Editorial ‘Listening Tours’ Engage Community in Creating Change
‘I don’t know if we can ever declare victory, but the train has left the station’

When the editorial board at the Democrat and Chronicle embarked on hosting “listening tours” — encouraging readers to attend various meetings and discuss community issues related to race and poverty — initially only a handful of people showed up.

The board started to rethink the approach to bolster community involvement and decided to invite people to the table. It worked.

“We decided to leverage what we think is goodwill and our credibility on the editorial page,” says James Lawrence, the Democrat and Chronicle’s editorial page editor.

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  James Lawrence, editorial page editor (Photo: CARLOS ORTIZ staff photographer)

The Rochester, N.Y.-based newspaper launched Unite Rochester in 2013 to raise awareness about racial issues and engage residents in community-wide productive conversations about race. The listening tours are part of this effort.

Elected and appointed leaders and all facets of the community were encouraged to attend and have a free-willing discussion about race and poverty. The editorial board expressed the gathering would be confidential and the paper would not report what was said.

“We wanted to get to the meat and potatoes of some of the issues in our community,” Lawrence says.

To their “great surprise” about 50 to 60 people attended including most of the suburban school board members and city council, town supervisors and the county sheriff.

After the discussions the editorial board encouraged community members to continue to meet, explaining the newspaper representatives are primarily in a facilitation role.

A year later, most of these groups are still meeting and producing good work, Lawrence notes. More than 150 community members and political leaders have been part of the listening tours.

For example, an education committee is looking at how to serve people who live in the city and provide better education. An affordable housing group is exploring what can be done to stimulate more affordable, low-cost housing in the suburbs.

The justice segment is “especially gratifying,” says Lawrence. An editorial series a few years back prompted the presiding court system judge to call Lawrence and ask how he could help the Unite Rochester effort.

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  A gathering of involved community members and the Unite Rochester team met at the Democrat and Chronicle for a preview of the progress report. (Photo: TINA MACINTYRE-YEE @tyee23/staff photographer)    

With the judge’s volunteering other city court judges, the district attorney, the county sheriff and the police chief also came on board. Every major leader in the legal and justice system in the community is at the table or has a representative participating in ways to improve the system.

“One of the biggest pluses about the work that’s been done so far is the fact that we brought together people who don’t normally come together,” Lawrence says, pointing to examples of leaders from the city and suburbs, as well as Democrats and Republicans.

“We are seeing people who are genuinely focused and committed to rectifying many of the worsening, if not debilitating, problems in our community.”

Lawrence says he’s in constant contact with the committee chairs and co-chairs to find out what issues they may be facing. He describes his role as “doing a lot of hand holding,” looking to keep people on the positive side when politics and other obstacles could arise.

At a gathering to preview Unite Rochester’s June 29 progress report about 50 people in attendance seemed to enjoy meeting one another, Lawrence says. The report highlighted what’s been done or is happening, whereas in the previous year the report focused on recommendations for change.

“The community is still watching to see where this is all headed. I got some really good feedback from participants and most of the leaders themselves are saying we have to be accountable to ourselves and move forward. That’s music to my ears, to all our ears.”

The brain power and community goodwill amongst leaders is present to get things going, and the community and citizens will follow once they see that leaders are serious about change, he adds.

“I don’t know if we can ever declare victory, but the train has left the station,” Lawrence says.

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