Reflection Point, formerly known as Books@Work, facilitates story-based discussions in workplaces and community settings all over the world, to foster connection, inclusion, and innovation. Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (BISR) is an interdisciplinary teaching and research institute that offers critical, community-based education in the humanities and social sciences. The Clemente Course in the Humanities brings free college classes to adults living on low incomes.
While the three organizations serve different populations with different programming models, they share values, goals, and outcomes. Each brings a deep engagement with texts and ideas into a setting distinct from the university. Each utilizes the seminar model, with an emphasis on inquiry and discussion, led by experienced faculty. Each harnesses the power and principles of humanistic inquiry to imbue a sense of belonging and community within its classes, to build bridges across difference.
The strongest commonality? All three programs create and support sustained conversation at a time when discourse and conversation are breaking down. While sustained conversation has always been the work of the humanities, in an increasingly fractured and complex world, these conversations are more vital than ever. Complex problems require cooperation across populations. To foster the kind of trust and accountability required to tackle these kinds of challenges, we must listen to and learn with others, invest in ourselves and our respective communities.
A leader using Reflection Point with his team stated:
“Reflection Point is the canvas to practice and cultivate open-mindedness, to become empathetic listeners willing to try on another person’s point of view. Our conversations became deeper, more heartfelt, more human.”
A BISR participant in a 2020 course expressed:
“Studying together with a group helped me regain my focus to read, which has been fractured and diffused at this time. I’ve always loved companionship in the study of difficult texts and this felt especially helpful at this time. Even though I had read the book once before, by the end of class, I have metabolized it much more deeply as a results of this fresh set of perspectives.”
A Clemente graduate in Chicago shared:
“I really do think there is a lot of value in having the stillness to wrestle with these big ideas, and that stillness is hard to create unless you’re in a setting where there is accountability and where you are part of the discussion. My opinions and experiences were valued there.”
The three organizations were interested in exploring ways to break through to new audiences and speak more clearly and powerfully to the importance of bringing the humanities into the public sphere. They wanted to learn to harness the magic of their work and the stories of their participants, and to build a toolkit to communicate and amplify their missions and work. They sought to tell their stories in a language that is both understandable and compelling, and they wanted a partner and coach to help them to do it well.
Following an RFP process, the three organizations engaged two consultants: one with a strong background in working in academic and nonprofit organizations and one who has deep experience in social media and teaches in a public relations program.
First, they jointly participated in a workshop to introduce themselves to the skills foundational to any successful media relations and communications strategy. They discussed the media landscape, messaging, pitching stories, and preparing for interviews with journalists.
Second, each organization then worked with the two consultants on their individual media and messaging needs. They all touched base frequently to share and compare their experiences.
Clemente, Reflection Point, and BISR found that working together as a learning community held unexpected riches and learnings. Not only did they get a chance to “look under the tent flaps” of similar organizations, but through the discussions, they gained a valuable lens upon which to view themselves. Among the many insights they gleaned together, three stood out to them as powerful and generalizable for other mission-driven organizations:
1. Start with the Audience
Individuals speak to a wide variety of different ears every day. And adjust
accordingly. An individual would no more speak to a child in academic jargon
than a person would speak to a college professor in baby talk.
But when organizations speak to different constituencies - to the audiences
they serve – the people within the organization have a strong tendency to use
the same words. Under the guise of simplification, of ease, they make the
mistake of starting with the speaker instead of starting with the listener.
All three of the organizations serve and speak to multiple constituencies -
higher education administrators and faculty, foundations, companies and a
diverse array of participants and learners. Ruthless attention to audience
helps to be relevant, and to reach the audiences they seek to serve.
2. Ground communication in key messages
Notwithstanding the need to tailor the message to fit the audience, the work
together underscored the need for consistent and clear messaging. Each of
the organizations worked on refining and shaping their key messages, worked
on articulating what they do in clear and concise ways.
This is more challenging than simply “starting with why.” They each have a
“why” that pulls on complex societal realities, a mission focused on serving
audiences not typically able to access the work they do. The messages are
necessarily more nuanced, and harder to explain.
Throughout the process, the grantees often joked that no building was tall
enough for their respective elevator pitches, but each came away with a set
of seminal points that keep them focused and consistent.
3. Words Matter
“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”
-- Clifford Geertz
As humans, a tendency exists to use words steeped in the meanings that
individuals have come to assign them, with little regard for whether others
ascribe the same meanings at all. The three organizations’ most engaging
moment together was a rather humorous attempt to define the words we
bandy about every day: critical thinking, humanities, learning!
The cautionary message was powerful: don’t make the mistake to assume
that the organizations’ readers (or listeners) understand even the most
foundational words as we do. By moving back to first principles, the
organizations learned to say what they mean and mean what they say.
They believe their respective missions are clearer for the effort.
Reflection Point, BISR, and Clemente all do powerful work that helps people explore important ideas, build relationships and community, and ultimately change their lives. Knowing that internally and telling it externally are not the same thing.
For the humanities to thrive, we must be able to tell its story and champion the community that is dedicated to telling it. That means collaborating with other like-minded organizations to keep each other focused and honest about providing the best services to our audiences, so that we can all continue to learn from and with one another, building a more inquisitive and compassionate society in the process.
Released November 01, 2021