How to Overcome Barriers to Civic Engagement Through Storytelling

How to Overcome Barriers to Civic Engagement Through Storytelling
Photo by Maria Lupan / Unsplash

There’s nothing better than a good story. 

We can all remember hearing a story around the dinner table, campfire or family reunion. Stories are how we connect our past, present and future.

Storytelling is also a powerful tool for community engagement. Stories are a way for communities to:

  • increase understanding 
  • build engagement with complex issues
  • drive belief and behaviour change

Stories can create a feeling of community beyond a group of people who live in the same area. They can also be a way for communities to gather feedback and share history, or to encourage others to visit or move to your community. 

Let’s say you play a role in community development and economic growth. That could be as part of the tourism sector, or maybe you have a role in a community organization, a museum, school or heritage site. You want to know: How do communities tell stories? 

Civic engagement through storytelling is not always easy. Here are some ideas to overcome challenges with civic storytelling.

Transform Your Community's Digital Presence with memoryKPR

Schedule your free demo today and take the first step towards a more connected community.

Book a Demo

Remove Barriers to Engagement

Community participation is not a one-size-fits-all venture. Not everyone wants to attend a meeting, for instance. Community challenges can lead to marginalized groups who need to be included, such as the homeless or impoverished, or those who lack technological access, civic literacy, and mobility. 

Sometimes there are groups who have been historically excluded from civic involvement, or face barriers to civic participation—like those marginalized by race, wealth, immigration status, and sexual orientation. The specific groups that are disadvantaged and the degree to which they face inequality will vary from one place to another. 

So how do you remove barriers to civic engagement?

By letting people tell their stories.

There are initiatives that are showing the way to civic engagement; an effort to “shift the relationship between residents and local government” away from government storytelling. 

It changes from a transactional model—residents are passive recipients of services—to a participatory model—residents are active contributors to collective problem solving and decision making.

Opening the Doors to Community

You’ve likely heard of meeting the community where they are, listening to their experiences using forums like facilitated discussion groups, scheduled at times and locations that are convenient for residents. 

standing and sitting of people taking group photo
Photo by Joel Mott / Unsplash

But the digital world lets you do even more. You can add to participation opportunities with:

  • digital and in-person surveys
  • online platforms where residents can share their ideas and stories
  • ways for the community to submit and vote on ideas

One example “moving from consultation to co-creation” is Edmonton’s BetaCityYEG. This civic tech group created a non-confrontational, non-hierarchical environment for city staff and other community stakeholders to join and share ideas, challenges, and opportunities. 

In the words of BetaCityYEG

“Do you have a community question or problem you would like to explore? Do you want to share your expertise and hear about challenges our local community is having around tech and data? You do not have to have any technical knowledge to attend. We welcome anyone interested in learning more about and improving our city.”

When a problem was identified during community discussions, BetaCityYEG partnered with city staff to create a user-friendly digital guide to help Edmontonians find and apply for their eligible benefits. 

white bridge over the city during daytime
Photo by Alex Pugliese / Unsplash

Listen to Understand

In some places, civic connection has diminished along with trust in civic institutions. That makes restoring connections even more important, along with creating new connections. Stories are one way to do that—but through listening rather than telling.

Listening to understand means setting aside persuasion to find shared interests and common purpose—which can and do exist alongside differences. In a civic environment, listening to each other is a way to find an agreed-upon goal and a shared purpose. That can make it easier to hold our connections and look for solutions together.

How does this look in action? Here’s an example. 

Case Study: MIT Boosts Engagement Through Gathering Community Stories

gray concrete dome building at daytime
Photo by Muzammil Soorma / Unsplash

The Massachusetts Institute Of Technology engaged a company that provides services in public engagement and placemaking. The goal: develop a vision for the next 60 years for MIT’s open spaces—meeting the needs of twenty-first-century open space users while respecting the twentieth-century modernist design heritage of the campus. 

To do that, the project engaged students and staff in unique ways, a blueprint for gathering stories. Here are the ways engagement happened.

#1 Experiential Engagement: Interactive Signs Spark Campus Curiosity

person holding up a card with a window cut out to encourage student engagement to plan the future of MIT
Source: @sustainablemit on Instagram

These signs were made and placed around campus, along with custom die-cut flyers. The window cut-out attracted passersby and invited them to envision the future of the space. People would walk right through the sign and engage with it. A QR code connecting to the project was part of the signs and the flyers. 

#2 Walkshops: Exploring MIT's Open Spaces Through Guided Tours

Walkshops—walking focus groups—learned historical architectural facts about the site and shared their ideas for evolving the space. The company concluded: Conducting a focus group and placemaking audit of the space while physically standing within it offers a whole new perspective to consider how the built environment feels at different points within the space.

#3 Pop-Up Engagement: Inviting Conversations with Coffee and Community

The company set up several multi-day pop-ups on campus and engaged students as they were passing by or relaxing between classes. Free snacks, coffee, and tea drew students in to share their ideas on the future of the campus open space.

#4 Hybrid Engagement: Balancing In-Person and Digital Outreach for Inclusivity

To keep with the company’s belief that equitable engagement provides different tools and channels, they balanced in-person and digital engagement. A project website included project information, an online survey, and an interactive mapping exercise to allow individuals to provide feedback from their own devices, on their own time. 

man operating laptop on top of table
Photo by Bench Accounting / Unsplash

Civic Storytelling and Your Community

While MIT provides a great example of gathering stories, your civic storytelling journey needs to fit your needs. 

One way that communities gather stories, for instance, is through connecting with Facebook groups. Another option is a platform like memoryKPR, which doesn’t require an account with a social media platform, but still allows connections to social media when you want it. 

Using memoryKPR, your community can white label your story to add your own. It’s also possible to add the ability to collect donations for a civic project. There’s a searchable database with our content management system, a powerful tool for communities to collect and share information for posterity. 

We're dedicated to supporting communities and our design is easy to use, with no applications or codes required. If you need help gathering and telling your community’s story, reach out, as we can help you build your story engagement strategy. 

Ready to see how easy (and powerful) it can be? Explore memoryKPR today. Your stories—and your community—deserve a vibrant future.

Transform Your Community's Digital Presence with memoryKPR

Schedule your free demo today and take the first step towards a more connected community.

Book a Demo