Community-Building With a Purpose: Our First Documenters Summit

Part 1: City Bureau‘s March 10 event allowed #ChiDocumenters to collaborate with each other and give input on our groundbreaking program. Here’s how we did it.

Photos: Sebastián Hidalgo

The original idea for the Documenters Summit, like many of our best laid plans, started with a simple question: How do we create a space where our 300+ Documenters (some of the most civically engaged people in the city) can connect, collaborate and have a hand in designing our collective work?

(For those who are new to this: 👋 Our Documenters program trains and pays people to document local public meetings and engage in the production of journalism through our media lab. City Bureau hosts regular trainings for Documenters and the general public on a journalistic skills like interviewing, note-taking, mobile photography and FOIA.)

Our solution was to design a Summit focused on building community, not the hard skills we usually teach. We wanted to share our lingering questions about the program and open our decision-making process to the very people who work within it. To do that, we knew we needed to create a “brave space,” as City Bureau’s Director of Community Engagement, Andrea Faye Hart, called it—where people feel comfortable weighing in, recognizing that feedback is an active, not-always-easy process.

Andrea tells me that she borrowed the terminology from the Field Foundation’s Arts Program Officer Tempestt Hazel… who took a cue from Detroit’s Adrienne Maree Brown… who directed me to Micky ScottBey Jones as her original source. Long story short, the “brave space” terminology comes from long line of community practitioners who inspire us—so we aimed to reframe it for our civic journalism lab. To stay true to this idea at the Summit, we paid due attention to how attendees interacted with us, our goals and each other.

“It’s one thing for folks to show up, but it’s another for them to participate in a way where they are holding you accountable to your mission and checking you because they believe in you,” Andrea says.

Here’s how we did it.

1. Define your goals: Know where you want to go and who needs to be there

We often start with a list of questions, which are then refined into shared goals. This is what we outlined roughly two months before the Summit:

Our internal planning document including an agenda—several revised agendas—a set of goals, day-of material needs, a list of staff roles and running comments on each aspect of the event.

In addition to our goals, we worked up a $5,000 budget with financial support from the Chicago Community Trust and a daylong agenda (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.) that included presentations on the Documenters program, a keynote speaker (Chicago’s own Amara Enyia), a series of small- and full-group design sessions, breakfast/lunch/snack breaks and plenty of time for the Documenters to connect with each other based on, and beyond, our immediate goals. The built-in time for discussion and unstructured conversation among Documenters was key: It allowed for unexpected objectives to emerge and it provided time for our community to voice its needs and dreams for the program. At City Bureau, we value diversity, inclusion and equity as necessary elements of our programmatic foundation—and we were pleased to see that the Documenters Summit looked like the Chicago we know and love in terms of demographics, interests and perspectives.

In the end, several Documenters went out of their way to note our emphasis on logistics and communication of the day’s agenda. That kind of coordination and explanation was central to keeping the daylong event orderly, in accordance with expectations and exciting for our guests.

2. Plan thoroughly — but leave room for the unexpected

We have a range of interests and talents on the five-person core City Bureau staff, but having a third-party co-facilitator throughout the day was useful in checking our assumptions. Tran Ha is the founder and principal of Tiny Collaborative and a former Chicago Tribune staffer who knows her stuff when it comes to journalism, human-centered design and Chicago. She surpassed our expectations while bringing fresh ideas that got the Documenters talking, thinking and responding to our design prompts. With her help, two Post-It notes on a wall became a Give/Get board that elicited dozens of posted needs and offers. It was that kind of fresh perspective that reminded us that the simplest questions can be the best for identifying core needs.

The Documenters Summit 2018 Give/Get wall. We took this simple station seriously by issuing reminders, adding it to ourselves (as staff) and encouraging Documenters to turn their conversations into “gives” and “gets” on-the-spot throughout the day. Lastly, we transcribed all of the gives and gets into a shared Google sheet following the Summit and sent it to all Documenters in attendance so they could connect off-site.

We made sure to give the Documenters context about the aggregate group: For example, 61 percent of Documenters identify as female, 32 percent identify as Black/African American, Documenters live in 50 of Chicago’s 77 Community Areas and the majority list “multimedia” as the training they’d most like to receive.

But we also honored Documenters based on their individual needs and desires: We planned group sessions that solicited critical, structured feedback where Documenters could chime in, disagree and hold our feet to the fire. We included sessions that appealed to extraverts who are keen to jump into large-group discussions and to introverts (such as myself) who engage with ideas on their own time. The day was designed to feel structured but flexible, comfortable but new and exciting. We wanted input on several major Documenters projects:

  1. our upcoming, 60-page Documenters Field Guide
  2. our upcoming Documenters platform and City Scrapers tool
  3. how Documenters seek out and claim assignments, along with our internal decision-making process before, during and after assignments

We planned four sessions:

  1. a small-group session where Documenters shared personal stories about their work and their interest in civic engagement
  2. a facilitated group edit of our drafted Field Guide
  3. an exploration of the question, “What does ‘citizenship’ means to you?”
  4. an individual asset-mapping activity leading into a Madlibs style activity asking the following questions: “List 3 words to describe a Documenter,” “I am a Documenter because _______” and “Doing this work has taught me _________.”

3. Lead from the middle—put attendees first

About 40 Documenters spent the day with us at #DocSummit2018, and our informal exit interviews were overwhelmingly positive. We wrapped up with a full group share-out where Documenters shared about their favorite parts of the day, what they’re excited about and what we should do next as a group. It also served as a time for anyone to ask us questions that weren’t answered through the course of the day.

(Photo: Sebastián Hidalgo)

Our marching orders emerged in that final session. In addition to information we’ll use to improve the program experience, our community of Documenters told us they wanted to stay involved with City Bureau and connect with other Documenters between assignments. We’ve since decided to automatically invite all eligible Documenters (i.e. Documenters who have attended at least one City Bureau training) to our network’s Slack messaging platform, onboard interested Documenters to our City Scrapers project and continue conversations on media and engagement via our Public Newsroom Facebook group, which includes more than 550 members from around the country.

4. Celebrate your community

We designed the Summit as a celebration of our Documenters community and a way to share ownership of the program’s future with those closest to it. We want our Documenters to see themselves as powerful civic agents and storytellers, because that’s how we see them. The best way to establish a model for that type of success is to create an environment of facilitated input, open collaboration and shared learning.

Many thanks to all of the folks who came out to learn and shape the program with us, to Jason Martin at DePaul University for providing a space for us to meet in downtown Chicago, to Tran Ha for affirming and improving our goals, to the Knight Lab’s Madeline Fernando for starting her research on the Documenters program early, to Rebecca Wei, Bonnie Fan and the City Scrapers community for their ongoing work on our tech tools, to City Bureau board member Daniel X. O'Neil for being an ever-present source of inspiration on the Documenters program and to the Chicago Community Trust for its financial support of our first-ever Documenters Summit.

#ChiDocumenters, we’ll see you at next year’s Documenters Summit!

Support the City Bureau Documenters program by becoming a City Bureau Press Club member today.