by Payton Bruni
Community in Unity, created by Alaska Public Media in 2015, invites residents of Alaska to sit down and participate in face-to-face discussions in order to tackle relevant community issues. Recorded for radio broadcast, the group conversations have included topics ranging from homelessness to race and identity with the hopes of getting people who wouldn’t normally meet together. For the topic of incarceration – identified as a prevalent subject within the community – a separate series was made where episodes were hosted within correctional facilities across the state involving people who are currently incarcerated.
Project Goals: Anne Hillman, the host and producer of Community and Unity, said the primary goal of the project is to get people who wouldn’t normally interact into the same space for an open conversation. “The goal is to help people understand other people’s perspectives and life experiences with the hope that it will reduce barriers between them.” She added, “For the prison series, the goal is to reduce the stigma and fear associated with incarceration, so that people will have better experiences reintegrating into the community upon release.”
Tools and Technology: Alaska Public Media uses its audio equipment in order to record, produce, and prepare the Community in Unity radio episodes/podcasts. Promotion of radio episodes and Community in Unity events is done through the Alaska Public Media Facebook page, ads on the radio, and newspaper ads when funding allows.
Impact: On average, roughly 30 to 40 people attend the Community in Unity conversations, and Hillman said the highest turnout was for the first prisoner re-entry conversation with over 100 participants. This episode caught the attention of a charity organization called 100 Women Charitable Foundation. After members of this charity organization saw the Community in Unity panel discussion, the foundation donated $10,000 to an organization that worked directly with former prisoners re-entering communities. Since beginning the conversations inside of the prisons, community members have started donating books, newspaper subscriptions, and other supplies to different facilities to increase the number of opportunities for people who are incarcerated. People are also volunteering time to teach classes. Inmates who participated in the conversations said they felt like they were actually being listened to and were less afraid of what they would face when released. About 10 to 15 inmates participate in each event. They have drawn in crowds from the public ranging from 20 to 50 people. According to Hillman, the conversations fill a hole in public dialogue. “There aren’t that many opportunities to have open conversations about topics that impact the community and invite everyone to be an equal participant,” Hillman said. She added that local community members regularly approach her to say how much they enjoyed the Community in Unity episodes and how the conversations have changed their perspectives.
Organization Background: Alaska Public Media is comprised of alaskapublic.org, the Alaska Public Radio Network, KAKM-TV, PBS KIDS, and KSKA radio. Based out of Southcentral Alaska, Alaska Public Media reaches 97% of the Alaska population with its statewide news content, which is also broadcast around the state through the Alaska Public Radio Network. Alaska Public Media reports annual funding of $5.6 million – with 75% of said funding coming from community donors and the remaining funding stemming from state and federal support.
Project Resources: Hillman said that, aside from the costs of providing food, the overall financial resources required to host the Community in Unity discussions are minimal. “You can do this for very little money; if you aren’t traveling and don’t pay for print ads, you can keep it under $200.” The Alaska Public Media advertising team assists with promotion, and Hillman said she occasionally receives recording assistance from an audio engineer. Preparing for the conversations, including meeting with stakeholders before the events, can take considerable amounts of time. Depending on the topics and the community, stakeholder meetings are highly encouraged. When holding conversations inside of prisons, meeting ahead of time with the inmates who have volunteered to participate is essential so they understand what they will experience.
Here’s what worked
1. If people can’t come to you, go to them
“The idea is to get people who wouldn’t normally be in the same space together in a room,” said Hillman, “and that’s very obviously happening with the prison conversations.” Hillman sought to hold Community in Unity in one of Alaska’s correctional facilities so prison inmates could participate with staff and community members to discuss incarceration. The Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, Alaska, agreed to host the discussion, and it turned out to be very well-received by both participants and listeners. After it’s success, the Department of Corrections invited Alaska Public Media to host conversations in all of their facilities.
2. Setting agreements
Hillman said, “I start each conversation with a set of agreements that basically say enter this conversation with respect, but also understand that it might draw up a lot of feelings and that’s okay.” Starting the discussions this way helps to set a tone that is non-combative and gets participants on the same page.
3. Moderating to promote interaction
Everyone who participates in the events sits in a circle, on equal footing. No one is promoted as an expert, and people are asked to sit near others who they may not know. It creates a dynamic that reduces feelings of “Us vs. Them.” The set-up makes recording for radio slightly more involved. “When I moderate, it is me with a microphone running from person to person around the circle, and then sitting down on the floor in front of them so I’m not blocking anyone’s view.” She said this method is effective because it gets participants to look at each other and form connections when speaking.
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Reaching new audiences
With the series on prisoner re-entry approaching its final episode, Hillman said she is investigating possible methods to pinpoint the next discussion topic. “I need to figure out ways to tap into more ideas of what topics to focus on and really get more community input on what to cover.”
2. Gauging impact
Hillman said she is looking for ways to better gauge the impact of Community in Unity beyond the comments and stories frequently shared with her by audience members. She explained that – aside from the tangible metrics such as public donations – the effects of Community in Unity have primarily consisted of anecdotal evidence from participants and listeners.
3. Emphasizing aesthetics and refreshments
Small details such as providing food and improving décor can have a big impact on discussions. For conversations where more resources were spent on refreshments and decorations, Hillman reported that audience members engaged more and stayed longer to chat with other workshop attendees.
Here’s what else you should know
- Building trust: Community in Unity was created as a new way to get more voices and perspectives on the air and pursue topics with more depth. The side result is that it builds trust with the community. “If what traditional newsrooms have come to realize is that people don’t necessarily trust us, it’s because we’re not visible and it’s because we’re not listening enough,” said Hillman. “This is a way to put ourselves out there to listen and remove ourselves from dictating the narrative.”
- Communities collaborating: Hillman said collaborating with community partners helps to focus the conversation on more relevant topics and to draw in more audience members. Collaborations also open new spaces and relationships, as was shown by the partnership with the Department of Corrections that allowed conversations to happen in multiple correctional facilities.
- Award winning: The Alaska Press Club awarded the Solutions Desk, a reporting project, and Community in Unity the 2017 Public Service Award for its coverage on incarceration. Alaska Press Club noted that the project “gave a voice to the voiceless” within the Spring Creek Correctional Center.
To learn more about Community in Unity, don’t hesitate to contact Anne Hillman through Gather or via e-mail at email@example.com. To listen to past episodes, go to Alaska Public Media’s website or subscribe to the Solutions Desk podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or NPR One.