This section of our website is dedicated to tools of civic engagement that we believe connect people deeply with one another and inspire them to become agents of positive change in their own lives. From Storytelling to the Art of Asking Questions simply changing the techniques that we use to communicate with our communities and the world can be a powerful technique that can form the foundation for social change.
These tools lift up the value of community building and emphasize the importance of forming deep and abiding bonds with one another. Traditional advocacy techniques, such as fact gathering and coalition building, are enhanced when implemented in connection with the communications techniques that The Jamestown Project endorses in this toolkit.
These tools are intended to help citizens identify and address issues collectively deemed as problematic to their community; to help advocates achieve a desired result to improve the lives of their fellow citizens; to help citizens coalesce around issues or candidates related to the 2008 election; or simply to help people form meaningful relationships that build community and improve the quality of their lives.
Finally, this toolkit is a living and breathing space that we created for communities to use to locate information about these techniques. This space is intended to grow. Therefore, please communicate with us.
to share your experiences with any of these techniques or to share information about tools that are not identified on this site.
Reflective Community Practice
The World Cafe
Citizens Deliberative Councils
The storytelling technique that we encourage is called “story sharing.” Story
sharing is an exciting activity for family reunions, holiday
celebrations, church-related events or any other community gathering. Your group would be guided by a facilitator who would lead participants to share their experiences with each other. The subject matter of the circle would be defined by your community’s priorities.
Your group would arrange chairs in a circle, and simply begin to share
stories that are relevant to the agreed-upon subject area. The rules are few but are important.
1. Story circles are marked by a communal feeling of love and respect, so only one member of the group should talk at a time.
2. The group should agree upon an estimated length for each
story in advance, though this should remain flexible out of respect to
the person sharing the story. 3 - 5 minutes is a good starting place.
3. You could also engage a recorder to ensure that the stories are captured. In
Elm City Stories, one of The Jamestown Project's storytelling
workshops, we have utilized is employing a graphic artist who literally
sketches visual depictions of the stories as they are being told. You could also capture the stories using video or audio recording.
For more information on storytelling, visit the following links:
The National Storytelling Network
The Connecticut Storytelling Center
Reflective Community Practice
Reflective Community Practice is a method of group communication designed to
further group thinking and reflecting on collective work and to help
organizations ask and answer questions that will lead to aligning their
actions with their values and goals. It is closely
related to storytelling because it utilizes storytelling as a tool to
engage a group in collective discourse and sharing their experiences. In
a reflection group, each person might take a turn recounting a key
event and getting feedback on analyzing it, naming assumptions, making
connections, and formulating critical questions that emerge. When
the group engages in collective dialogue about the event or key
question, it builds an understanding of a question or an event and
locates the significance of the story in the larger context of their
Community reflective practice means that a group engages in the deliberate
process of taking their collective activity into account, examining it,
learning from it, and then adjusting the community's future behavior in
accordance with the lessons learned. In order to make this happen,
groups engaging in reflective community practice must share their
experiences, perhaps using story circles and dialogue, in order to make
sure that everyone internalizes them, and then move on to
examining these collective experiences, learning from them, and
ultimately adjusting the future behavior of the group. This
process is not as natural to groups as it is to individuals, and the
absence of collective reflective practice is often the root cause of
The Jamestown Project endorses reflective community practice as a
methodology to strengthen communities undertaking almost any kind of
advocacy one may envision. In order to make this happen, however, the group may need to use a facilitator trained in reflective community practice.
For more information on reflective community practice, visit the website of the Center for Reflective Community Practice.
Simple yet profound, the art of effective questioning is another, often overlooked mode of communication to promote community action. Indeed, asking questions has formed the foundation for social change for centuries. In 1851, Sojourner Truth asked, “Ain’t I a Woman?” That
humble question spurred the abolitionist and suffrage movements and
still today fosters the basis for inclusion of black and brown women in
the women’s movement. A full century later, Nelson
Mandela questioned racial segregation in South Africa and fueled the
anti-apartheid movement through his ultimate ascension to his country’s
presidency in 1994. When citizens fail to ask questions,
the result is the kind of dangerous acquiescence that nurtured an
environment where Hitler would rise to power, or where the barbarities
of the African slave trade could be overlooked as justifiable. A society’s failure to question its leaders and its government can lead to dangerous outcomes.
The Jamestown Project uplifts “asking questions” as a mode of communication that can open the door to knowledge and understanding. To
launch an effective “asking questions” campaign, a small group of
organizers would prepare a list of the subjects around which you would
like your community to ask questions. Your community’s priority issues would guide subject matter. Once
the parameters are defined, you would launch your campaign utilizing
any means necessary to get the broadest input in developing a list of
questions. You would e-mail everyone in your community. You would knock on doors. You would stand outside of the grocery store and post office. You
would strike up conversations with the garbage men; the parking
enforcement officers; the elderly men playing checkers in the park; and
homeless men, women, and children. You would use video
tape, audio tape, a laptop computer, or a pen and paper to capture
their thoughts and ideas on profound questions that your group has
For innovative ideas around creating a question campaign, visit the website of dropping knowledge. Once you have enough input, you would sort and categorize the questions. Obtaining “answers” to the questions is the interesting part. You could convene a community meeting, present them to your elected officials, or send them to your local newspaper. Regardless of what you do with them, the important point here is the process
“Study Circles” are voluntary adult education groups of five to 20 people who meet three to six times to explore a subject. Each
meeting usually lasts two to three hours and is directed by a moderator
whose role is to foster a lively but focused dialogue. Because
Study Circles are often formed to examine crucial social issues, The
Jamestown Project thinks that these circles lend themselves completely
to communities or organizations that are preparing to take action on
any issue, and that they are an appropriate vehicle to further a
community's shared learning, humilty, and respect for one another and
the common good.
To launch a study circle, first visit the website of the Study Circle Resource Center,
where you will find a wealth of information that communities can use to
develop their own ability to solve problems by bringing lots of people
together in dialogue. Visit the “What Communities Do” section of this site to find a toolkit that will guide you through the process. The materials the group uses will vary. To address Covenant priority items, you should download information from www.covenantwithblackamerica.com, your online portal to commence engaging around Covenant-priority issues. You can also contact the Study Circle Resource Center,
as it can provide you with ready-made materials on various issues, such
as Education, Neighborhoods and Families, Police-Community Relations,
and Criminal Justice.
Remember, the characteristics of Study Circles are that they are small, voluntary, democratic, and “non-expert.” They encourage people to formulate their own ideas about issues and to share them with others. This
process helps ordinary people overcome their sense that they lack
information or that they are somehow inadequate to engage in and try to
solve complex problems. Because of their powerful ability to educate and activate people, Study Circles are used by millions of people today. The Jamestown Project endorses the Study Circle process as particularly compatible with implementing the Covenant Curriculum Manual & Study Guide. We welcome your community’s
if you decide to utilize this cutting-edge communications technique.
The World Café
World Café is a process of organizing multiple conversations so that
they connect, generate knowledge, and cement new relationships. Designed
by Juanita Brown, Ph.D., and David Isaacs, it will enable you to create
a welcoming environment where participants can learn from one another,
recognize innovative insights, and emerge focused and ready to address Covenant priority issues. The
World Café began only 12 years ago in the living room of its creators,
yet today hundreds of thousands of people in corporations, nonprofit
organizations, governments, and educational institutions have engaged
in Café conversations on six continents. If
you are interested in hosting a Café conversation, you must first
consider if it is right for you, particularly as you embark on
addressing the Covenant agenda with your community or organization. It
is particularly useful when people need to engage in authentic
conversation, whether they are meeting for the first time or tackling a
difficult issue. It is also useful when you want to
generate real input, deepen relationships, explore action possibilities
around real-life issues, or to create meaningful interaction between a
speaker and an audience. Also remember that Café conversations work best with groups larger than 12. Small groups would benefit more from a Study or Story Circle. To organize a Café conversation, first visit the World Café website. The “Resources” section of the Café website offers an excellent and a concise guide, “Café to Go,” for free. Café
to Go guides you step by step so that you can easily adapt your efforts
to organize community conversation around any issues. Essentially,
you will organize participants at small Café-style tables with each
table having a “host” and a question to be considered. Questions will be determined by your community's pre-defined agenda items. After
20 minutes of conversations, table “guests” progress to the next table,
leaving the “host” who has taken notes, doodled, and jotted down key
ideas. After a few rounds, conversations will become “cross pollinated” with insights from prior conversations. The
connections among the ideas shared at these tables and the actions that
emerge from this web of conversations will help to build your
organization’s knowledge base and shape its future.
You can learn more about The World Café by surfing its website and reviewing and purchasing some of the resources available there or by purchasing the book, The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2005), by Juanita Brown, David Isaacs, and The World Café Community.
Citizens Deliberative Councils
Deliberative Councils (CDCs) are temporary, face-to-face councils of a
dozen or more citizens who convene typically for two to 10 days to
consider a complex issue of great public concern. Council
members hear from and can cross-examine experts and also collectively
reflect on information gathered with the help of a trained facilitator. Importantly,
council members are usually selected at random, with safeguards in
place to ensure gender, racial, socioeconomic, and other diversity. After
learning and reflection, council members generally craft a statement
announcing their findings to the public and relevant officials and
the CDCs disband, as they have no permanent or official power other
than the power of legitimacy inherent in their well-publicized,
common-sense solutions to compelling public problems. Hundreds
of CDCs have been convened worldwide and have demonstrated that, with
this method, ordinary citizens have a extraordinary ability to grapple
with complex problems and come up with useful recommendations, helping
to make democracy real. To find out more about CDCs and how they can be used creatively, read the article, “Using Citizen Deliberative Councils to Make Democracy More Potent and Awake,” by Tom Atlee, which is available in the Articles section of the website of the Co-Intelligence Institute.
that an elected official or perhaps a loosely formed coalition of
groups convene a CDC as a potential solution to break the impasse or to
get the public to pay attention. The power of the legitimacy that the CDC will have cannot be understated. The Jamestown Project endorses CDCs, and we welcome your community’s
if you decide to utilize this cutting-edge communications technique.
of the community asking questions in the first place. Here the process
and the community participation dispel the myth of community apathy.