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Section 3. Conducting Public Forums and Listening Sessions

  • What are public forums?

  • Why conduct them?

  • What do you need to conduct a public forum?

  • How should you organize a public forum?

  • How should you conduct a public forum?

What if you had a program and nobody cared? Nothing ensures the success of a program more than citizen participation in assessing their perceived needs, problems and hopes for the future. You will want to know what people think about important issues and, for sure, they will want to tell you what they think. You just need to provide the opportunity. Including citizens in identifying and solving problems is called r-e-s-p-e-c-t! Respect for and sensitivity to the people you want to serve.

What are public forums?

In the "public forum" or public problem-identification and problem-solving session, citizens discuss important issues such as health problems. In this well-publicized meeting, the facilitators lead a discussion of various aspects of the issue like the community's strengths and potential problems. A transcript of their ideas about the dimensions of the issue--and what can be done to solve problems and preserve strengths--provides a basis for subsequent planning.

Public forums:

  • Give people of diverse backgrounds a chance to express their views
  • Are a first step toward understanding the community's needs and resources

Why conduct them?

  • They can offer your group valuable insights into the community
  • They can provide a database for guiding and explaining actions
  • They can help link your group with people who are able and willing to help
  • They can provide the group with feedback

Public forums, also referred to as town meetings, are open to everyone in the community. These public meetings offer people from diverse backgrounds a chance to express their views about key issues of concern to you and what can be done about them.

What do you need to conduct a public forum?

  • Meeting place
  • Community members
  • Easel/newsprint /markers
  • Facilitator
  • Recorder
  • Willingness to listen carefully

Issues and Concerns

  • What are the problems?
  • What are the consequences?
  • Who is affected?
  • How are they affected?
  • Are there related issues of concern?
  • Are these issues of widespread concern?

Barriers

  • Who or what might oppose efforts to prevent or solve the problem?
  • Can they be involved effectively?
  • What are the other limits on effective prevention/treatment?
  • How can the barriers and resistance be overcome?

Resources for Change

  • What resources are needed?
  • What local people or groups could contribute?
  • What monies and materials are needed?
  • Where might they be obtained?

Alternatives and Solutions

  • What are alternatives for addressing the problem, given the anticipated barriers?

How should you organize a public forum?

  • Hold meetings at different sites to get real representation.
  • Schedule the forum at an easy-to-find, public location which is accessible and comfortable - for example, a library, school or church.
  • If possible, hold the forum in the evening to avoid time conflicts with work and school.
  • Publicize the forum as widely as possible. Fliers, advertisements, public service announcements and press releases can all be used. Make sure the date, time, location and purpose of the meeting are included.
  • Personally recruit community leaders and diverse community members to attend the meetings. Ask them to recruit others as well.
  • Provide transportation to the meeting if necessary.
  • Serve light refreshments if possible. They encourage mingling and set a friendly tone.

How should you conduct a public forum?

  • Designate a discussion leader or group facilitator who is known and respected, who is neutral on the topic, who has good listening and group process skills, and who can keep things moving and on track.
  • Introduce the leader of the community initiative and the discussion leader. If time and group size allow, let all participants introduce themselves.
  • Agree upon an ending time, and keep to it.
    • Try to keep working groups to smaller than 30-40 participants.
    •  If over that number, divide into smaller groups.
    •  Designate a recorder for each group.
  • Provide information about your own organization, if appropriate. You can also pass around a sign-up sheet to get on a mailing list or to help out in other ways.
  • Consider allowing some time for addressing each of the following topics: issues and concerns; barriers and resistance to addressing the issues and concerns; community resources for change; recommended alternatives and solutions.
  • Use newsprint to record the discussion on each of the topics.
  • Conclude with a summary of what was achieved and a preliminary plan of action. Announce the next meeting if possible.
  • Prepare a written summary of brainstorming ideas and mail to all participants, with thanks, and with mention of opportunities for further involvement.
Contributor 
Vince Francisco
Jerry Schultz

Print Resources

Berkowitz, W. R. (1982). Community impact. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing Company, Inc.

Delbecq, A.L. et al. (1975). Group techniques for program planning. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman.

Fawcett, S. B. et al. (1993). Preventing adolescent pregnancy: an action planning guide for community-based initiatives. Lawrence, KS: Work Group on Health Promotion and Community Development.

Fawcett, S. B. et al. (1993). Preventing adolescent substance abuse: an action planning guide for community-based initiatives. Lawrence, KS: Work Group on Health Promotion and Community Development.

Fawcett, S. B. et al. (1994). Preventing youth violence: an action planning guide for community-based initiatives. Lawrence, KS: Work Group in Health Promotion and Community Development.

Hawkins, J.D. and Catalano, R.L. Risk Factor publications from CSAP

Murrell, S. A. (1977). Utilization of needs assessment for community decision-making. American Journal of Community Psychology.

Sanders, I. T. (1985). The social reconnaissance method of community study.  (Chavis and Felix articles)

Wollf, T. and Kaye, G. (1994). From the ground up: a workbook on coalition building and community development.

Online Resources

Community Listening Forum Toolkit: Taking Action to Support Recovery in Your Community, by Faces & Voices of Recovery, has all of the information that one needs to organize a community-listening forum in your community, especially relating to issues concerning recovery from alcoholism or substance abuse. It was developed using Faces & Voices of Recovery’s experiences hosting four statewide Community Listening Forums with recovery community organizations in 2010 and 2011.