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Vital Conversations

Calgary Public Library
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Innovation Summary

Presented in partnership with the Calgary Foundation, Vital Conversations is a series of free public forums that invite Calgarians to discuss quality of life issues identified in Calgary’s annual Vital Signs Report. Hosted by the Calgary Public Library, these events involve citizens in building community through dialogue and civic engagement.

Innovation Leader: Carolyn Reicher, Manager, Adult Programming, carolyn.reicher@calgarypubliclibrary.com

Problem Statement

Calgary is a city of rapid change. Over the past decade, Calgary has experienced major shifts in its population, leadership, economy, urban landscape and cultural framework. As the city changes and grows, Calgarians are looking to reconnect – to their city, their communities and their neighbours. More importantly, they want opportunities to contribute to the creation of a dynamic and inspiring city. However, the realities of modern life are that members of large cities often live in isolation from one another, connecting primarily through established social structures of employment, educational involvement, geographic proximity or faith-based communities. Opportunities to connect with other members of the wider society in neutral settings for meaningful dialogue are limited. Without this opportunity for a broad range of citizens to connect and share ideas, the civic engagement and support required to create positive change in society is also limited. Additionally, with a population that is increasingly comprised of newcomers to Canada with differing life experiences and cultural understandings, the need to promote dialogue across communities is critical to our understanding of one another, and our efforts to work and live together in positive and supportive ways. The challenge facing Calgarians is the need for regular opportunities for citizens to meet, engage, discuss and envision together the ways in which everyday community members can improve their city.

Innovation

Approximately four times per year, the Calgary Public Library opens its doors after normal hours to host a Vital Conversations event in partnership with the Calgary Foundation. Calgarians are invited to join large group dialogue and small group conversation circles to discuss topics of importance to the social, economic and civic wellbeing of the city. These topics are based on findings articulated in the annual Vital Signs Report generated by the Calgary Foundation through extensive community consultations. For each Vital Conversation, a partner organization with expertise in the chosen topic is invited to speak to the group as a starting point for further discussion. Participants are then divided into small conversation circles of approximately 8 – 12 in number. For one hour, these groups explore the selected topic with the help of pre-assigned discussion questions. A “conversation guide” is provided to each group to support the flow of conversation and encourage widespread involvement. A recorder or scribe is assigned to each group to ensure the elements of the conversations are recorded. Following the small group discussions, participants return to the large group to creatively share the key elements of their conversations with others. In this way, participants and organizers are able to identify trends in the conversations in addition to potential next steps following the evening dialogue. In the days following the event, all notes taken in the small groups are compiled and posted to the Calgary Foundation website as a resource.

Progress

Between January 2010 and April 2012, nine Vital Conversation events have taken place throughout Calgary on topics as broad ranging as food, energy use, active aging, newcomer resources and arts and culture. Approximately 1,000 people have participated in these dialogues, thus inspiring civic and community engagement. The evenings provide an opportunity for “citizen think-tanking” where Calgarians can listen, learn, talk and connect with one another. They fulfill the need of an increasing number of community members who wish to play a role in the evolution of our civic culture. They provide a place for a growing number of diverse voices to connect and collectively create a new vision of possibilities for our city. Vital Conversations allow the Library to position itself as an organization that supports community dialogue and civic engagement. Because the events take place throughout all quadrants of the city, they highlight the increased role of libraries within individual communities, and expose community members to library resources and services across the city. Additionally, Vital Conversations allow both the Calgary Public Library and the Calgary Foundation to highlight their roles as catalysts and conveners in building and strengthening community. Because of the added role of other agencies in each event, they encourage the development of partnerships with other organizations and connect Calgarians with information, resources and services beyond the host organizations. Finally, Vital Conversations events are an excellent example of how the Calgary Public Library’s mission of inspiring life stories can be met by engaging Calgarians. As individuals, small groups and large communities, these events that encourage dialogue, sharing, awareness and learning are critical to the growth of community members and the city itself. As the host and catalyst for such innovative events, the Calgary Public Library positions itself as the vibrant heart of a great city.