Local Voices Network Gets People Talking

By Hywania Thompson

Kathy Cramer is a political scientist with a knack for delving into the complexities of our society. In researching her award-winning book “The Politics of Resentment,” she traveled around Wisconsin, listening to rural residents and unearthing a deep divide between urban and rural communities in the state.

Her newest project aims to get to the bottom of how people think on a wide variety of topics—particularly those not often heard—by recording conversations, overseen by a facilitator, and compiling the findings for all to hear.

Cramer, a UW-Madison political scientist and expert in social dynamics, is the site lead for Local Voices Network– Madison, which began as a trial in January. Volunteer hosts gather with small groups of people and facilitate constructive conversations using a script and a recording device called a digital hearth. The conversations are constructive in that people “aren’t at each other’s throats and talking about what’s wrong with other people,” says Cramer, who was a 2015 BRAVA Woman to Watch. “It’s conversation that’s about trying to understand and trying to bridge divides—people expressing their own thoughts but then taking the time to listen to other people,” she says.

The work is an extension of her earlier efforts, when she traveled around the state, inviting herself into conversations and listening to what people have to say.

“I had grown up in Wisconsin but was very surprised by a lot of what I was hearing in the rural communities and the small communities in the state,” Cramer says. “This animosity toward the cities and just feeling like they weren’t getting their fair share and just really angry and resentful about it.” The results went into her book, and helped many people understand perspectives they hadn’t considered before.

After the 2016 election, Cramer was giving talks across the country and internationally on what she was hearing. In spring 2017, she was a panelist at a conference where she met Deb Roy, an associate professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Roy also co-founded Cortico, a media technology nonprofit which works to encourage conversations in the community. After listening to Cramer, Roy says he knew she understood social dynamics in a deep way, so he invited her to visit MIT. Roy and Cramer then exchanged ideas over several months, with Cramer helping Roy and his team develop and pilot the Local Voices Network (LVN).

Roy spent years looking at the value of personal conversations—before social media. He says he learned about the importance of facilitated conversations and the power of technology. “LVN is our attempt to bring these two worlds together and offer a new kind of communication platform designed for healing divisions within and across communities, elevating important and often underheard issues to the media, and connect people through shared local experiences,” Roy says.

Local Voices Network partners with the Madison Public Library system, which houses the digital hearth and uploads the completed conversations. They also partner with local media. The online tool is available for journalists—or anyone— to listen to the recorded conversations. And people can sign up online to be a volunteer facilitator or to be part of a conversation.

Cramer is hopeful about the future of Local Voices Network and says the experience has been eye opening. “I think this is actually an opportunity to bring together the best of human, face-to- face conversation,” says Cramer. “There’s no substitute for that, right? There’s no substitute for the way we can be good to one another when we’re in the same room.”

For more information visit lvn.org

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