Stoke Newington Community Listening Circles Project

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Summary

Aims

The Stoke Newington Community Listening Circles project was co-developed by people from Hackney XR and St Mary’s Church in Stoke Newington. We saw the need for action to be taken within our community following the first two years of the Covid pandemic and in the context of several other overlapping crises. We hoped to strengthen trust and resilience in our local community by identifying local people’s concerns and developing practical projects to address some of them, in the process empowering the community to tackle problems, build skills and create networks to support each other.

Methods

A core group, made up of individuals from the two organisations, met regularly on Zoom and in person to discuss the development of a community building project. We created a plan to run a series of weekly listening circles to identify the concerns of local people and work out what we as a community might do to address them. We worked consciously to increase racial diversity in the core group. We ran a pilot session to test out the process and then organised 6 evenings of listening circles culminating in a community meal on the final evening. We created a flier that was used to promote the program and set up a Facebook page. Before each session we created a detailed plan including enquiry questions for the listening circles and allocated tasks such as welcoming and facilitation. After each session we held a review meeting to reflect on the process and work on a plan for the following week.

Outcomes

We held nine sessions (one pilot; 5 evenings of listening circles and group discussions; a community meal; two follow up sessions to review progress). A total of 24 people attended the meetings (in addition to the core group), including several people who attended most of the sessions.

During the 5 evenings of listening circles, we moved from:- identifying people’s concerns → prioritising those concerns → developing 4 practical projects to address them.

The four projects to come out of this Community Listening Circle are:-

  1. working to hold Hackney Council to account in relation to the climate crisis
  2. running listening circles for young people
  3. running a pop-up climate café
  4. developing a community garden on church land

Two of these projects are on-going and are being run independently. Those involved in the other two projects are exploring ways to continue. Another follow-up session will be held in about 4 months’ time.

Introduction

The Stoke Newington Community Listening Circles project was co-developed by a group of us from Hackney XR and St Mary’s Church in Stoke Newington following the experience of Hackney XR running a People’s Assembly in August 2021. We saw the need for change and for action to be taken within our community following the first two years of the Covid pandemic and in the context of other overlapping crises including the destruction of the environment; the climate catastrophe; poverty for many; homelessness; race and class oppression and a sense that the established political & social systems were not working for the good of most people. We hoped to strengthen trust and resilience in our local community and empower ourselves to tackle problems, build skills and create networks to support each other.

How did we go about making the project happen?

After an initial meeting between XR Hackney and St Mary’s church in October 2021 a core group of us, made up of individuals from the two organisations, met regularly on Zoom and in person to discuss the development of a community building project. We set up a WhatsApp group for discussions in between meetings. We were alert to the different cultures of the two organisations; it was helpful to have a couple of people from the church who had previously been involved with XR who could help to navigate some of the more difficult conversations. To ensure shared ownership of the project, we alternated the facilitation of the meetings between the two organisations. We came up with a plan to run a series of listening circles to help identify the concerns of local people and what we as a community might be able to do to address them. We worked consciously to increase racial diversity in the core group by working with a woman of colour who was known to XR from Black Lives Matter (BLM). She introduced two other people of colour to the group, one of whom facilitated most of the listening circle sessions.

How do listening circles work?

Listening circles involve active listening which is different from having a conversation. The person speaking talks for a set amount of time in response to a designated enquiry question while the other person listens carefully without interrupting or commenting on what they are saying. The person listening should also minimize what they do (such as showing empathy with a smile or nod) in order to keep their response neutral and not influence what the speaker is saying. At the end of the set time, the speaker thanks their partner for listening and invites them to talk for the same length of time. After both partners have spoken they can feed back to each other or a larger group for about one minute what the other one has said. There is some evidence that the best length of time for such listening exercises is 4 minutes and 40 seconds. For the purposes of this project, we mostly used 4 minutes.

How did we prepare for the series of listening circles?

We practiced active listening amongst ourselves in pairs using a gong timer. To be as inclusive as possible, members of the core group with a hearing impairment advised on the use of a microphone during the sessions. We practiced using the microphone. On 1st March we piloted an evening of three rounds of listening circles to test out the process. There was a limited number of invited guests, specifically chosen to increase the diversity within the meeting in relation to age and race. This session was facilitated by the person from BLM in order to model leadership by people of colour and there were three other people of colour helping to co-facilitate. We highlighted some ground rules at the start.

Ground rules

  1. To treat everyone with respect
  2. To enter into conversation in good faith and in a spirit of co-operation
  3. To listen attentively and patiently
  4. To aim towards wanting to understand others rather than convincing them of your point of view
  5. To hear people out
  6. To make space for others to speak if you have been talking for a while
  7. To try not to take any comments as personal attacks
  8. To notice when our emotions are feeling stirred and to take a deep breath before we react
  9. To assume that everyone else is also just trying their best!

We used the following enquiry questions for the listening exercises.

Round 1- check in:

• What has made you feel alive today? What has frustrated you today?

Round 2

• What is your experience of the pandemic?

Round 3

• What concerns do you have which you would like to explore?

We asked participants to feedback the concerns they would like to explore and we created a chart of these.

The plan below shows the proposed plan for the evening. We did not manage to stick to the time schedule and so the last part, when we would have discussed the concerns raised, did not take place as we ran out of time. However, despite this and the large number of troubling concerns that emerged, there was a real buzz in the room as people felt listened to and able to express those concerns with a hope that collectively we might be able to address some of them.

PILOT EVENT at St Mary’s Centre, 1st March 2022, 7.30-9pm - PLAN

Numbers – we are aiming for around 20 people. Scope or limit of what are we piloting? We are mostly testing the process of a meeting. Refreshments will be provided in the centre.

7.30 – 7.40: (10 mins) Introduction to the evening from facilitators: two supporting facilitators also needed

7.40 – 7.55: (15 minutes) Check-in: those present introduce themselves and answer questions • What has made you feel alive today? • What has frustrated you today?

7.55 – 8.30: (35 minutes – allows 5 minutes for moving around and getting started) Go into break out rooms with 4 people in each group to participate in a listening exercise where we practice really listening to the other person without asking any questions.

8.00-8.15: (15 minutes) Divide into pairs. One person talks for 5 minutes about their experience of the pandemic while the other person listens without saying anything. The other person in the pair then talks about their experience of the pandemic. Get back into 4 and each person summarizes what their partner has told them for 1 minute.

8.15-8.30: (15 minutes) Divide into same pairs again. One person talks for 5 minutes about concerns they have which they would like to explore while the other person listens without saying anything. The other person in the pair then talks about concerns they have which they would like to explore. Get back into 4 and each person summarizes what their partner has told them for 1 minute.

8.30 – 8.45: (15 minutes) Go back into the bigger group and feedback from each group of 4 some concerns which those there would like to explore further which have been inspired by the listening exercise. This could be introduced by asking: What would you like this group to explore further? Or What concerns would you like to explore further?

8.45 – 9.00: (15 minutes) Discuss those concerns and round up

Reflection on the pilot

The core group met a few days after the pilot to reflect on what had gone well in the pilot and what needed to be changed for future sessions.

What went well

Overall, it was a very positive and moving experience; everyone pulled together; there was good and enabling facilitation leading to good energy, solidarity and comradeship in the room. There was a sense of profound connection (development of collective consciousness).

• Great to have diversity amongst those attending including young people

• Good to chat informally with refreshments at the start

• Check-in questions were important to get to know the other person before talking about deeper things

• Use of gong timer helped to keep things on track

• Sharing of experiences & listening carefully was good way of feeling involved

• Recap after listening for 4-5 minutes was important to help keep focus during listening

• Having timed sessions gave time to those who are not used to being heard

• Feedback session to the whole group by capturing thoughts & ideas on paper at the end was good – asking representatives from each group to write their ideas on the big chart was a good way of people feeling included

What needed to change

• keep to time

• have welcomers at door with extra 15 minutes at start for tea & chat

• need a clearer introduction to the event including:-

  1. scene setting
  2. aims of the evening & project overall without being too prescriptive
  3. practical guidance on how evening going to work
  4. rough outline of timetable
  5. clear explanation of active listening and how this differs from back & forth conversation

• consider practicalities of the space and how participants move around between being in main room as entire group in a big circle at the beginning and end; and in smaller groups spread out in the St Mary’s Centre during the times of listening

• paper & pens for people to write down key points for feeding back

• revise the enquiry questions

• better use of co-facilitators

Plan for the main project

After the pilot we agreed to run a six week programme starting on Tuesday 26th April. The overall aim was to identify challenges and issues of concern for people living in Stoke Newington and then co-develop some practical solutions.

The first two weeks would be rounds of listening circles with a similar structure to the pilot. The exact structure of the remaining weeks was not decided at this stage but we hoped to generate a reservoir of community concerns and create a rolling structure where conversations would be picked up from week to week. This would allow for it to evolve organically, while staying true to our aim so that by the end of six weeks we would have a few small working groups with a clear sense of what they want to do. Selecting which concerns to be worked on would be done in a democratic way.

The final week would include a community meal as a celebration of what we have done in the first 5 weeks and a launch for the on-going work.

Publicity

The youngest member of the group (a design student) designed the flier/poster (see below) that was used to promote the program and another person set up a Facebook page.

The flier was used to promote the project by leafleting along Stoke Newington Church Street where information was handed out to local shops and restaurants, and posters were put up in prime locations outside Clissold Park and the church.

Flyer,-Community-Listening-Circles.jpg

(The text on the above flier, for 'screen readers', is:- "Do you want to be heard?" Community listening circles, Building a better Stoke Newington You are invited to take part in an open conversation between local people. What problems do we face in Stoke Newington? How can we help ourselves and each other? Please join us to talk about your concerns, hopes and plans for the future. Hosted at St Mary's Centre (behind St Mary's Church N16 9ES) On 26 April, 3 May, 10 May, 17 May, 24 May, 31 May At 7.15-9pm Facilitated by St Mary's Church and Extinction Rebellion Hackney)

We held two Circles of Silence in Clissold Park. In these several of us stood in a circle facing outwards holding handmade placards highlighting facts about the climate and environmental catastrophe. These were used as opportunities to hand out leaflets and talk about the project to passers-by.

We announced the project at the end of several church services and left fliers for people to pick up in church and at the Second Chance Café attached to the church.

Other issues

• We booked St Mary’s Centre for six consecutive Tuesday evenings and hoped that not too many people turned up in relation to the capacity of the venue! We had use of the main room and kitchen, from which we could serve refreshments, and another small room.

• We bought sticky labels to use as name badges.

• We generated a registration sheet to collect names and email addresses of those attending and explored GDPR policies around information handling and confidentiality.

• We created an email account to use to communicate with participants.

• A few days after each session we held a meeting either in person or on Zoom to review how the session went and to plan the next one, clarifying the focus of the next session and deciding on roles and new enquiry questions. We created a tabulated plan for each session. We took turns to welcome and serve refreshments; sign-in those attending; facilitate; and time keep. The co-facilitators for the next session met separately to divide up tasks.

The First Listening Circle session

As we had done for the pilot, we developed a plan with several sub-sections (see below).

We started by welcoming all participants, aiming to create a sense of care, togetherness and gratitude to them for making the effort to come out to join us. We offered refreshments and asked people to wear a sticky label with their name on it.

We set out a large circle of chairs in the main room for the participants to use at the start.

There were three facilitators for this evening (two were people of colour) and they co-delivered a scripted introduction (covering scene setting; aims of the evening & project overall; practical guidance on how evening was going to work; rough timetable; clear explanation of active listening & ground rules). Another person acted as a timekeeper using a gong timer for the listening exercises (4 minutes) and keeping the facilitators to time for each sub-section.

We put up posters on the wall with an outline timetable for the evening and reminders of the enquiry questions.

We numbered round the room to divide the participants into groups of four and then asked each group to move to a specific place within the centre.

Each group had a piece of flip chart paper and pens. We asked each group of four to divide into pairs for the listening exercises using the enquiry questions and to stick with this pair for the rest of the evening.

For the check-in listening circle we had two well-being enquiry questions :
What has made you feel alive today?
• What has frustrated you today?

For the second listening circle the enquiry question was:
How has life changed for you over the last 2 years?

And for the third listening circle the enquiry question was:
What concerns do you have that you would like to explore?

After each listening circle there was time to feedback what had been shared to the groups of four and then to discuss this in the fours. In particular, we asked participants to record (on a piece of flip chart paper) the concerns that were raised in the third sub-section to feedback to the whole group at the end.

During the last sub-section the whole group reconvened in a circle and representatives from each group of four fed back the concerns they had discussed using the flip chart sheets as an aide memoire.

FIRST LISTENING CIRLCE at St Mary’s Centre, 26th April 2022, 7.15 – 9.00 pm - PLAN

Time Activity Who & Comments
7.15-7.30 Meet & greet at entrance PM & SS
Refreshments CBO & SR
Sign in & name stickers JH
7.30 – 7.37 Welcome & intro including history & aims of the project & ground rules KC, AK, HC
Explain active listening, timing & the enquiry questions JH to count how many people present
Number round room to form groups of 4
7.37 – 7.45 Divide into groups of 4 – each group to have flip chart paper & pen KC, AK, HC, SS & JH
Spread out in big room, vestry, corridor as needed check all groups are happy with what to do
7.45 – 7.55 In pairs, one person talks about the questions for 4 minutes while the other person listens without saying anything. The other person in the pair then talks about the same questions:- What has made you feel alive today? What has frustrated you today? JH to do timing. KC, AK, HC, SS check all groups are happy with what to do
7.55 – 8.15 Stay in the same pairs. One person talks for 4 minutes about How has life changed for you over the last 2 years? while the other person listens without saying anything. The other person in the pair then talks about How has life changed for you over the last 2 years? Get back into 4 and each person summarizes what their partner has told them for 1 minute & then group discussion for 5 minutes – consider writing down some points for feeding back to big group at the end. JH - timing. KC, AK, HC to check everyone ok with what they are doing and comfortable participating
8.15 – 8.35 Stay in the same pairs again. One person talks for 4 minutes about concerns they have which they would like to explore while the other person listens without saying anything. The other person in the pair then talks about concerns they have which they would like to explore. JH – timing. KC, AK, HC to check everyone ok with what they are doing and comfortable participating
Get back into 4 and each person summarizes what their partner has told them for 2 minutes and note down
8.35 – 8.55 Go back into the bigger group and get into a big circle and feedback from each group of 4 the concerns raised. KC to facilitate
Flip chart sheets of paper with key points on can be stuck up and used as aide memoire when feeding back to the whole group
8.55 – 9.00 Round up KC
Enthusiastically explain that the following week we will start to prioritise these concerns and begin discussing how to practically work on them. We would really welcome and encourage everyone to come back next week. Please let us know any positive or negative feedback now or at the end about how this evening has been and any concerns you may have about attending again.
Survey with QR code

Reflection on first session and planning for the second session

The first session was felt to have been a success – several people attended who had not been to the pilot and were not known to us but had seen our publicity. However, it was noted that those who attended this session were less racially diverse than those who had attended the pilot (which was by invitation only). Some of us felt this was a very important issue and were concerned that if it did not change the project would stall. Others felt it was not such a big issue because some people may only start to participate in a project like this when they see something tangible happening, depending on their individual life circumstances which might have impacted their ability to participate. We then discussed what success would look like – there were a number of different ideas ranging from simply the fact of the initial meetings going ahead (which could be seen as already helping to build community) to some practical projects being developed at the end of the 6 weeks. This discussion helped us to reframe success and provided an important boost to our morale.

The tabulated plan kept the group focused (i.e. working to a timeline) and this improved week by week as we honed the format. The participants also benefited from the plan that was put up on the wall because it allowed them to follow a structure that they could understand, grow with and eventually own.

We thought that some new people might attend the second session on 3rd May so we decided to run two pathways in parallel for this second session. New people were grouped together and used the session one enquiry questions; people who returned having attended the first session were divided into groups of four by numbering round the room and used some different enquiry questions.

As for the first session, we put up posters on the wall with an outline timetable for the evening and reminders of the enquiry questions. We also put up the flip chart sheets listing the concerns from the first session and we typed these up and printed out some copies for participants to use during the second session.

After the welcome, introduction and check in questions the returning participants used the enquiry question Do you have any new concerns since last week? They listened in pairs, fed back to their fours and then discussed what they had fed back.

We then invited everyone to wander round the room and look at the flip chart sheets with the concerns from the previous week (which we had stuck up on the walls) or to read these from the typed sheets.

Returning to their pairs, we asked them to use the enquiry question What most excites you about the concerns identified and why? After feeding back in their fours and discussing (keeping a record on flip chart paper) the whole group reconvened and each group fed back their concerns and what most excited them.

SECOND LISTENING CIRCLE, 3rd May 2022, 7.15-9pm - PLAN

Time Activity Who & comments
7.15 -7.30 Meet & greet at entrance HC
Refreshments CBO
Sign in & name stickers JH
Chat to those who have arrived Everyone
7.30 – 7.37 Welcome & intro including history & aims of the project & ground rules KC, AK, HF
Explain active listening, timing & the enquiry questions
If there are some new people explain that there will be two parallel processes JH to identify new people attending for the first time & number of those who attended last week
7.37 – 7.45 New people need to be put into separate groups and essentially go through the week one questions – they will have at least one of us per group of 4 and assuming not too many they should go into the vestry and follow plan for last week. Need at least 2 core people to support the new people who should go into vestry - suggest AK & PM
People who attended last week should divide into groups by numbering round the room to form groups of 4 – each group to have flip chart paper & pen KC & HF to check all groups are happy with what to do
Spread out in big room & corridor as needed
7.45 – 7.50 Check–in: In pairs, one person talks about the questions for 2 minutes while the other person listens without saying anything. The other person in the pair then talks about the same questions Timing – JH, KC & HF to check all groups are happy with what to do
What has made you feel alive today?
What has frustrated you today?
7.50 – 8.10 Stay in the same pairs. One person talks for 4 minutes about any new concerns since last week while the other person listens without saying anything. The other person in the pair then talks about any new concerns since last week Timing – JH
Get back into 4 and each person summarizes what their partner has told them for 1 minute & then group discussion for 5 minutes – consider writing down some points for feeding back to big group at the end. KC & HF to check all groups are happy with what to do
8.10-8.25 Everyone walk around to look at feedback flip charts from last week and/or look at the printed sheets of these concerns – discuss the concerns raised with others Questions: How are we going to comment on these? (Blank sheet – post it notes etc) New people to take part in this process as well
8.25 – 8.45 Stay in the same pairs again. One person talks for 4 minutes about What most excites you about the concerns identified and why? while the other person listens without saying anything. KC & HF – invite participants to discuss other concerns than the ones they themselves suggested.
The other person in the pair then talks about What most excites you about the concerns identified and why? JH - Timing
Get back into 4 and each person summarizes what their partner has told them for 2 minutes and note down what to feedback to main group.
8.45 – 8.55 Go back into the bigger group and get into a big circle and feedback from each group of 4 the concerns raised. KC & HF
Flip chart sheets of paper with key points on can be stuck up and used as aide memoire when feeding back to the whole group
8.55 – 9.00 Round up KC & HF
Survey with QR code
Over weeks 3 - 5 we gradually moved from prioritising these concerns to developing four practical projects to address some of them.

We used a mixture of listening in pairs and group discussions asking questions like: What is the issue that you would most like to address? What practical thing would deal with your concern? (see below for detailed explanation of the content of each week).

The four projects are:

  1. working to hold Hackney Council to account in relation to the climate crisis
  2. running listening circles for young people
  3. running a pop-up climate café
  4. developing a community garden on church land

In Week 6, we held a community meal to celebrate the success of the listening circles in bringing local people together to develop some practical projects. Some funding for the meal was available from the church and XR. We asked a local chef to create a vegetarian menu and volunteers from the Second Chance Café helped in the preparation and provided waiting services. Friends of those who had attended the listening circles and people from the church and local community were invited and each group had a chance to showcase their ideas. It was a wonderfully joyous evening.

The successes so far

● All the ideas generated came from the participants; they discussed them, refined the ideas, and ultimately took ownership

● At one point in the planning process, there were about eight separate project ideas; this was untenable with the number of participants involved, so a process of narrowing down ensued

● The facilitators offered quotes, ideas & thinking points for the community group to go home with each week

● Encouraging the community to do homework - i.e. investigate if there are projects that already exist in their area that they could join or liaise with to develop their own thinking

● The end of process meal in week 6 gave the various groups an opportunity to showcase their ideas in front of an invited audience including local councilors, the church minister, friends, family and other interested parties.

● A follow-up session, roughly 6 weeks after the meal, gave the groups an opportunity to show how they were progressing, highlight areas of potential need, and maybe more importantly know the new community formed by the coming together of XR Hackney, St Mary’s Church, and the local community.

Detailed description of weeks 3-5

Week 3

After the usual check-in, the week 3 session started with everyone looking at the flip charts from the first two weeks (stuck up on the wall or as typed handouts) and discussing the concerns raised with other participants.

Then in pairs we used the enquiry question What is the issue that you would most like to address? After each person spoke for 4 minutes to their partner, we asked each person to prepare to report back in one sentence what their key issue was to the big group. One facilitator recorded this on flip chart with the name of the person beside it.

Participants were then asked to form a group with other people who were concerned about roughly the same issue and in these groups to share their thoughts and begin to brainstorm how the groups might address the issues chosen. From this, there were four main groupings covering the following issues:

  1. Energy efficiency of homes; poverty, cost of living & mental health
  2. Waste disposal; holding the council to account
  3. Social isolation/Mental health/homelessness
  4. Young people – place to hear young people’s voices; mentoring; climate action
Week 4

The aim of the fourth session was to develop some small practical project ideas to address the concerns identified last week, which must be do-able (e.g. we cannot do a project to retrofit houses) and are not already being done elsewhere as far as we know. We asked participants to divide into the four groups based on their interests (in relation to the groupings from Week 3) and consider the question: What practical thing would deal with your concern? and to discuss this within their group. Groups then discussed the ideas and chose two ideas to feedback to everyone. At the end of this, a final list of projects was created.

People divided up into groups based on which practical projects they would like to work on and spent time discussing these, identifying any homework that might need to be done (e.g. research to check if anything is already happening) and starting to develop project plans.

At this point, there was a final list of projects that could be worked on:

  1. Create a community forest and vegetable garden in the grounds of St Mary's Church
  2. Hold a pop-up climate cafe in St Mary's Centre, offer information, support and lots of different activities on topics including recycling, home insulation and local energy generation and Wi-Fi
  3. Create a workshop for repair and upcycling of household items
  4. Hold another series of listening circles with the young people of Stoke Newington School; offer mentoring to participants from excluded and marginal groups
  5. Hold a Hackney People's Assembly, co-created with the council
Week 5

The aim of this week was to develop a vision for the projects and to begin working on concrete project plans. We asked participants to go to the group they were interested in and begin developing a vision and a plan for the project using the following questions:

• What are the aims of your project?

• Who is this project for and how will it help them?

• What are the possible outcomes of your project?

• Consider resources that might be needed

• What research needs to be done

• Who are the stakeholders

We advised that we would not be holding any more centralised meetings so the project groups would need to organise themselves and take the work forward. This may include reaching out to other people to join in with the work.


Revision #32
Created Fri, Oct 28, 2022 6:55 AM by Michelle Barnes
Updated Tue, Nov 8, 2022 3:14 PM by Michelle Barnes