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Diving into housing: A recap of our Winona dialogue event

What's it like moderating a dialogue event? Project Optimist's managing editor shares her experience.

Diving into housing: A recap of our Winona dialogue event
People draw what home means to them during a dialogue event on Jan. 16, 2024, at Engage Winona in Winona, Minn. (Mary Farrell for Project Optimist)

WINONA, Minn. – I was nervous when I walked into Engage Winona’s offices on Jan. 16.

Our recent dialogue event held in partnership with Engage Winona focused on housing, and it was my first time moderating at one of our dialogue events. 

I went through training with Project Optimist event manager Alexa Shapiro and founder Nora Hertel. I observed during our virtual dialogue about nuclear power in November. But I had never actually facilitated a discussion using the Essential Partners framework. 

The framework shapes the discussion around the lived experiences of the people who participate. Our questions reflect that. We purposely ask people to tell us about an experience that shaped their beliefs about housing.

We do this to get down to the truth of the matter. 

It reminds me of the sentence “Consider the crockpot” from Amanda Ripley’s book, “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.”

One woman talks while another listens closely during a dialogue event.
People participate in a dialogue event at Engage Winona on Jan. 16, 2024, in Winona, Minn. The conversation focused on housing. (Mary Farrell for Project Optimist)

Ripley talks with Gary Friedman, an attorney who created divorce mediation. Friedman describes a situation where a husband and wife going through a divorce each adamantly want the family crockpot. But why? Why does the crockpot matter so much? Friedman’s goal is to find out.

The wife says the crockpot was a wedding gift that reminded her of the home the couple wanted to build, but never did. The husband says their divorce was his wife’s idea. He only wanted the crockpot because he knew she wanted it, and if he got it, she would feel some of the pain he is feeling. 

It was about more than the crockpot for both of them.

That’s what we want to see at our dialogue events – people grounding their values in moments they lived through and hopefully being able to understand more about where other people are coming from as a result. 

The group I moderated shared a range of experiences, and they genuinely listened to each other. They nodded while others were talking and asked questions that showed they were paying close attention. In talking with my colleagues after the event, it seems their group members had positive experiences, as well. 

Participants shared stories about periods of housing instability and how they overcame them, as well as their ideas about potential solutions to ease housing issues in Winona.  

We ask all dialogue participants to complete a survey after our events to help us better understand how things went and to see where we can improve. 

We ask questions about how the moderator did and questions about what the participants took away from the discussion. On a scale from 1-4, with four being “excellent,” everyone who filled out the complete survey put down threes and fours. 

Panoramic view of a meeting space with people seated at tables engaged in conversations.
People fill the space at Engage Winona on Jan. 16, 2024, for a dialogue event focused on housing. (Mary Farrell for Project Optimist)

We also left room for people to write down their biggest takeaway from the event, as well as suggestions for future dialogues. 

Several people said they appreciated being able to connect with others over the topic of housing. Others appreciated that there were people in their groups with a range of experiences. 

“It was great to connect with people in the community who also care about this issue and to see where our concerns overlap,” wrote one participant.

Engage Winona has been hearing that housing in the area is an issue since the organization began community conversations in 2016, said Marcia Ratliff, executive director.

In May 2023, the organization launched the Winona Area Kitchen Table to focus more specifically on the issue. The initiative brings together people who have experienced housing instability or homelessness with a variety of local stakeholders to work toward solutions for the housing shortage in the Winona area. 

People listen to a man speak at a moderated dialogue event.
During the event on Jan. 16, 2024, attendees spoke about how their experiences shaped their views on housing. The event was held at Engage Winona in Winona, Minn. (Mary Farrell for Project Optimist)

Ratliff said the organization wanted to partner with us for a few reasons. The model we use allows participants to dig deep into an issue without being worried about defending their position, Ratliff said. Furthermore, it focuses on bringing community members to the discussion — it's not simply people listening to experts.

There's also a level of awareness an event like this can bring to community members who haven't experienced housing insecurity, Ratliff said.

"As part of the Kitchen Table program, we’ve been working to identify ways to raise the profile of the issue in the community and make sure people are aware of the fact that people can’t find affordable decent housing," she said.

For transparency, I would also like to mention that our event manager Alexa Shapiro is a member of Engage Winona’s board of directors. 

As for how we can improve, a few people would have liked more time to think about their answers to questions. A couple people brought up moments when their conversations veered a bit, which I appreciated as someone who facilitated a discussion. 

With so many people in one room, it was hard to hear at times. A few of the people in my group asked me to repeat the first question. I ended up writing down the questions on note cards so people could refer to them as they jotted down their answers. One of the things we're looking to do in the future is have the questions written down in advance for people to refer to during the sessions.

I know I personally hope to improve my facilitating skills – both so I am more comfortable moderating at events and also to become a better listener in general – which will hopefully come with time and practice. 

A group of people pose for a photo after an event
The people who participated in, organized and moderated the housing dialogue at Engage Winona on Jan. 16, 2024, pose for a photo at the end of the event. (Mary Farrell for Project Optimist)

In the meantime, thank you to everyone who participated in the event and to Engage Winona for partnering with us!

If you're interested in learning more about our dialogue events, please check our website.


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