In a classroom, a woman and a man sit at a table talking; other adults and children mill around in the background

With a community fair, California’s CapRadio tests a new approach to local reporting

January 27, 2020
In Sacramento, CA, hosting a community fair to connect with everyday folks and learned what they care about.

By jesikah maria ross, Senior Community Engagement Strategist (CapRadio) and Olivia Henry, Engagement Fellow (CapRadio)

How can journalists surface community perspectives through doing, not just talking? CapRadio in Sacramento, Calif., collaborated with an elementary school to host an activity-based listening event to find out. Here’s what happened. 

Welcome to Meadowview

Meadowview is a South Sacramento neighborhood that — for many of its community members — is a place of diversity, entrepreneurship and resilience. It has a different reputation among outsiders, especially since Sacramento city police killed 22-year-old Stephon Clark in 2018. Clark, an unarmed black man, was shot in his grandmother’s backyard by white police officers. News accounts following Clark’s death reinforced the area’s “Ghettoview” stereotype, which residents say is part of a long history of journalists selectively covering negative stories about the neighborhood.

CapRadio wanted to take a different approach to reporting on Meadowview and the people who call it home. To do that, we committed to spending a year in the neighborhood, listening and reporting stories guided by residents’ needs and aspirations.

At CapRadio, we begin our longform reporting projects by listening. In the past, that involved large community convenings with a shared meal, curated tables and conversation — see our work on Rural Suicide, Place & Privilege and Hidden Hunger. Making Meadowview had a much shorter timeline for getting underway, which pushed us to host a series of “Lunch and Listen” sessions that were smaller and quicker to organize.

Many of the people who attended these lunch and listens were “community leaders” — organizers, faith leaders, nonprofit staff who have the time and desire to attend a conversation-heavy lunch event. What about residents who don’t have time to spare, especially for reporters? Who think talk is cheap? Who are justifiably cautious about sharing details of their lives? How could our team connect with, listen to and offer value to them?

How about a community fair?

Enter Angela Novotny, the principal at John Sloat Elementary School on the western edge of Meadowview. We met Novotny at our first Lunch and Listen event. She was excited to talk with us about Meadowview and wanted her school families to have the same opportunity.

Through a series of meetings with Novotny and other John Sloat staff, we landed on the idea of hosting a community fair in conjunction with the school’s upcoming Family Night — an annual event for parents to visit classrooms, meet teachers and view students’ work. Novotny told us community fairs were a favorite among families, particularly when they include food, raffles, games and resource booths. She offered us the school cafeteria for the night to try our hand at hosting one.

We were thrilled! Rather than renting a space and asking community members to come to us, we would come to them and provide extra value to an established event; school staff offered to encourage families to stop by the CapRadio fair before or after Family Night classroom visits. They encouraged us to think about visual, low-stakes ways for families to engage with our questions — adults would likely be juggling kids and may only be able to stay for a few minutes.

How a community fair leads to better reporting

Here’s how the CapRadio school planning team adapted the community fair format to create opportunities for connecting, listening and neighborhood storytelling.

First, families were greeted at the door and offered a nametag and activity “passport” cards. We served a simple, kid-friendly dinner of pizza, salad and fresh fruit. While families shared a meal, reporters stationed at the long cafeteria tables introduced themselves and the Making Meadowview project. They had a list of questions to spark conversations, including:

  • How long have you lived in this neighborhood, and why did you decide to live here?
  • What’s the number one thing you want others to know about Meadowview?
  • Are there events that have happened in Meadowview that have changed your daily life in the neighborhood?
  • Who are the community leaders in Meadowview and how do you connect with them? What are they doing to make a difference in Meadowview?
  • If I were to do a story that would have an impact on life in Meadowview, what would it be?

In addition, families were encouraged to participate in a range of activity stations:

Put Yourself on the Map. On huge wall-sized maps of Meadowview, we asked residents to tell us about the neighborhood using dots of different colors. Reporters stood nearby to ask follow-up questions and solicit stories. Possible dots included:

  • Yellow: Where do you live or work in Meadowview?
  • Blue: If you were taking someone on a tour of Meadowview, where would you go?
  • Red: What places do you avoid or tell others to avoid?
  • Green: What places would you change?

Build It! Using pipe cleaners, plastic flowers, popsicle sticks, Play-Doh, construction paper and more, we invited kids to build something — a building, an activity, a feeling — they wanted for Meadowview in the future. They located their creations on a neighborhood map and described their wishes to us.

Where is Meadowview? The boundaries of the neighborhood are contested. The city’s official designation is different than what many residents would say — and even that varies by age and opinion. To suss out why those differences exist, we invited residents to draw the neighborhood’s boundaries on a map with a highlighter and talk to us about them.

Photo Booth. We set up a mobile portrait studio to take family photos. We emailed participants a complimentary copy after the event.

Graffiti Wall. We hung butcher paper on the wall and invited folks to respond to the question “What do you want people to know about Meadowview?” Some people wrote words, others drew pictures.

Kids Zone. We set up an area with carpet, small tables, small chairs, coloring books, crayons and games for kids to stay busy and happy.

Check out this video to see what it all looked like.

Every station was staffed by a member of CapRadio’s team. Directions were in English, Spanish and Hmong. Volunteers who spoke those languages were on hand to offer interpretation when needed. Our passport booklet helped encourage folks to participate in as many activities as possible. Throughout the evening, we collected these passports and used them to raffle off robust CapRadio swag bags. As one event staffer observed: “It was great that there were a few different kinds of activities going on so people could have multiple outlets to tell their stories.”

What we discovered

About 100 people attended — a fabulous turnout, given a serious and unusual rainstorm that evening!

After the event, we asked our reporting team to write up their takeaways. Several journalists mentioned that participants seemed more open to sharing stories than at other public engagement events they’d attended. “Guests seemed to be put at ease by the atmosphere and the activities, which made it easier to launch conversations at the tables,” one reporter told us.

Another valued the chance to focus on relationship-building: “Creating opportunities to meet community members where there’s no story that’s due the next day is a real gift.”

Reporters said their conversations with residents filled out and extended what they heard in earlier listening sessions about neighborhood gems and issues: “There was a diverse group of people there and they came from all over the neighborhood, so we got a lot of different responses, which was awesome,” one CapRadio staffer noted.

The boundary-mapping activity helped our lead reporter understand what might fall inside or outside the neighborhood’s invisible borders. (See the results of that activity here.) The other mapping activity — using dots to indicate significant spots on the map — was a helpful way to get a glimpse of the neighborhood’s social geography through the eyes of dozens of residents, something that otherwise might have taken months.

Participating families got something out of the experience, too. Besides dinner, family portraits and raffle prizes, community members got to know their neighbors and connected with school staff in new ways. Bao Moua, principal at nearby Susan B. Anthony Elementary School, told us: “One family stated to me that they were really glad to attend because they have been in the Meadowview community for a very long time but this is the first they’ve gotten to talk to so many people from the community and really enjoyed knowing what people thought about it.”

John Sloat benefited from the fair, too. Novotny said the event helped the school in its efforts to bring families together to celebrate community strengths and access new resources. It also built relationships between the school and newsroom reporters, two of whom later presented at the school’s career fair.

Want to try this? Here are four things you should know. 

Fairs are fun! They are a great way to make your reporting process dynamic and community-centered. Music, decorations and shared meals create a welcoming and festive atmosphere, encouraging a relaxed environment to engage with reporters. Hands-on activities and raffles generate energy and excitement across different ages and cultures. Plus, the information, stories and relationships you gather are golden.

But organizing a fair takes a lot of people power and planning. This one involved 10 CapRadio staff, three CapRadio interns, eight school staff and four volunteers. It took about two months to coordinate and cost about $500.

Maps are story generators. Residents know their neighborhood and usually have something to say about it. That makes neighborhood maps a fantastic tool for starting conversations. “It gave people something to physically reflect on, as opposed to just being asked a question. They started sharing moments and memories and it brought the neighborhood to life,” as one journalist observed. “It also takes the focus off the interviewer, and puts it on the neighborhood, which I think gets people feeling more comfortable and natural.”

You’ll want to have a plan for how you’ll translate all that data you generate (we didn’t, and it took a while to figure out how we would share it back with Meadowview residents). We also realized we couldn’t write down the rich stories people shared at the maps fast enough to capture details. We recommend bringing an audio recorder to document some of the stories.

Feedback loops build trust and shared knowledge. Reporters usually keep track of contacts and ideas in personal notebooks. That information is walled off from the rest of the news organization, often for good reasons. Making Meadowview was a chance to work differently. The day after the fair, we asked participating staff to add their conversation notes to a shared Google Doc and identify three takeaways. We also asked them to debrief their colleagues during the daily newsroom meeting.

Conversation notes were just the tip of the iceberg: our two mapping activities and graffiti wall generated a wealth of insights about Meadowview. We documented everything and shared it with the newsroom. Both kinds of sharebacks — written and verbal — made it possible for CapRadio staff who did not attend the fair to ask questions, get story ideas and potential sources.

For community members, we included the reporters’ takeaways in a thank-you email to fair attendees and volunteers, inviting additions or corrections. We got several responses of gratitude along with additional stories and contacts.

Collecting information, curating it and sharing it both internally and externally is a ton of work. But it demonstrates accountability outside the newsroom and a culture of listening within it. You will need someone on your team to carry out this invisible and unglamorous labor.

Schools are natural partners for place-based reporting projects. They know the families and how to reach them. They have facilities that residents generally know and feel comfortable in. Plus, school staff often have deep history in the neighborhood where they work and are experts at creating events that appeal to a range of ages and cultures.

Schools are also part of larger districts that have sometimes lengthy and complicated processes for getting authorization for events, staffing and co-branding. Be sure to pad your timeline to account for what it might take to move tasks through their systems comfortably.

The way forward

Our experiment with hosting a community fair was deeply instructive. While it took a chunk of resources to manifest, the event supercharged our reporting process. In just three hours, we connected with scores of everyday folks and learned what they care about. By making it fun and rewarding for participants and school partners, we built trust and interest in the project (which resulted in other wins we’ll write about in future posts). We hope you adapt, remix and improve this format in your own work. Let us know how it goes!

jesikah maria ross produces participatory media projects that generate public dialogue and community change. She is the senior community engagement strategist at CapRadio, Sacramento’s NPR affiliate, and 2019 Fellow with Listening Post Collective. @jmr_MediaSpark, jesikahmariaross.com

Olivia Henry served as an engagement fellow on CapRadio’s Making Meadowview project. She is a community development master’s student at the University of California, Davis and a consultant for the Listening Post Collective’s work in Fresno, Calif. In the past she mentored California reporters as the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s engagement editor. She has also worked for KALW Public Radio, the San Francisco Public Press and the Institute for Nonprofit News. @livmqhenry

Thanks to Jesse Hardman who collaborated with us to develop this event and to the Listening Post Collective for funding the Community Fair and our time to share lessons learned.

(Banner photo: Health care reporter Sammy Caiola learns about Meadowview from Ivan Caballero, who grew up in the neighborhood. Credit: Andrew Nixon/Capital Public Radio)