Engaging Communities Through Issues Forums

How Should I Use the Guide?

We encourage you to use this guide in three different ways.

1. Skim the guide to get a broad overview of what community forums are. 2. Think about an emerging or prevalent issue of concern to communities you serve, then consider: who has a stake in the issue? What expertise, funds, and capacity do you and your team have? What is your timeframe? 3. Decide to do a forum! Then learn from what you did for future forums. Once you decide to conduct a forum, you can use this guide as a roadmap for planning, implementing, and evaluating your community engagement activity. After working your way through the guide, you will be ready to conduct a community forum, especially an issues action forum that leads participants to use their collective knowledge and experiences to create appropriate actions to address systems-level issues in their communities.

Why Use a Forum?

We live in a world with complex issues that often feel overwhelming to tackle. Extension professionals do their best to make a difference in their circles of influence. They feel confident in their ability to do technical education, but feel less confident to do public-issues education. But . . .

What if you could gather and engage people in a way that leverages everyone's circle of influence?

What if you could create a collective understanding that leads to new connections and relationships, and innovative collaborative steps toward meaningful change?

Forums are a way to do both. Here are three reasons why.

Reason One

Using a forum allows for community collaboration and public issues education. Dealing with public issues requires recognition of the difference between an issue and the related underlying problem. A public issue is a "matter of widespread [public] concern" (Dale & Hahn, 1994) and is often contentious because people have multiple ideas about causes and solutions. Normally, public issues reflect a public recognition that something isn't the way it should be and that a public remedy is called for. The concern is usually related to an identifiable problem or complex of problems. Sometimes, however, public issues are based on perceptions that may or may not be accurate (Patton & Blaine, 2001). Forums provide a way to deal with perceptions, misconceptions, multiple ideas, and solutions in a way that manages contention and focuses on finding and acting on solutions.

Reason Two

Often, as educators and professionals, we are addressing problems at the individual youth or adult and family level and, in the case of farmers, at the farm level. Public issues education and the use of forums increase engagement — but at a community level — with the goal of including diverse representation of community sectors who all have a different perspective, resources, and circle of influence to contribute to preventing, reducing, or mitigating issues and underlying problems.


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