Beyond Presentations and Panels: Public Engagement Through Meaningful Conversation

Leah Lundquist

“There are things we know but don’t really talk about.” – Conversation Participant

The conference room was packed in the Urban Research and Outreach Engagement Center (UROC)—a University of Minnesota Center focused on strengthening urban communities in partnership with North Minneapolis. More than one hundred individuals had come from throughout the Twin Cities metro area on a chilly October evening to engage in a conversation on the challenging topic of how sex trafficking and prostitution impacts the health of urban communities. Neighbors, police, advocates, students, clergy, survivors, service providers, and faculty sat co-mingled, enjoying dinner together before diving into small group conversations informed by the principles of World Café and The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) more broadly. In designing meaningful conversation about this topic, four components emerge as particularly key: the hosting team, the invitation, the questions/principles, and the harvest.

The Hosting Team

North Minneapolis remains Minneapolis’ most diverse and historically marginalized neighborhood. As such, there was an understandable distrust of the University’s establishment of a physical presence in the neighborhood. Some residents feared that the intent was using residents as research subjects without mutual benefit. By hosting conversations open to the public on topics identified as critical by community members, UROC has built trust, serving as a bridge between the University and North Minneapolis residents and helping to facilitate the University and community residents in addressing urban issues in authentic partnership. The issue of sex trafficking and trading was one UROC Director of Research—Dr. Lauren Martin—had been working with residents and partner organizations through a community-based study.

One of the partnerships that had developed through this research was with Pastor Alika Galloway of the Kwanzaa Community Church, host congregation for the Northside Women’s Space, a drop-in space for women and girls who had been sexually exploited. Pastor Galloway brought a deep understanding of the context around the issue, acknowledging that faith leaders are highly sensitized to what is happening in their community and often the first confidant individuals go to when they are being exploited. Pastor Galloway supported the planning of this conversation, sharing her belief that reweaving community through conversation is the first step to healing. In welcoming individuals to the conversation, she quoted spiritual leader Gwendolyn Brookes saying, “We are each other’s business.”

The third co-sponsor for this event was the Center for Integrative Leadership (CIL)—a University-wide Center focused on using participatory processes to foster collective impact on complex issues. Over the past year, the Center had served as a convener around the issue of human trafficking both globally and locally. In 2012, CIL kicked off the yearlong exploration with a daylong symposium co-hosted with the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota: FREEDOM HERE + NOW: Ending Modern Slavery. Though more than 300 individuals attended this informative symposium, the packed agenda left little time to surface wisdom from the individuals attending as a basis for future action; furthermore, there were many who might be engaged but could not give up a workday to attend the all-day symposium.

As CIL Program Manager, I had the pleasure of working with Lori Lindgren Voit—a passionate advocate and teacher of healing practices—who generously offered her time as an Art of Hosting practitioner and CIL community volunteer. Not only did she help infuse more of an action-orientation into the Symposium, but she co-hosted the follow-up community conversations being described in this story.

There was great value in having this hosting team of four individuals that each brought unique expertise related to the issue, the context, and the conversational design.

The Invitation

While there was room to be more explicit about this, the invitation evolved into not just an invitation to participate in a single conversation but rather to help further instigate a growing network of conversations. Though World Café as a methodology consists of rotating small group conversations often happening synchronously and in the same room, World Café can also be viewed as a metaphor, representing the power of a network of asynchronous conversations dispersed across geography or time but focused on the same purpose, resulting in the broad emergence of new insights and smart action.

Following the FREEDOM, HERE + NOW symposium members of a neighborhood adjacent to the University of Minnesota which had recently experienced the bust of a sex trafficking ring were inspired to host multiple conversations in their neighborhood. CIL had hosted an initial follow-up before co-hosting the conversation with UROC and the Northside Women’s Space. The first conversation inspired another two months later. All of this developed into a growing network of meaningful conversations around this issue.

The Principles & Questions

Designing Powerful Questions is a key skill to hosting meaningful conversations. Scholars Eric Vogt, Juanita Brown, and David Isaacs have developed a theory related to the architecture of a powerful question, proposing it is in the question’s scope, construction and assumptions (Vogt, et al., 2003).

In developing questions for this first conversation at UROC, the hosting team found it essential to gather input on the conversation questions from the team of individuals who had volunteered to serve as table hosts. For a community conversation such as this, we were seeking questions that would be inviting and proactive. This is what emerged:

  • Round 1: What concerns, questions or insights about sex-trafficking and prostitution brought you here tonight?
  • Round 2: What can we as individuals and communities do to reduce harm and promote healing?

Equally important as the questions were the principles that were framed at the beginning of the conversation and listed on table tents at the center of every table. These principles and our application of them are described here:

  • Create hospitable space: All participants were invited to take ownership for ensuring others around the table felt welcome.
  • Explore questions that matter: The questions were carefully crafted to encourage participants to dig deep into the issue, while respecting that participants were approaching the conversation from many different backgrounds and depths of awareness.
  • Encourage each person’s contributions: Though a talking piece could have been used at each small group, we chose to ensure individuals felt safe and welcome to contribute by having a table host present at each table from dinner through the conversation.
  • Connect diverse people and ideas: This had been done through the marketing of the conversation, but also by encouraging individuals to sit with people they didn’t know.
  • Listen together for patterns, insights and deeper questions: Deep listening and presence was encouraged.
  • Make collective knowledge visible: Participants were provided with paper and markers at the center of every small table and encouraged to draw, write, and link ideas visually in order to engage both their creative and emotive mind along with a more analytical approach.

Following the conversation, one participant voiced that she felt heard on the topic for the first time: “This is as close to the issue as I have been able to get. I have felt shunned and not wanted when I have tried to help in the past but because I haven’t ‘sold my oldest child’ it’s like I have nothing to offer.” Another participant expressed how powerful it was to share her story as a survivor of sexual exploitation. These responses from participants made us as co-hosts feel that the questions had been powerful enough to drive the sort of conversation we hoped to host.

The Harvest

One way we encouraged participants to see themselves as a part of a broader network of conversations and iterative loop of conversation and smart action was through the collective creation of a piece of art. At the FREEDOM HERE + NOW symposium CIL had co-hosted, individuals were encouraged to take a blue construction paper circle—representing a water ripple—and write an action they would take individually or collectively after this conversation, attaching it to a hanging cloth that represented cascading water. This “ripples of action” art installation traveled between many of the conversations hosted on this issue with participants in the current conversation adding their hopeful actions to those participants in previous conversations had added.


In addition, themes from the conversations were harvested to inform future action and research around this issue. For example, at one of the conversations it became clear there was misinformation related to the policing of trafficking in the Twin Cities in the community. A police sergeant in attendance offered to partner with UROC to respond to resident’s concerns and questions.

Closing Reflections

Using meaningful conversation as a public engagement method in this instance brought to life what it means to embrace multiple ways of “knowing” in addressing a complex societal issue.

Closing Reflections

Using meaningful conversation as a public engagement method in this instance brought to life what it means to embrace multiple ways of “knowing” in addressing a complex societal issue.

By sharing this story, we hope to illustrate how hosting techniques and principles can redefine how the University typically approaches the design of engagement experiences. When we are seeking to address issues that involve dramatic shifts in cultural norms and the reweaving of community fabric, meaningful conversation among diverse perspectives can serve as a powerful tool.