I recently experimented with a low-touch, high-impact engagement format I want to share with you: the Lunch & Listen. It is super simple — the name says it all — but for The View From Here: Making Meadowview, Capital Public Radio’s podcast about one South Sacramento neighborhood, simplicity delivered on three important goals:
- We were transparent about our motivation and process.
- Residents helped shape the editorial direction from the start.
- We created a structure for continued collaboration.
My superpower is creating gatherings — big, ambitious ones. For previous CapRadio documentaries, I’ve hosted stakeholder convenings, community meals, story circles and public dialogues, often involving hundreds of people. For these events, I collaborate with community partners to craft participant lists and seating arrangements, curating conversations to reflect a diversity of experiences.
But timelines and budgets don’t always accommodate big, ambitious and collaborative efforts. In those cases, the Lunch & Listen is a fabulous way for community members and journalists to learn from each other at the start of a reporting project. This format offers an opportunity for residents to experience how the journalism process works and to shape the project focus. And it helps reporters and editors gather information they need to ensure the reporting is accurate, relevant and impactful.
Have I piqued your interest? Read on to learn what got folks to the table, how to lead a Lunch & Listen and what kinds of results these gatherings can produce.
Hitting the ground running
Usually, I spend three to four months building relationships that result in reporters and residents working together to shape the editorial focus of our documentary projects. For Making Meadowview, I had about seven weeks. I knew it was critical that we begin well: The neighborhood had been inundated with journalists since police shot and killed Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard in Meadowview in March 2018.
With so many outsiders parachuting in and framing the neighborhood, CapRadio journalists were curious to understand residents’ own view of the place they call home. But CapRadio is not a news source many Meadowview locals use or trust. Plus, it’s a predominantly Latino and African American neighborhood with significant Hmong and Pacific Islander populations, while our reporters and engagers are all white. How could we get going on the right foot? (Making our newsroom reflective of the communities we serve is a structural problem beyond this project, but having residents call it out in a listening session helped restart conversations and movement to address it.)
For starters, I made phone calls to generate a list of people and organizations respected in the Meadowview neighborhood. I asked community leaders what meeting times worked best from them and whether they’d prefer to meet in Meadowview or come to CapRadio. During these conversations, I found out which neighborhood locations work best for community meetings and the kind of experience that would make coming to the event worthwhile. Similarly, I asked project reporters and producers what kind of information would be useful, how long they could realistically be out of the newsroom, and any other outcomes they hoped to get from the experience.
I borrowed core elements from my previous gatherings — journalists and community members breaking bread and exploring ideas together — and drafted a 90-minute agenda based on what Meadowview residents and my colleagues told me. I sent email invites to folks I’d spoken with and posted flyers throughout the neighborhood at community centers, Hmong grocery stores, panaderias, the African marketplace, schools and churches to entice residents to come.
In less than one month, we held four Lunch & Listens — two at CapRadio and two in Meadowview — involving 87 people who live or work in the neighborhood. Participants ranged from business owners to neighborhood organizers, school teachers to police officers, nonprofit leaders, city staff, high-school students, community media publishers, youth development workers and clergy. We also adapted the format to participate in two neighborhood events — a neighborhood association meeting and a community health clinic — where we workshopped ideas with an additional 20 residents.
How to lead a Lunch & Listen
I used the same format for each of the gatherings, which lasted from 45 to 90 minutes depending on whether we were part of another event or hosting our own. Except for the neighborhood association meeting, at least one CapRadio journalist attended each session. Sometimes as many as five participated. We followed the same process each time so we could compare results across groups.
- Welcoming participants. We greeted people personally as they arrived and invited them to grab lunch from a buffet we set up, have a seat and get to know one another. I opened the gathering by thanking everyone for their time and introducing CapRadio’s public service mission and our upcoming reporting project on Meadowview. I explained that we were going to spend a year doing this reporting and that we need their help to tell relevant, respectful, useful and accurate stories. I previewed the agenda and let folks know that this conversation was “on background” and that we would use their feedback to inform our editorial thrust as well as for story ideas and sources.
- Introduction activity. Journalists shared their names, what they did at the station and what brought them to the Lunch & Listen. Community members then shared their names, affiliations and one word — it could be a person or a place — that makes Meadowview special. Having journalists talk about themselves and their motivations humanizes reporters and demystifies what they do. Having residents begin with what they appreciate about their community opens up the dialogue with an asset-based approach and signals that we aren’t there for “if it bleeds, it leads”–type stories.
- Sorting exercise. I created a set of four 3” x 5” cards, each with a different question in a different color, and placed them on the tables before we started. I invited participants to write down their answers and post the cards on corresponding flip charts around the room. I also placed yellow cards on the tables inviting participants to write down names and contact info for other people who should be part of this conversation as we go forward. I also placed yellow cards on the tables inviting participants to write down names and contact info for other people who should be part of this conversation as we go forward.
- Debrief and discussion: The journalists clustered the cards into buckets and gave them titles while I led a discussion: What stood out to you in doing the activity? How is what you wrote similar or different than how Meadowview is usually covered in the news? How could our reporting address local interests and needs? Then the journalists reported back themes they saw in the community responses and asked questions:
- If you wrote this, what did you mean?
- Can you say more about it?
- What information do you wish you had about this issue?
- Is there a particular situation or story that comes to mind?
- Is there a person we should talk to about this?
- What’s next and follow-up. I explained we would have more gatherings and contact the people they pointed us to. I talked about how I would stay in touch through a Facebook page and e-newsletter, and promised to compile and send the Lunch & Listen notes back to them so they could fact-check our interpretation or provide additional context. (Heads-up: Writing up discussion notes in a concise and relatable way takes time, and you often get responses that then require follow-up. So if you say you’ll report back on what you heard, plan on spending about three to five hours on the process.)
I wrapped up the meeting with a round robin asking participants to offer one word that represented how they felt about this project walking away from the gathering. I thanked them for their time and expertise and hung out afterwards to take any additional questions or suggestions. (Check out this video from a Lunch & Listen in Meadowview.)
What we discovered
The Lunch & Listens helped us reach three important goals.
We were transparent about our motivation and process. We launched our reporting by listening and sharing back what we heard — both in real time during the events and through follow-up emails. We communicated up front what we were doing and why and created space for questions, requests and even some venting. That gave us a chance to hear neighborhood aspirations and concerns and address head-on any misconceptions or lack of trust.
That openness encouraged several participants to support the project. Five neighborhood leaders, for instance, became active networkers on behalf of the project. The executive director of the property business improvement district vouched for us to her group. An elementary school principal and her staff partnered with us to host a Community Fair to bring more youth and families into the listening process.
Transparency also made space for tough questions. Some participants asked if the reporting team included black journalists, questioning how CapRadio would do accurate and relevant reporting if the team didn’t reflect the makeup of the community. We acknowledged the concern and shared it back with the newsroom. While it didn’t result in any reporters of color contributing to the project, it did motivate CapRadio to start exploring a possible youth journalism training program in Meadowview.
Residents helped shape the editorial direction from the start. After each Lunch & Listen, reporters who attended led a debrief session during our daily newsroom meeting to discuss their key takeaways and how those learnings might fold into our reporting. Project team members read through all the Lunch & Listen notes to prepare the Making Meadowview podcast outline. Some of the key themes that surfaced through the listening sessions, like pride in the neighborhood’s diversity, stewardship of its resources, and resilience, have become part of the podcast.
Several sources in the podcast were either present at the gatherings or were suggested by participants. For example, RoLanda Wilkins, who leads youth-empowerment trainings for African American teenage girls in local high schools, attended our very first Lunch & Listen and became the main character in one of our podcast episodes.
We created a structure for continuing conversations. Participants told us that Facebook is their main source for neighborhood news, so we launched a page to share project updates, release new content and invite ongoing input. Through the Lunch & Listens we created an email list of over 100 neighborhood contacts, and we’ve been sending them email updates on what we’re up to and how they can get involved. I’m regularly invited to neighborhood association meetings and neighborhood events to share project info and get input. Mostly recently, all these conversations led to a neighborhood visioning session for a community parade and story festival. A community coordinating committee has come together to make those events happen.
The Lunch & Listens also turned out to be a great way to involve journalists in community listening activities. Reporters tell me it’s hard to carve out more than an hour in their day, especially if it’s not clear how that time will result in stories for their beat. Inviting them to lunch is an easier ask, and they can show up and do what they do best: listen and ask questions. These gatherings also help them diversify their pool of sources, get new story ideas and deepen their understanding of a community’s information needs. For producers and editors, Lunch & Listens involve residents in framing issues and solutions, which helps make reporting nuanced and grounds data in lived experience.
The Lunch & Listens were an effective way to launch our community engagement efforts for Making Meadowview. Faced with a short timeline, they offered a way to quickly identify people and groups to hear from as well as generate story ideas, sources and goodwill.
They created an informal but dynamic venue for journalists and residents to develop relationships, talk about the role of journalism in diverse low-income neighborhoods, and figure out ways to stay in touch during the reporting process.
In public media, we’re all looking for ways to hear from the communities we serve to craft stories that make an impact. The Lunch & Listen is a flexible and adaptable tool to help us do that. Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
And a big shoutout to Ashley Alvarado and Madeleine Bair, who inspired me to create the Lunch & Listen. Ashley developed Feeding the Conversation, a series of lunchtime gatherings that bring community members and KPCC journalists together around specific themes. Madeleine’s work with the Listening Post Collective in 2018 helped create scalable and accessible community listening methods that bring underheard residents together with reporters to map community information needs and how to meet them. I think of the Lunch & Listen as the love child of these two approaches.
Thanks also to Listening Post Collective Fellow Olivia Henry who helped shape and edit this piece.
jesikah maria ross produces participatory media projects that generate public dialogue and community change. She is the Senior Community Engagement Strategist at Capital Public Radio, Sacramento’s NPR affiliate and 2019 Fellow with Listening Post Collective. @jmr_MediaSpark, jesikahmariaross.com