By Madeleine Bair & Sophie Lan Hou
Since El Tímpano’s founding in 2018, we’ve relied on the expertise of our audience to shape our work. Our editorial decisions and distribution strategies have been directly informed by listening, closely, to the Latinx immigrants of Oakland on everything from what they want a local news outlet to look like to what their greatest information needs are. Our team itself has grown as community members have learned about the initiative and asked to become a bigger part of it.
But we knew we needed to move beyond listening to community members. We needed to build lasting relationships with them, too.
That’s how the idea of a community advisory board came into being. With the support of the Membership Puzzle Project, we organized a series of workshops over the summer to co-design that board. The process seemed like a natural next step for El Tímpano.
But a funny thing happens when you listen deeply to your community: plans change. It turns out co-designing and joining a community advisory board was a bigger ask than our audience members were ready for at this time.
So this case study ended up not being about how El Tímpano designed a community advisory board. Instead it is about how we created a space where we could co-design without demanding a larger commitment than our audience members could or wanted to offer at that time.
This process helped us develop a closer relationship with our audience, surface community needs and identify potential leaders within our audience who can help facilitate the co-design going forward.
What do we mean by co-design?
Co-design is a participatory design approach that actively involves stakeholders in the design process, not just as users or subjects, but as decision makers. The assumptions of this approach are a belief in the capacity of participants to contribute meaningfully to the process and outcomes of an endeavor, and that as “users” it is their right to exercise their agency this way. To facilitate this process of co-designing a community advisory board, we knew it would be critical to get to know participants beyond their role as El Tímpano’s “audience” A primary goal was to surface participants’ interests and desires so they might shape the role and direction of the board to be relevant and impactful.
How we did it
Space: We used a local library. Somewhere familiar, safe and accessible.
Setup: We had food. Chairs were set up in a small circle (including ourselves). Music was playing. We prepared to offer childcare if needed.
Outreach: In addition to sending an invitation to our entire audience, we personally called each person who expressed interest.
Activities were designed to encourage people to share. Some focused on getting to know each other, such as icebreakers, and others enabled this by drawing out personal insights and experiences.
We were sensitive to the fact that people are busy and already have full lives. We wanted to give people a preview of one way participants might like to utilize being on the board and prototyped an activity dealing with raw data gathered from El Timpano’s Pasa la Voz SMS prototype.
Working with real data ensured the conversation was relevant and our time together meaningful. After an overview, we had participants break into smaller groups and invited them to self-select a theme to discuss.
Breaking into small group discussions created time and space for more people to talk. It also created more opportunity for leadership and agency to emerge. Supported by guiding questions and a worksheet, each group could work at their own pace, and people naturally assumed roles, such as facilitator or notetakers. Having tools and processes that were intentional but not overly designed were key to these positive outcomes. Because the topics were relevant and the questions welcomed personal insight and experience, we were able to get to know our audience more deeply.
The first workshop ended with a discussion about what people might like to gain or contribute by being on the board. We were hoping that, faced with options, participants would be drawn to one in particular, or express what they hoped to achieve by being on the board. That didn’t happen.
But what we did come out with was a deeper relationship with our community members, the identification of natural leaders, and a better sense of what motivated these audience members to support El Tímpano — a desire to see positive change in their community.
Sustaining a community advisory board would require a cohort of individuals able to make a commitment to meet regularly. We realized after the first workshop that we didn’t have that cohort, at least not yet. Building a relationship takes time, and expecting this level of investment on the part of community members to whom El Tímpano is still fairly new may have been too much, too soon.
So instead we shifted to co-designing a community editorial meeting, which would allow anyone to join, whether they could attend just once or throughout the year. Through guided activities, participants could surface and discuss the issues most relevant to their communities and how El Tímpano could provide information and tell stories about those issues that serve their needs.
In our second workshop, we facilitated a prototype of one of these meetings to show what it could look like and get feedback to develop it further. Using inputs such as community organizations, issues, and activities, participants worked in small groups to design what a community editorial meeting could look like, and then shared their visions back to the larger group to hear questions and feedback. We now have concrete ideas of how a quarterly community editorial meeting could contribute to El Tímpano’s editorial decisions, connect audience members with other local organizations and resources, continue to deepen our relationship with our audience, and provide a platform for our audience of like-minded individuals and families to connect with each other.
What comes next
We plan to build on the visions and ideas that emerged in our co-design workshop with the goal of inaugurating quarterly community editorial meetings by Spring 2020. We hope to invite and involve participants who have been highly engaged to play leadership roles at future workshops. We imagine a variety of roles, from something simple like helping with outreach calls or greeting people as they enter, to something more complex such as presenting or facilitating. We’ll continue to ensure these decisions are made together, with our audience members.
Compiling what worked best and what we’ve learned from planning these workshops, we’ve created a planning document to guide us as we move forward in implementing this practice. We invite you to use, iterate, add to it, and share how it works (or doesn’t) for your own community meetings and gatherings.
A final note
The power of our personal voices and life-to-life connection can’t be underestimated. Connecting personally is what enabled us to bring eight community members together after a full day’s work (and despite bedtimes and dinner times) for a community journalism workshop. In addition to texting an invite to our entire audience, we personally called each person who expressed interest. We felt these personal calls were critical in getting the turnout we did.
As the field of journalism continues to explore and innovate its relationship with communities, our hope is not only that communities are strengthened and empowered, but that news outlets are transformed as well. That has certainly been our experience with El Tímpano, and we will continue on the journey with community (whether it leads to a community advisory board or not) one step at a time.
Madeleine Bair is the founding director of El Tímpano and a News Voices campaign manager at Free Press. Sophie Lan Hou is a designer, strategist, and mama based in Oakland, Ca. El Tímpano’s process of co-designing a community advisory board-cum-community editorial meeting was supported by the Membership Puzzle Project and the amazing Ariel Zirulnick.