Tackling Gnarly Problems

What we learned from a generative conversation about homelessness

Instagram post from a participant after Saturday’s Open Space event

Summary of the evaluation of Mobilizing Creativity, Compassion, and Community to Solve Homelessness (M3Cs)

(Full report is here)


On October 26–27, 2018, with support from Journalism That Matters, The Evergrey, Real Change, and Facing Homelessness, Impact Hub Seattle brought together 135 participants (89 on Friday only, 25 on Saturday only, and 21 on both days), including some with lived experience of homelessness, people from community organizations, government, business, neighborhood associations and media, artists and others who don’t usually meet to talk together about homelessness. Friday evening was held in a World Cafe asking 1) About a time when housing made a difference in your life; 2) What does being at home mean to you? and 3) What moves you now? Saturday used Open Space Technology, with topics such as: “What can I learn about homelessness in a 5 minute walk around Impact Hub?” The Open Space session notes and photos of graphic recordings of the event can be found in the post-event report. A summary from the event, What We Learned by Mobilizing the 3C’s, is here.

Can gatherings like M3Cs help communities more deeply understand and address “gnarly problems”?

This evaluation was conducted six months after the event to understand the influence of gatherings like M3Cs. A survey, to which 20 participants (15%) responded, focused on personal experience of homelessness, prior involvement on the issue and actions they took as a result of M3Cs. In-depth interviews with 10 participants (7.5%) focused on personal impact of M3Cs, how the event influenced actions they took afterwards and what would improve the event.

What impacts did the event have?

M3Cs helped individuals challenge their own assumptions and understand the “gnarly problem” of homelessness in Seattle more deeply, compassionately and complexly. It increased their compassion and sense of urgency and gravity. Though no people with lived experience of homelessness were involved in the design or hosting, most we spoke with said they felt heard and glad to be of service in educating others. It led an evanescent group of people to begin to articulate some new narratives for “cracking the code of homelessness.”

It led 18 of the 20 survey respondents to take action. On average, respondents took four actions influenced by the event, totaling 57 small scale and interpersonal actions, and 22 actions to shift policy or public discourse. Respondents with prior involvement in the issue reported feeling validated and strengthened. Those new to the issue were more likely to have their actions influenced by the event, but also reported they felt overwhelmed and unclear on strategic ways to help. Actions were primarily independent, not connected to a larger strategy.

Did it move the needle?

Probably, if change happens through incremental shifts in consciousness, interpersonal relations, and independent acts of advocacy. Probably not, if small innovations, learning and networking, or coordinated strategy are necessary. Possibly, in that the evaluation revealed how gatherings and journalism — together — might support change.

A roadmap for journalism in a civic communications ecosystem

Route 1. Participate. How do journalists make complexity visible, advance strategic thinking, support and illuminate innovation, and foster trusting relationships? What if journalists try suggestions from this report? How might that help communities solve gnarly problems?

Route 2. Increase capacity: Some niches in a civic communications ecosystem are journalism’s traditional strengths. Some are not. This evaluation suggests JTM can make a difference by training, coaching and partnering with news organizations to host conversations. Additionally, facilitating post-event debriefs with reporters and their newsrooms might build capacity for follow-up, per recommendations below.

Route 3. Make the case. This report speaks of the value to communities when journalists support civic discourse. Time spent cultivating relationships or approaching a story without knowing its specifics requires believing that there’s something in it for the news organization. How might JTM support journalists to make that case in their organizations? Or collaborate with others to educate and advocate for engaged journalism?


The interviews revealed opportunities and recommendations for strengthening gatherings. These recommendations echo findings from JTM’s Experience and Elevate Engagement gatherings — journalism as part of a “thriving, resilient ecosystem, where communication goes beyond ‘reporting’ what is happening… to providing robust information and inclusive dialogue, fostering generative collaborative action that achieves community goals”. The table below lists recommendations for strengthening gatherings like M3Cs and roles for journalism to support communities struggling with gnarly problems.

Prepared by Yve Susskind and Greta Anderson, Praxis Associates




Journalism matters most when it is of, by, and for the people. JTM supports the adventurers who are transforming relationships between communities and journalism for the common good.

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Co-founder and director, Journalism That Matters. Author, Engaging Emergence & The Change Handbook. Hosting conversations for addressing complex challenges.

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