“Put people together in the right context and they’ll do amazing things.” — Steve Huffman, Reddit co-founder
Putting people together to discuss the challenges of our time is what democracy is all about. But if we can’t talk through our different perspectives, we can’t come to a consensus. A line in the sand is drawn over every disagreement.
At KUOW in Seattle, we’ve been working on way to bring people together in the right context for understanding those who have different backgrounds and perspectives. Through a series of events that started in early 2016, we’ve developed a model for facilitating a civil dialogue between people who rarely have opportunities to talk one-on-one.
The events, called “Ask A [fill in the blank],” use a speed-dating format to get one-on-one conversations going. Early research by the University of Washington shows that our approach bridges cultural and political divides and increases trust and empathy.
KUOW’s community engagement staff has done eight of these, starting in February 2016 with three dialogues called “Ask A Muslim.” Last year, we hosted conversations with five other groups, including Trump supporters, transgender people and cops. Working with a local design firm, The Hilt, we have assembled a list of best practices for a tool kit that’s available on the “Ask A …” website. We are ready to share what we’ve learned with other public media outlets, churches, schools, social service groups and businesses that want to host their own “Ask A …” events.
The project is our attempt to address deep polarization in American political discourse, which keeps getting worse each year. As recently at 1994, political attitudes among people who identified themselves as Democrats and Republicans were fairly close, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center. By 2017 the number of Americans with ideologically consistent values had increased and the political views of those from the left and right have moved sharply apart.
The divisions transcend party affiliations of Democrats and Republicans. We have separated ourselves by socio-economic status, race and ethnicity, geography and the media we consume. Social media creates a bubbles that feed us more of what we agree with — and less of what we don’t.
The result is that we have fewer encounters with those who have different beliefs, and we don’t know how to talk to each other. Trying to have a civil conversation with family members or friends can sometimes feel like a lost cause. Comments on social media posts can degrade rapidly. We have few opportunities to exercise the skill of asking neutral questions, of listening without judging.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a complete shutdown of Muslim immigration in the U.S. in late 2015, I began to wonder how many people know Muslims as friends, neighbors and colleagues — and whether they have opportunities to talk with them outside of work and social situations that discourage conversations about religion or politics. As KUOW’s executive producer for community engagement, I realized that such one-to-one conversations should take place, and that our radio station could be a trusted convener.
Caroline Dodge, our director of community engagement, instantly supported the idea. We produced our first event in February 2016 as an experiment. Our goal was to host one-on-one conversations with little or no moderation. We had no idea how it would turn out.
The Seattle Council on American-Islamic Relations helped us find Muslims who were willing to answer questions. We recruited listeners over the air to participate as “askers.” It took about six weeks to organize our first event, which was held at the KUOW studios.
The “askers” were given a primer on interviewing by using neutral questions framed with who, what, where, when, how, and why. We exchanged short bios of each participant along with lists of “askers” questions and the topics “answerers” wanted to discuss.
We arranged seating so that eight Muslim “answerers” sat in a circle facing eight “askers.” A bell rang and conversations began. Eight minutes later, the bell rang again and non-Muslims moved one seat to the left for another conversation.
After each of the “askers” had talked with each of the Muslims one-on-one, everyone came together to talk as a group about what surprised them and what they learned. Why Muslim women choose to wear or not wear the hijab was one hot topic. There were as many reasons as there were women.
After the group discussion, we served a buffet halal meal. This was when conversations really took off between participants, as their earlier one-on-one discussions had been cut short. When the event was over, we had to forcefully tell people that it was time to leave. It felt like success.
We held a second “Ask A Muslim” in August 2016, using the same format in a different location, a South Seattle community center. Once again, it felt like we were on to something.
The community engagement team decided to try and grow the “Ask A …” idea. We had learned a great deal about choreographing the events so the movement of participants from one conversation to the next went smoothly and audio recording at the event didn’t disrupt the conversations.
That fall we received a $50,000 University of Washington Amazon Catalyst grant and $24,800 contributed by KUOW major donors towards a second season for 2017.
We planned six events, starting with another “Ask A Muslim” dialogue, and then expanding to new groups who had been portrayed negatively in the news as “others.” Five separate “Ask A …” events created space for “askers” to talk with Trump supporters, cops, transgender people, immigrants, and newcomers to Seattle.
For our second season, we set a goal to evaluate whether participating in these events got people to see beyond stereotyped categories and recognize each other as individuals. We also wanted to see if civil dialogues increased trust and empathy enough to address profound differences within a diverse population.
We worked with researchers at the University of Washington — communications professor Valerie Manusov and doctoral candidate Danny Stofleth — to design a valid scientific survey of participants’ attitudes and understanding of the group they met at ”Ask A …” events. All participants in the 2017 events completed the survey.
Before each event, participants completed an online survey at Catalyst, the University of Washington website for social research. We brought laptops to the events for participants who had not completed the “before” survey to do so. When the event was over, we asked them to fill out the “after” survey before they left. Three months later, we followed up with a third questionnaire.
With one exception, the results showed statistically significant increases in understanding and empathy toward each group right after the events. Surprisingly, these results held up three months after the events.
The one exception was the “Ask A Cop” event. We would like to host another one with police this year to find out if the results persist, and if so why.
Scaling up to reach more people
Multimedia production of “Ask A …” events has helped to build participation and interest in our approach.
KUOW’s Lisa Wang, sponsorship and events manager, and John O’Brien, producer of our Speaker’s Forum, recorded audio and shot photos after each event, providing material for radio features and additional content on our website. We also worked with BaronVisual to produce a video about the project. To promote attendance at future events, we directed interested participants to that content.
Of the 400 people who applied to attend “Ask A …” events, 117 were chosen to participate in our second season. Outside organizations, including a local church, have approached us about putting on their own “Ask A Muslim” event.
We had learned how to do these events, but realized we needed to find a way to scale up so they reach more people.
The tool kit we developed with designers from The Hilt will help with this.
We are planning six more local events at KUOW this year. Our first,“Ask A Gun Owner,” is scheduled for March 31.
We are also co-producing an “Ask a Foster Parent” event with Amara, a local foster care agency, and “Ask a Muslim” with the Muslim Association of Puget Sound.
It might sound weird that a broadcast entity would facilitate small group conversations when it has the ability to reach so many people over the air. One of the major divisions in our country is around news media. Some people don’t trust Fox, some don’t trust NPR. Perceptions of trust in news are attributable in part to tribal loyalty, but they also have to do with how media falls outside our immediate experience.
In fact, we consume media to get beyond our immediate experience. Meeting people in real time is more compelling than reading an article or listening to a news story. It’s a first-hand experience, not a received experience. People can certainly be disingenuous when they meet in person, but there’s little incentive to behave that way at an “Ask A …” event. It’s a chance to engage in civil conversation; if you want to disrupt, there’s not a very large audience.
Because participating in these small, in-person events is more immediate and impactful than consuming media, people are more likely to talk about the experience. So the next time a friend begins to spout unfounded beliefs about Trump supporters — or Muslims, transgender people or cops — “Ask A …” participants will be ready to respond, “Well, have you ever talked to any of them? I have and here’s what I learned…”
KUOW is actively recruiting more partners to do “Ask A…” events. We would like to work with groups outside Seattle, in places where it might be more important to “Ask A Hillary Supporter” or “Ask An Atheist.”
We’re not selling a product, we’re simply excited about this form of community engagement and eager spread it further. Check out the web features and tool kit on our website, and if you want to learn more, get in touch.
Ross Reynolds is EP of community engagement at KUOW in Seattle.