The Conversation Project: Lessons So Far

Conversation Project leader Kelly McElroy reflects on her first few programs.

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This past January, I attended an Oregon Humanities facilitation training and was so taken by their approach—bringing people together to chew over a big question, something that everyone can help answer but no one can answer definitively or easily—that I just wanted to get more. When I heard that they were recruiting new leaders for their Conversation Project, I put in an application; now I am eight conversations deep into a string of eleven programs that I’m leading this year.

My topic, “Beyond Fake News: How We Find Accurate Information About the World,” is obviously linked to the kind of information literacy instruction I do as a librarian. However, the premise of the Conversation Project is that, together, a group of people can explore their values, beliefs, and choices regardless of their content expertise. The role of the facilitator is to raise questions, synthesize and create meaning out of what has been said, and to help guide the discussion to places that are interesting, challenging, and rich.

When I applied to facilitate conversations on this topic, it wasn’t because I was an expert facilitator. I had noticed a pattern of folks asking me questions about fake news, questions dripping with anxiety and a sense of guilt. What should we be doing about it? What could we even do?

Based on the first few conversations, I’ll say, we haven’t come to any conclusions. But it can be powerful to know that other people are worried; to be challenged to clarify your values and beliefs; and to learn from others in your community.

One thing I am still surprised by, every time I lead a Conversation Project program is this: if you bring people together, and give them a place to go, they will talk with each other. It amazes me every time.

Kelly McElroy is an outreach librarian at Oregon State University. She is passionate about curiosity in her work to connect people to information. She coedited the Critical Library Pedagogy Handbooks and is interested in engaging communities in thoughtful inquiry about the information they need for school, work, and play.

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