Three things we learned at Experience Engagement

By Samantha Shotzbarger, with Margaret Staniforth

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Experience Engagement conference participants practice giving advice through questions during a session of the Portland event. (Photo by Samantha Shotzbarger)

We heard a lot of things from strangers on the streets of Portland when we asked them, “When was the last time you felt like a fish out of water?” The responses were as varied as the respondents, but we found a common theme: Everyone has felt out of place before.

The question was inspired by a college freshman who told us in a Public Insight Network questionnaire that she had been feeling wary of her new surroundings, and that she’s having a hard time identifying with Portland culture.

One person we spoke to, Julian Payne, said he felt out of place during his move from a more conservative state to Oregon. We sat next to him while he ate, and he told us about how there’s still hope for people in Oregon who may feel alone, as there are plenty of local events in the community.

Julian eats his lunch on steps in downtown Portland (Photo by Samantha Shotzbarger)

Julian Payne eats his lunch on steps in downtown Portland (Photo by Samantha Shotzbarger)

The community outreach exercise was part of the Experience Engagement conference, which brought together media representatives, non-profit professionals, city planners and community members for four days of conversation about how to better listen to and connect with the community.

We were lucky enough to attend the Experience Engagement workshop as students, in an environment filled with some incredible engagement practitioners. As engagement specialists with the Public Insight Network Bureau at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, we’ve been exposed to elements of engagement and some amazing tools to connect with communities across the country, but we gained some serious insight and appreciation for the art of engagement.

Here’s what we learned:

1. There’s a difference between interviewing and listening.

Going out into Portland neighborhoods to ask about being a fish out of water gave us hands-on experience with youth in Portland and with Portland’s diverse community. It also allowed us to practice listening skills.

As students of reporting, we have spent a lot of time and energy perfecting our interviewing techniques in order to create content. While that’s incredibly important, the community outreach taught us the value of truly listening to people instead of searching for the right quote, or framing the questions to get the “right” answers.

By utilizing a Public Insight Network questionnaire sent around to at-risk youth and young adults in the Portland community, we were able to peek into the college freshman’s world first and then learn about what mattered most to her — rather than focusing on an angle or story developed without her input.

A theme that resonated with our engagement-practitioner community was that listening is our superpower. While listening may seem passive, it’s an incredible tool for building trust and deepening understanding.

2. Commit “acts of engagement,” just to commit acts of engagement.

Sometimes listening to the community is important for an individual project or story – but sometimes it’s important to listen to the community, just to listen to the community.

We hosted a session about how we might better teach engagement in universities and high schools, and we heard so many pieces of advice, but one idea that stuck with us was that the practice of engagement has to be a part of the routine to be effective in the long-term. It shouldn’t be a quick solution or a one-time deal.

It was suggested that students learn engagement alongside reporting so that it doesn’t become an afterthought but an active part of the process.

Coming back from Portland, we find that thought very beneficial and are already brainstorming ways to build engagement into the framework of our everyday activities as journalists.

3. There are some seriously cool projects out there.

The engagement community is awesome. I mean, really awesome. We were surrounded by some incredible projects and the sense of collaboration was inspiring.

For example, the conference was live-sketched by founder of Empathetic Mediagraphic journalist Dan Archer.

Previously, Archer created a virtual reality storytelling experience around the Michael Brown shooting. The project, Ferguson Firsthand, grants viewers the ability to experience the shooting from different experiences, based on eyewitness testimony, grand jury testimony and news stories, according to St. Louis Public Radio.

We’re excited about the future because of the talent that gathered in Portland. It says a lot that so many talented people wanted to deepen their understanding of engagement, and we can’t wait to see what happens, both with American Public Media’s Public Insight Network and with the community at large.

We want to thank Journalism That Matters and the Agora Journalism Center at University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication for putting on such an amazing experience. To learn more about the conference and to see notes from the sessions, visit the Experience Engagement website.

To see what conference attendees were talking about during the event, check out the #PDXEngage15 on Twitter.

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