Like many police forces across the country, the Madison, Wisconsin force faced a lot of public criticism over the use of force, including a finding of “legal but questionable” actions in the handling of the police killing of Tony Robinson, a black teenager in the midst of a mental health crisis, in 2015. After the abrupt resignation of the police chief in the fall of 2019, the Madison Police and Fire Commission (PFC) reached out to the Local Voices Network. With the support of the Mayor, they wanted to be sure to collect community input in the hiring process. LVN was asked to convene a series of small group recorded conversations for deeper stories than could emerge from the PFC’s planned “town hall” style meetings.
LVN had been convening small group conversations in Madison for 18 months, so we also had access to community conversations where encounters with police, criminal justice, and crime were raised independently. Working with researchers at MIT’s Center for Constructive Communication, we were able to combine analysis of the conversations convened specifically for the Police and Fire Commission with the conversations across the city of Madison in the previous 18 months resulted in a report that pulled perspectives from 48 people in 31 conversations and summarized community concerns by topic. This report led to specific questions asked in the private interview process, and the ability to play community voices for candidate responses in the public interview process.
The four finalists who were interviewed in the public process responded to six questions from the Police and Fire Commission, three of which came directly from LVN’s report. Because of our conversation collection, analysis and reporting, the voices of people who otherwise would have been entirely missed in the process were in the room as this critical hire came about. Finalist Shon Barnes was selected as the new Police Chief in Madison.
Imagine being able to tap into an active flow of community conversations wherever you are in the nation and learning what is most on the minds of residents as told through their experiences. When big civic decisions need to be made, policy makers, advocacy groups, and individual citizens can dive into that stream of conversations to listen, to learn, and to be informed as they shape the decisions they hope will improve life in their communities. The deeper texture and complexity of the views of the community are in the timbre of their voices, the ease of their laughter, the sparks of connection that are all embedded in the qualitative data captured in conversation.
Community stories are not the whole picture of what happens in any municipality, but too often civic leaders are working only with statistics about demographic groups or political positions. Polling data necessarily removes nuance and offers only one slice of what is true. If that quantitative data can be combined with community stories, not only do we have a fuller picture of what is happening in a community, we have a community that has grown in its connection neighbor-to-neighbor. And if those community voices are heard, acknowledged and made explicitly a part of the decision process, we start to restore community trust and faith in engagement practices. A virtuous cycle.
We believe that this process of conversational connection combined with the power of machine learning and the networked possibilities of gathering conversations both across time and space can offer the resources for both recovery and resilience as we work toward equitable futures. It all begins with the solid habits of dialogue that engages us intimately, deeply, in making sense of our past experiences while opening up the space to imagine new futures. The decisions that follow about where to invest our time, our money and our attention, make all the difference. Let’s build the strength for an equitable future, conversation by conversation, together.