Over the last few months, an ad hoc group of interested writers and readers here on streets.mn have started a conversations about cultivating diversity on the website. (You can read all about his effort on Cassie’s post from June, and I encourage you to do just that… especially the comments!) Back in July, some of us held a meeting to talk about the role of diversity in conversations about urban design, the kinds of conversations we’re having, and how to cultivate a broad audience.
While not an official action of the board, the diversity conversation fits well within the streets.mn mission statement: “expanding the conversation about land use and transportation issues in the Twin Cities and Greater Minnesota.”
Sidenote: In my opinion, “expanding” is a great word to use, and to me recalls images of a river flowing and adding streams was it the water moves downstream. (Hopefully, the conversation can stay just as deep, as it broadens.) In a sense, the diversity conversation is kind of like an avant garde, hoping to brainstorm, experiment, and accelerate the conversation broadening.
Anyway, the ever-changing working group held another meeting (actually a BBQ picnic) in Janne Flisrand’s beautiful backyard to talk more about increasing diversity within urban design conversations in general, and for this website in particular. The picnic was great, and we had seven interested people (some that I hadn’t met before) show up on a beautiful summertime Sunday for a sometimes difficult conversation. We spent a few hours chatting, and going over an engagement and brainstorm exercise that we’d prepared.
Here are the results!
Engaging with Diverse Audiences
The key question going into the meeting was about audience. What audience do you want to write for? What are their characteristics? Why is that the audience you want to reach?
Sitting around Janne’s backyard treble, we all weighed in on the question of audience, chatting in pairs with each other about the answers to some of these questions. After a few minutes, it turned out that we had three distinct groups in mind. For the next part of the meeting, we split up into a few teams and discussed each of these potential audiences for urban conversation.
Audience 1: Young people (i.e. teenagers)
A couple of us were really interested in reaching out to young people, i.e. middle or high school age students or college students. In other words, (i.e. the words of Whitney Houston), “we believe that children are the future.” Reaching this audience is crucial because young students turn into young adults who turn into the people collectively making the decisions in our society.
Additionally, young people have open minds and perspectives that are particularly tuned in to trends and technology. Including young people in conversations about urban design will probably lead to a lot of ideas that older people (already beaten down by social trepidation) that might exceed the horizon of those with weatherbeaten vision.
How to reach young people? Here are a few tips.
Use accessible language. Young people haven’t yet become experts in any particular field, and if you want to have a productive conversation with younger audience, it’s vital to not alienate them with jargon or exclusive language. One good test might be thinking about the “reading level” of your writing.
Avoid moral superiority. Nobody likes condescension, and young people especially. A few of the people at the diversity meeting were parents, and shared tips about parenting: kids respond better when you try and explain the reasons behind your suggestions, rather than simply saying that X or Y “is bad.” If you want to reach young people, one of the worst things you can do is to begin by shaming.
Anchor your conversation in specific problems. This is an old teacher’s trick: if you want a lesson to stick, teach the problem, not the solution. Challenge young people to with a problematic situation, and see what kinds of solutions they can come up with on their own. Try to figure out ways to relate your topic to the lives of young people today. (Some examples: texting and driving, parking lots in high schools, or how to cultivate more freedom for kids growing up without cars.)
Audience 2: Older people (i.e. seniors)
The second audience we were invested in reaching was the baby boom and earlier generations (roughly speaking). In other words, we wanted our conversations to include people like our parents. We felt it was important to reach this audience because they are so influential (economically and politically), and because they’re are going to need more mobility options in the future. (For example, as people age, it becomes more and more important to get daily exercise. This quite literally equals independence and freedom.)
But how to reach older baby boomers? Here are a few tips.
Use “expertise.” For various reasons, the older generations have a different attitude about expertise and more trust in institutions than the generations that have come since. (Probably because, in general, boomers have done OK with modernist state institutions.) This means that you shouldn’t shy away from using expertise when trying to reach an older audience. Flash those credentials, and try to surround your claims with evidence and/or knowledge that you’ve gained through other experience.
Avoid jargon. This might seem counterintuitive given the previous tip, but avoiding unnecessary jargon is still a good idea if you want to reach a broad audience of boomers. Plain language speaks to more people. In other words, try to put your point into words that your parents might understand. (Protip: your parents have no real idea what you “do” for a living.)
Empathize with their position. Again, when thinking of examples or topics, try to imagine your parents. For example, we imagined our parents walking around their neighborhoods or to the farmer’s markets, or struggling trying to find parking (while driving in the city). This generation loves farmer’s markets, Main Streets, and “liberal” values. Try to speak to these experiences empathetically.
Audience 3: New immigrants and economically disadvantaged
This was the third key audience that our groups wanted to include in the conversation about urban design. The main reason for focusing on this audience is that, for various reasons, they often cannot speak for themselves. (Often there are language, culture/class, or economic barriers keeping these groups from participating.) For these reasons, these groups need more middle-class progressive younger people to use their privilege to engage with, and speak with, people who are less able to find a voice in our system.
(Also, if you want to reach more diverse audiences, it’s crucial for those audiences to see a reflection of themselves in the conversation.)
How to include the disadvantaged in the conversation? Here are a few tips.
Speak with them, not for them. For example, interviews are a great way to allow people to speak for themselves without putting all the onus on these groups to do al the work. In other words, you’re explicitly using your capacities (to clearly narrate, to post things on the internet, to frame things) to allow others to speak. Ask them about taking transit, problems like walking or shopping, etc. Then translate what they say into the mainstream conversation.
Use accessible vocabulary. This might sound like a broken record at this point, but if you want to reach diverse audiences that might not have the privileged educational backgrounds, using accessible, straight forward language is crucial.
Include visual content. For example, use pictures, charts, maps, or infographics. Photographs are a great way to make your point in a way that is accessible to almost anyone. Including photographs or visual illustrations might seem a bit overwhelming to people used to expressing themselves in speech or writing, but if we want to reach broader audiences, quality visual content is well worth additional time. (This is why cartoons have been so extremely popular for hundreds of years.)
Anyway, those are some of the tips and thoughts from the most recent diversity meeting. This is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning. What kinds of audiences do you want to see this website reach? Why are they important? Would you be willing to help reach out to new audiences?
Post your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for your time.