To give people of the region a "big picture" view of the area's challenges through conversations and printed media so they are better informed when making decisions that affect their lives
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
Gatherings of economic developers: Getting the region’s economic developers into the same room to dive deep into meaningful conversation about the topics that are affecting their communities has been the part of our work that has led to the most progress. The Northeast Regional Economic Developers group has already established a rapport, and participants view one another as part of a network, but having them take part in deeper conversations has led to better insights.
It has also gotten these economic developers used to this style of having conversations. They now have a different baseline for what kind of conversation is possible when difficult conversations come up in their own communities.
The careful facilitation, or hosting, of the Prairie Idea Exchange conversations has been essential to their success. Just bringing people together into the same room isn’t a guarantee of good conversation. Getting to conversations that matter requires careful preparation in terms of finding good questions and setting good ground rules for how the conversations will take place—making sure all voices are heard, and that people are listening for understanding and not involved in a debate.
Expanding the reach of Dakotafire magazine allowed the conversation to essentially reach 50,000 households for the first three Prairie Idea Exchange issues. This at the very least put issues of leadership, building up Main Streets, and connecting farms and communities on the radar of a broad segment of South Dakota households. But for those who did more reading and participating in those conversations, the issues may have done even more—increasing the understanding of what is happening in their communities and why it’s happening, and encouraging them to believe solutions for communities like theirs are possible.
The magazine issues about empowering youth and building the region went to about 20,000 households.
Dakotafire Café gatherings in local communities: We had several powerful conversations related to the topics we covered in local communities—we talked about leadership in Sisseton, Main Streets in Arlington, agriculture in Langford, and youth in both Doland and Miller. These events, first, showed some of the economic developers valued the style of conversation we had at the Prairie Idea Exchange gatherings, as they were the ones who helped us organize the local events. And second, they helped us test and bring to life the ideas that been first discussed among the economic developers, then researched and printed in the magazine.
Key lessons learned:
Conversations that lead to deeper insight rarely happen online. And, in fact, we haven’t had much conversation at all online where we designated it to happen (in our online forum space), and the conversation we have witnessed has happened instead within people’s own social circles on Facebook—places where people are speaking to their own “echo chambers.” Maybe we could have found more success if we’d devoted more resources to hosting conversation in the online space, but it’s likely that it would have been harder for conversation agreements to hold when you can’t look people in the eye. The better conversations have happened in person.
We have not had the success we’d hoped in signing up the economic development corporations to become fiscal sponsors of Dakotafire; we did gain two community sponsors, but that was out of a pool of about 20. This would have supported Dakotafire past the PIE grant period, including having regular Dakotafire Cafes in those communities. This is despite the support that the economic developers themselves have for Dakotafire and the benefit they’ve reported from the PIE process; their boards have not seen the benefit in investing in it. We will have to explore other options to sustain our presence in those communities.
Reflections on the community innovation process:
Resourceful – We are encouraging people in the state to see one another as resources, and to bring their knowledge and experience to the table so that others may learn from it.
I observed something interesting at our PIE events: Often at the start of the conversation, some people didn’t think they had much to contribute. Then, as the conversation got going, those individuals realized that not everyone at the table knew what they knew. Their confidence grew as they realized their own experience and learning had given them skills and knowledge that was valuable to others. The group’s confidence as a whole grew throughout the process—it was fairly easy, by the end of the grant period, to get members of the group to dive right into conversation with less of the warm-up period that’s often necessary for these kind of conversation events.
Progress toward an innovation:
As I’ve reported on a variety of other topics, and attended many other events, I’ve become convinced that this kind of respectful, deep conversation would be a valuable mechanism for getting to better solutions for addressing many of society’s problems. This is especially clear during this election season. So much of what happens in our political sphere is intended to drive people apart; it’s focused on “winning” as a partisan issue. We need to have dozens or even hundreds more conversations like the ones that we started with the Prairie Idea Exchange events. It’s where real democracy happens.
We do not have plans to continue the Prairie Idea Exchange conversations, and we will only have Dakotafire Café events if we are able to find a sponsors willing to cover expenses. Dakotafire Media would like to continue to be a catalyst for such conversations in the Dakotas, but they must be sponsored in some way. We have not found a funding mechanism that will support continued work in this area.
If you could do it all over again...:
I’d advise myself to rethink assumptions about cost. We could have stretched our dollars further, and perhaps continued our expanded reach for another issue, had we pursued lower-cost methods of printing earlier.
One last thought:
Dakotafire Media, like many journalism organizations today, is struggling to find a business model that works as advertising revenue decreases. This grant definitely helped keep us going for the grant period. But the problem with relying on grants is that they end. Almost all grants are for startup or innovation purposes, and that’s very helpful in getting things off the ground. If the only purpose is to try something that couldn’t otherwise be tried, that makes sense. But what happens if that innovation works? Quite often, innovators don’t see the path from the grant-funded innovation to a model that can sustain itself.
That is why Dakotafire Media is a for-profit instead of a nonprofit, even though most of our work would clearly fit in a nonprofit space. I don’t want to have to keep coming up with innovations to get grant funding. I just want to produce great journalism. Of course, being for-profit has its own challenges. I don’t know if we’re going to figure it out before we’re at the end of our resources.
I’d recommend that the Bush Foundation consider investing in “off-ramp services”—helping grantees think about and pursue options for funding to sustain innovations that work