“Our goal was to make it a community-led event, that touches on the real things, the actual things that people in the community are dealing with.”
-Chantel Brown, Community Engagement Coordinator.
From racial equity to universal childcare, this online forum gathered the community’s input on more than 20 policies and strategies to improve health equity for all the residents of the Greater Worcester region. The community members and stakeholders were invited to take part in the conversation and write down their ideas. They focused on how these ideas can be made actionable and measurable.
More than 300 contributions emerged from this conversation, strengthening the community’s voice within the next Community Health Improvement Plan (CHIP). “I wanted to make sure that all voices are heard, that things were written down” commented Chantel, echoing one of the Plan’s core principles: Empower, listen to and respect the communities’ voice.
Looking for a tool to make the virtual community conversation inclusive
Aiming for an event that would allow everyone in the community to express themselves freely, regardless of tech-savviness, Chantel starts her quest for visual facilitation tools. When asked what were her initial requirements, she laughed nervously and answered “Anything but a whiteboard”.
The previous Coalition’s meeting, which gathered only a dozen participants, was facilitated using a popular freehand whiteboarding tool. “The participants kept moving and erasing all the stuff, nothing was in place. It was just chaos. A lot of people had issues with it,” were the words she used to describe her initial experience.
With a much larger event, the ease of use and the ability to structure became essential. “My job was to find a tool that could be easy for all people: elderly, young people, millennials… and to make sure that community members could join online because that can be a problem for some people that live out here. Excelway was the easiest and you were the quickest to respond to our questions”.
Chantel’s initial onboarding on Excelway happened in the first hour she signed up on Excelway’s website. Sophia, Excelway’s founder, reached out with a welcome email. Once she understood Chantel’s need and its context, she sent over a personalized demo video showing how Excelway could help this particular use case. Two days later, a 30-minute meeting was set to brainstorm the best ways to set up the Excelway session and breakout groups for the virtual community conversation.
Facilitating a virtual community forum with ease
The event was held primarily on the Zoom platform. After the introduction, the Coalition’s team shared a link to all participants so that they can access the Excelway workspace and its breakout groups. Each breakout was facilitated by a cohort leader, focusing on policies, strategies, or lead agencies.
Topics to be discussed were initially set by the Coalition’s team as headlines of lists. Participants could add their input to each topic in real-time by clicking the “+ Add card” button. They could also choose the card color to visualize the different categories of ideas. Participants were invited to highlight any topic that they thought should be added.
Onboarding the participants was easy and quick. “I didn’t have to explain much about how to use the tool and do a lot of ‘you need to bring this (digital sticky note) over here’ kind of things. It was common sense and people just needed to click the + button. I think it was wonderful,” added Chantel.
During the breakout sessions, participants focused on sharing and discussing ideas without running off-topic.
“It was a real working meeting. We were all discussing together and working individually at the same time. We would start a conversation by reading what someone wrote as we were still writing and reading the comment.”
Facilitators didn’t have to worry about cards being altered or deleted by other participants. Excelway allows participants to edit or delete only their own input, saving all work in real-time. After the event, the Coalition’s team could export all the contributions from the community to be re-used in the preparation for the next CHIP.
Screenshot of one the breakout sessions
Online events as opportunities to bring more people to the table
Disparities in tech-savviness and quality broadband internet can be the first barriers to engage fully in a virtual community conversation. While the first one depends on the tool chosen by the event organizer, the second is more complex to tackle.
However, online events are also increasingly unveiling opportunities to scale and empower a community’s voice. At the Coalition’s community forum, people that couldn’t make it to the Zoom event could still join the Excelway breakouts afterward. They could read the ideas shared by others during the meeting, as well as add their own ideas. This would have been almost impossible in a face-to-face setting.
Moreover, community members that usually couldn’t make it to the face-to-face events due to transportation problems, could finally participate in the community forum. They didn’t have to go through the hassle of finding a car and driving all the way to the venue.
“Online tools are a great way to be innovative. It’s really great to be outside with your people, but at the end of the day, I think that you can really do a lot more online than you can, sometimes, do in person.”
Undoubtedly, virtual events still have room to improve how we build personal rapport and engage in spontaneous conversations, like the one you’d have with the person sitting next to you in an onsite event. And seemingly, the future of community conversations will consist of a clever blend of onsite and online ways to connect with one another and decide together on what is important for our community.