Late last summer, Simon Nyi found himself at a dinner party in Toledo, Ohio’s Old West End neighborhood. Local activists, organizers, and other civic minded folks gathered there to discuss their priorities and vision for the coming year. Nyi, the Project Director for Media and Journalism Programs at Illinois Humanities, mostly listened at the dinner. He and his wife had just moved to town and he wanted to see where his interests and experiences might be useful. “I wanted to get a sense of what work was already being done both in a media sense and in a community organizing sense,” he said.
Toledo Ohio’s Old West End boasts tree lined streets and an impressive collection of Victorian Homes. The neighborhood is just a mile from downtown and is one of the more diverse areas in town. But, there’s a clear divide between the part of the neighborhood that is a historic district and the one that’s not. The historic district is largely white and upper middle class while the areas that fall outside of the district include more low-income and working class communities of color.
There’s a lot of work being done within the boundaries of the historic district around preservation, but Old West End Neighborhood Initiatives (OWENI) focuses its efforts outside that area addressing issues like public safety, community-police relations, and housing conditions. OWENI holds monthly meetings to understand the needs and vision of the neighborhood, and sitting in has helped Nyi to gain a better understanding of the issues most important to his new neighbors.
Another organizing group, United Citizen Power, works in several communities across the country to increase voter turnout and civic participation and they’ve begun a partnership with OWENI. It was at the dinner party last summer that Simon met several organizers from United Citizen Power and, as the partnership with OWENI grew, Nyi saw an opportunity to join the effort.
We’ve been talking with Simon since his move to Toledo about the potential for a Listening Post project. When United Citizen Power and OWENI began planning a community survey to better understand issues most critical to residents, Nyi suggested a hybrid canvasing effort that would include a focus on information needs.
The partnership felt natural for Nyi. He agrees the methodology of engagement journalism is similar to that of community organizing. According to Nyi, “a project that successfully addresses the actual information needs of a community will have a lot of overlap with an organizing campaign. The product probably looks different but whatever comes out should be complementary to what they’re doing.” That said, Nyi has been careful to keep information goals in mind. “I don’t want it to just turn into a community organizing project. There’s a specific value to the information focus for communities and for organizers,” he told us.
Nyi understands that the flexibility built into the Listening Post model is critical. There’s no one-size-fits-all outcome to figuring out how to enhance trusted news and information flow in a community, its about putting the time in to ask the community what’s already working and what’s not, and figuring out where to go from those clues.
The ambiguity of what will come from this effort has at times made it difficult for Nyi to pitch this work to potential organizing partners. He’s found that, particularly with grassroots or community organizing groups, making the connection between information access and action is critical. The goal of any engaged journalism project should be “about providing information that is ultimately going to help people take informed civic action in their own lives,” he said.
Nyi’s decision to begin a journalism initiative without predetermined media partners was a measured one. “The best way to understand what the information ecosystem looks like and who community members trust is not to go to the news organizations, it’s to go to the people they’re purporting to serve,” he said. Nyi said that having data and documentation to back up any engaged journalism proposal is particularly important with cash and time strapped media outlets. According to Nyi, “when you’re going to a small market daily that’s having a hard time financially, it’s more compelling to go to them and say ‘hey, here’s what’s going on in my neighborhood. Here are the needs. You are in a position to address them. What are we going to do about it?’”
Gathering this community data is Nyi’s next step. He, along with OWENI and United Citizen Power will canvas the neighborhood in May, going door to door with a survey to determine neighborhood assets, concerns, and needs. They’ll visit churches and other neighborhood hubs as well. In the spirit of keeping the community involved at every step, OWENI hosted a meeting this week at the neighborhood library branch to workshop the survey with community members before taking it door to door this summer.
The Listening Post Collective is a project of Internews. We provide journalists, newsroom leaders, and non-profits tools and advice to create meaningful conversations with their communities. We believe responsible reporting begins with listening. From there, media outlets and community organizations can create news stories that respond to people’s informational needs, reflect their lives, and enable them to make informed decisions.