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Topic Identification and Issue Framing

Identifying topics of interest for Dialogue & Deliberation programming requires the program organizers to develop a strong understanding of the community they are seeking to involve. This work includes defining the community of interest and the groups that comprise the community (e.g., faith communities, ethnic and cultural groups, communities defined by geography), and identifying major stakeholders and agents of change (e.g., community-based organizations, policymakers, academics/universities). In brainstorming who may fit into these categories, organizers may find it useful to take a participatory planning approach or use existing stakeholder analysis models. Additionally, practices used in qualitative research studies that require community engagement—such as Situation Assessments, which seek to identify stakeholder priorities of concerns—especially related to environmental regulations, and Participatory Rural Appraisals, which seek to identify relevant community stakeholders for agriculture-related projects—could be useful models to build on for thinking about community mapping. Such scoping activities are helpful not only for developing a stronger profile of the community of focus, but will also allow organizers to effectively identify community issues and priorities. 

When stakeholders are identified, Dialogue & Deliberation organizers will be prepared to establish connections and preliminary scoping dialogues with all to identify community needs and priorities around the topic(s) of interest. Such conversations can occur informally through community-building and networking efforts, such as visits to local businesses or community centers, or in more formal practices such as the use of study circles. Designating community partner(s) and involving stakeholders throughout the work can lead to better outcomes and higher quality decision making. For greater success, partnerships should be clearly defined from the start, including identifying goals, responsibilities and roles, expectations, and more. 

For science-related Dialogue & Deliberation programs, starting conversations with broad topics, like climate change or genetic modification, may lead to specific ideas and areas for exploration. These initial scoping conversations could highlight recurring themes and concerns across groups, as well as reveal general misconceptions, questions, or priorities and impacts across communities. For example, in conversations about climate change, some communities may be more concerned with financial repercussions of green energy technology, while others may be more concerned by the direct impacts of increasing temperatures, and still more may be more impacted by the consequences of climate change, such as those who are most threatened and impacted by major weather events. Conducting a broad assessment of the types of issues communities face—with the assistance and trust of community partners—is vital for developing framing materials to prepare participants for the Dialogue & Deliberation program.

Key Resources

These resources offer additional guidance and tools to support event organizers in identifying topics that align with community priorities and are framed in ways that resonate with participants.

Baylor University’s Public Deliberation Initiative provides several example issue guides across many topics and disciplines, which can serve as a model for framing social issues and producing participant materials. View resource.

This resource from the North American Association for Environmental Education provides a set of guidelines and a toolkit for building inclusive community partnerships that advance community wellness through environmental education. In descripting key characteristics of excellence in community engagement, the guide outlines how to find common ground with the education and learning-related interests of science-engagement professionals with community concerns, assets, and aspirations. View resource.

This guide from the Kettering Foundations provides guidance and essential elements for framing an issue, including what types of topics are conducive to public Dialogue & Deliberation, the background research needed in advance, and how to produce the materials. View resource.

Everyday Democracy seeks to support organizers to amplify the voices of their communities through expert advice, focusing on three areas: organizing, dialogue, and action. Their library includes a variety of resources—see their “How to Handbooks” for resources on topic identification and framing. View resource.

Involve is a UK-based organization which seeks to support groups—such as the government, universities and academics, civil society, and more—in the delivery of public participation and engagement processes to improve democratic decision-making. See “How do I plan a participatory process?” for key considerations in the first steps of designing a Dialogue & Deliberation event. View resource.

While this UK-based organization is focused on supporting universities in public engagement, several of its guides, tools, and frameworks provide practical advice for collaborating with communities that is transferable to the museum context. In particular, see “How to Facilitate Deliberative Engagement.” View resource.

The institute’s central activity is to publish and distribute issue guides and videos to prepare moderators to lead thoughtful discussions of many of today’s thorniest problems—healthcare, immigration, Social Security, and racial strife. Browse more than 50 issue guides that can inform your approach to issue framing. View resource.

This guide is aimed at helping staff at informal science education organizations develop, implement, and evaluate activities incorporating public dialogue and mutual learning strategies. Chapter 3, “Planning and designing a public engagement event” and as well pages 41 and 42, are particularly helpful for topic selection and framing. View resource.