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Bringing New Voices to the Table over 100 Cups of Coffee

By Sara Shams Nimis | Published: January 19, 2022

The signature Language Village name “lake of the woods” evokes the striking natural environment in which the Villages are situated, and which draws tourists to Beltrami County and the City of Bemidji. The region’s cultural landscape has been shaped by the Ojibwe and Dakota people, on whose ancestral homeland the Villages are located, and a painful history of colonization. Even the best intentioned efforts to help the community heal sometimes fail to take into account the voices of those with lived experience of that trauma. But until those stakeholders are “at the table,” how can existing barriers to their inclusion be identified and removed?

The Beltrami Area Resiliency Team (BART), a grassroots group in Bemidji working to lead conversations to support a healthier, more resilient community, recently completed a project using a tool that offers a blueprint for organizations looking to learn about and address barriers that may be inadvertently excluding key stakeholders. “100 Cups of Coffee” is a deceptively simple tool: organize 100 one-on-one interviews with community members over coffee and ask them open-ended questions to hear their experiences and insights. BART’s Wendy Thompson described the process as “Storytelling … because you have more empathy if you can get to know someone and hear their story.”

The Process

Interviewees were invited into the work with a “warm handoff,” meaning that those involved in the project reached out to people they knew personally to encourage them to share their input and experiences, and to recommend the process as trustworthy. BART reached out to individuals from different backgrounds, intentionally including more voices from groups that are less well-represented in community organizations.

The demographic breakdown of those interviewed by BART over 100 Cups of Coffee.

Interviews were based on a set of promises that interviewers made a point of clearly communicating in these conversations: to be authentic, to protect their anonymity, to follow up after the interview was completed, to use the information to move forward as a community, and to invite interviewees to get involved in that process. Interviewees also received a gift card for participating. Most community members approached in this way were willing to be interviewed about their experience living in Beltrami County and, in fact, shared deeply personal stories and experiences.

Outcomes

Findings included certain themes that emerged across respondents regarding community strengths and challenges. Interviewees valued the family-orientation of their community, and pointed out the need for shared community spaces where they could gather with their neighbors. The most common challenge mentioned was racial division.

The full report, which is published on the website of the Beltrami Area Resiliency Team, includes quotes from interviewees that are at once deeply personal and vividly relatable.

Project findings have been brought to the School Board, City Council, the County Board, and leadership in Beltrami County social services and public health, as well as civic clubs like Rotary. The Resiliency Team has also worked to bring more community members into the conversation by hosting public presentations of results and inviting attendees to respond. This expands the group of people who learn from the interviews, and provides more opportunities to share their own experiences.

Organizations that take the time to ask people, one-on-one, who haven't been asked before (rather than only asking community leadership) can gain insights that can be applied to their development. For example, the Parks and Recreation Department in Rochester, Minn. conducted interviews with the Latino population there to find out why they were under-utilizing one of the parks. They found that that community likes to stay late at the park, and requested that lights not be shut off until 11:00pm. This very simple change made the park significantly more functional for the community it was built to serve.

To Thompson, the value of the work extends beyond the perspectives and information gathered. The process itself is a starting point for reshaping community relationships: “We have a civil engagement between people through the Resiliency Team that maybe isn't happening in all spaces because we laid some foundation. We've been able to be an example to other organizations of learning how to trust in a time of very little trust.”

Moving forward, BART is working to connect interviewees with community organizations that are ready to bring them into the conversation in a safe way, which she defines as an authentic task in which people’s contribution leads to action. So far, BART has brought new members to advisory boards for a public transportation project, a newly formed housing advisory board that is intentionally including people with lived experiences with homelessness, a diversity and equity committee at District 31, and a Wellness Center project at Sanford Health.  

Advice for Organizations

Kalass Thompson offered some concrete advice to organizations working to bring new people to the table. First, invest the time to build relationships. She explains, “We're trying to be a model of moving a little slower, of not having to jump right into the action steps before you build relationships.” Wendy noted that representatives from Peacemaker Resources in particular encouraged the Resiliency Team to see the slow process of building relationships as an important, if invisible, kind of progress: “We are learning how to be with one another, and if we take it too fast, then people don't feel ownership.”

Second, think about access. This goes beyond making programs financially accessible by providing scholarships, as important as they are. It is also important to find out what different people experience in that environment. “I think a lot of it is just sitting down one on one with people and letting them tell you some of what they've experienced in other groups where they have walked away.” Access is not just about bringing people from different backgrounds together, but intentionally building empathy and understanding between members of different groups.

Third, emphasize your organization’s obligations to community members. Kalass Thompson explained: “We made commitments to interviewees that they would hear back from us and that there would be a report that comes out, and that leaders would hear about the things they care about … We are just finally awakening to the skills and the richness of ideas that we can bring to the table when we include more people.”

The benefit of this process, according to Kalass Thompson, is that it produces fresh ideas, because evidence-based decision making does not typically focus on people’s lived experiences. The conversational format of 100 Cups of Coffee sets organizations up to be open and curious about different ways of doing things. By connecting stakeholders with decision makers, we can be responsive to the issues that are most important to the people we serve.

About the Authors

Wendy Kalass Thompson is the Executive Director at Beltrami Area Service Collaborative (BASC), an integrated Family Service/Children’s Mental Health Collaborative. BASC was established in 1994 with a Family Service Collaborative Implementation grant from the State of Minnesota. It partners with public school districts within Beltrami County (Bemidji, Blackduck , Kelliher), Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center, Beltrami County, Sanford Health, Bi-County Community Action Program, Minnesota Department of Corrections, and the Bemidji Area Council of Nonprofits, as well as Red Lake Public Schools, United Way of Bemidji Area and Bemidji Inter-District Council. Representatives from these entities serve on the BASC Governing Board. 

Sara Shams Nimis is Associate Director for Program and Arabic Language Coordinator in the Concordia Language Training Center, which offers intensive immersion experiences for professional linguists in the Department of Defense. She holds a Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Georgetown University, and has lived and worked for many years in Arabic-speaking communities in Egypt, Qatar and Morocco.

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