the language and the right phrases, and then walking away and not actually doing it. To be specific, I finally noticed that public science engagement professionals don’t need to practice authentic community engagement to keep getting paid. That is not right. If you want to use another term or quibble about language, that’s fine. But community engagement should be deeper than a best practice, deeper than a cornerstone practice, it should be bedrock. If you recognize that this is a change that you need to make, now is the perfect time to start. It is still impossible to make detailed plans for in-person events, so you have to put your first agenda to the side anyway. Everyone is excited to get back to gathering, but do you really want to party like it’s 2019? Put your festival planning to the side to listen instead, and do what it takes to build relationships of trust throughout your community. When the time comes to start planning again you’ll be building on bedrock…and you just might have some more friends to help with the heavy lifting.