UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — To help community leaders, municipal officials and others who work in the public and nonprofit sectors, Penn State Extension is offering a video series titled, "Community Conflict: Finding Middle Ground."
The free series offers practical strategies to facilitate and build trust in a community. The short videos are designed to be watched individually or as a series. Each video focuses on an individual topic important in productive community conversations.
It is important for community leaders to create a civil environment to explore the issues at the heart of polarizing conversations, whether those difficult discussions focus on community planning, resource development or other "hot button" topics, according to Walt Whitmer, senior extension educator with Penn State's Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education. He and other Penn State Extension educators are sensitive to the importance of effective engagement and earning the trust of stakeholders for optimal open conversation.
Effective community engagement strategies are important in ensuring that the interests and priorities of residents are reflected in the decisions that affect them, noted Whitmer, who stresses the need to foster trust in all public interactions.
"The research and experience of countless practitioners makes this crystal clear," he said. "Without a purposeful and consistent effort to foster trust and build strong relationships at every opportunity, even the best-designed community engagement or conflict-management processes will fall short."
Tom Murphy, co-director of Penn State's Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, highlights the importance of understanding risk from a community perspective. "Identifying these risks and assisting community members as they work through known facts and discover new information and benefits will provide authenticity and transparency to a community leader's discussion," he said. "Sorting out 'possible' versus 'probable' risks is a key component of this transparent process."
Determining the makeup of the audience and perceived risks will help a community leader or municipal official to understand audience members' positions on a subject. "Identifying and appreciating all the concerns, emotions, uncertainties and fears surrounding the subject prior to a meeting can provide the best frame for a productive discussion," Murphy said.
At times, dealing with a difficult audience or dealing with myths and inaccurate information may be necessary, pointed out extension educator Dan Brockett. Successful coping strategies can provide any leader with the tools to handle difficult audience members or protestors. "These strategies — along with sorting out fact versus fiction early in a discussion — can help a leader reduce negative impact and keep the dialogue focused on accurate details, likely leading to a better outcome," he said.
Lisa Hrabluk, a consultant and founder of Wicked Ideas, whose mission is to create safe and welcoming spaces for people to learn about complex issues and work together to develop solutions, worked with a team of Penn State Extension educators to develop the video series. She introduces the videos and then wraps them up with insights into building an effective network.
"Over the past decade, the rise of grassroots, community-based networks have been instrumental in driving economic, social and political change," Hrabluk said. "The hierarchical nature of corporations and governments does not adapt easily to the fluidity of movements, and I've had success helping institutions broaden their traditional stakeholder-engagement process to make room at the table for community-based movements and treat them as partners in change."
Penn State Extension has made this video series available at no charge for all community leaders, officials, educators and facilitators. The series can be found on the Penn State Extension website at http://pages.extension.psu.edu/community-conflict-finding-middle-ground.
Topics include: "Intro to Community Conflict: Finding Middle Ground," "Effective Engagement," "Social License," "The Role and Importance of Trust," "Public Meetings," "Understanding Risk," "Framing the Issue," "Anticipating Audience Response," "Difficult Audiences," "Myths and Misinformation," "Combatting Misinformation" and "Building a Network."
The video series is supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture.