Authentic community engagement should be the bedrock of public science practice. But how many of us are truly doing it?
Successful community engagement is more than just hanging an “All Are Welcome” sign on the door. And it doesn’t start until public science practitioners set aside our own agendas and listen.
In 2020 we launched a series of five community listening sessions facilitated by Daniel Aguirre, community organizer, Science Festival Accelerator Advisory Board Chair, and STEM consultant with TIES (Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM).
These sessions evolved out of challenges and frustrations that arose among our Science Festival Accelerator cohort in early 2019. Participating festivals articulated a sincere commitment to increasing diversity and community engagement, but they were making meager progress toward these goals. When the COVID-19 pandemic prompted many organizations, including Accelerator participants, to shift their programming online, it widened a digital divide that is already a significant barrier to inclusion.
During the sessions, community members including social-emotional learning practitioners, teachers, parents, and students set the agendas, with Daniel facilitating the conversation and public science practitioners participating in “listen-only” mode.
The sessions were powerful and insightful, drawing 80–100 listeners from the public science community for each conversation. Much more important, however, is that these conversations model what active community engagement looks like, so that we can stop paying lip service to it, start fully practicing it, and recognize it as the bedrock of public science.
Our 2020 Voices listening sessions often began with the question “What should we be talking about today?” Although the theme of our inaugural session was about adjusting and reacting to the digital divide made wider by COVID-19, the conversation took place in the days immediately following George Floyd’s murder and the tone and topics shifted accordingly. It was clear that our next series of listening sessions needed to address the social and systemic pandemic of racism.
Many public science practitioners are familiar with the principles of co-production, mutually informing, and community-first programming. But after that inspiring conference session or hands-on workshop, many of us revert to business as usual. The frustrating reality is that authentic community engagement is rarely a job requirement.
This series of four public conversations and one private conversation with a trusted listening partner challenged participants to work through their discomfort and develop a practice of active listening. Though specifically focused on issues of systemic racism in the country and in public science, these listening sessions and guided conversations are easy for any motivated organization to replicate as it works to develop, maintain, and strengthen connections within and across communities.