Community Conversations

What is a “community conversation”?  According to Erik Carter, Vanderbilt University Special Education Professor and creator of Community Conversations, it is “a way to bring a diverse set of community members together to collectively brainstorm strategies and resources that can be used to address a challenge facing the community.”  Traditionally, community conversations engage adults.  However, in April 2018, Berrien Regional Education Service Agency’s (Berrien RESA) Peer-to-Peer program, with the help of the Statewide Autism Resources & Training (START) team, flipped the traditional model and hosted a conversation where students took the lead.   Students are uniquely positioned to understand the social and learning cultures within their schools, yet rarely are they given opportunities to spearhead change initiatives.  
As part of Autism Awareness Month, Berrien RESA’s Peer-to-Peer program hosted its first Community Conversation which included over 150 students, parents, school leaders, board members and business representatives during the school day.  The task was to brainstorm solutions to two questions that were developed by both peer mentors and peer mentees (students of all abilities who participate in the Berrien County Peer-to-Peer program).  The questions were:
  • How can we increase opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in social events, recreational activities and gain access to employment in Berrien County?
  • What specifically can I do to increase opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in social events, recreational activities and gain access to employment in Berrien County?
The students, with help from their school district’s Peer-to-Peer program facilitators, were responsible for coordinating the event.  They were asked to use their own social capital to identify and invite participants, decorate and set-up the meeting space, participate in media interviews and contribute to the conversations the day of the event.  Not only did this experience give ALL students a voice, the event contributed to strengthening  their planning, organizational and leadership skills as well.  
During the conversation, students (from elementary through high school) shared solutions they felt would support a more inclusionary community.  For many students, it was the first time that they felt their ideas were heard by school leadership, community members, fellow students and others.   Students felt empowered when realizing that “speaking out” about change, can move systems in a direction to shape the community in which they reside.
“We had a chance to learn from adults that we don’t really know and they had a chance to learn from us.  They could hear our side of the story and understand what it is like to need (and have) support available in the community” -Berrien County Peer-to-Peer Mentee
For Berrien County, hosting a student-led community conversation proved to be a wonderful way to give students a voice-and the data proves that everyone had a lot to say!  Through the conversation, 473 suggestions were identified as potential answers to the two questions asked.  From those 473 suggestions, six ideas were identified as being actionable solutions.  Based on the feedback received using follow-up surveys after the event, a student-led action committee has been formed with the goal of further developing the solutions.  The committee plans to meet over course of school year 2018/19 to move from ideas to action.
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