Following a shooting tragedy that occurred outside East High School in spring 2022, Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS) initiated community conversations to better understand the role it could play in ensuring student safety and well-being. Iowa ACEs 360 partnered with the district to help facilitate the process for hosting these discussions, bringing an understanding of the conditions that lead to violence and trauma and a healing-centered framework for responding. The team also consulted with several community partners about how to thoughtfully structure these conversations. The goal was to support collective healing by fostering relationship building, agency in creating solutions, and meaning from coming together to imagine new possibilities.
Iowa ACEs 360 team members, who are part of Mid-Iowa Health Foundation HealthConnect Fellowship, shared these six elements that now define their collaborative approach to hosting community conversations.
The approach to the conversations aimed to foster 1) sharing of cultural and personal experiences to develop solutions that meet diverse needs, 2) exploring root causes of traumatic incidents more deeply, 3) acknowledging the conversations and work already occurring to build on, and 4) identifying steps that both DMPS and the broader community should take. These goals especially were intended to honor the diversity of cultures, ethnicities, and languages spoken within the district. To ensure participants could provide feedback in their preferred languages and to build on existing relationships at schools, Iowa ACEs 360 supported DMPS staff and community members in leading the facilitation of these conversations.
While everyone is affected, students are especially impacted by the violence and trauma occurring within and around their schools, have the least amount of power, and are most often not invited to be a part of decision-making regarding ways to address the violence and trauma. Giving them the opportunity to explore the problems that exist and identify solutions enables them to use their strengths, have a sense of control over their lives, and engage in positive experiences—all of which supports the healing process.
Prior to hosting community roundtables, Iowa ACEs 360 visited each DMPS high school to meet with students. School Advisory Councils (groups organized by community school coordinators at each high school to engage students, parents, and staff) had identified four themes to address in schools – safety, belonging, health and well-being, and community and family engagement – and students were asked to define what each of those themes meant to them. A facilitated conversation led to deeper understanding about their responses. Iowa ACEs 360 synthesized the student responses to build definitions for each of the four areas and gave students an opportunity to review those definitions.
Community roundtables at each of the five high schools invited students, caregivers, DMPS staff, and community members to come together to discuss ways of addressing violence and trauma. Conversations in small groups began by reviewing how students defined what safety, belonging, health and well-being, and community and family engagement meant to them. Then participants brainstormed how to create the environments students envisioned. This structure for conversations was unexpected for some members who wanted more time and space to talk about their concerns, but the process was meant to focus responses on what is possible to meet student needs, leading to the co-creation of solutions that are driven by the community.
At the start of each community conversation, all attendees had an opportunity to sit in their small groups and share a meal. This time, without an agenda, allowed people to meet each other, which was important to build a sense of connection and trust before discussing difficult and sensitive topics. This step was meant to foster a space where participants could listen to each other and authentically engage with each other’s ideas. One theme that emerged from the community conversations was a desire for the school to host more opportunities to get to know each other and have these kinds of discussions.
Community conversations aimed to create an inclusive space where participants could hear from one another and share their ideas in their preferred languages, ideally with facilitators they trusted. Recognizing that not everyone could attend the roundtable events or felt heard at these meetings, Iowa ACEs 360 and DMPS also developed a survey based on the same framework as the conversations, which was shared widely with the school community. The survey generated more than 1,200 responses to open-ended questions, providing additional ideas and perspectives.
Even with thoughtful consideration of how to set up the roundtables, Iowa ACEs 360 acknowledges that the process did not allow everyone to fully participate. For example, the structure of the roundtable approach did not align with how some cultures approach these kinds of discussions. To try to address those concerns, the team encouraged facilitators to be flexible with the format while remaining focused on the goals of the discussions. More time to develop the process with diverse stakeholders could help ensure a more inclusive and supportive structure for future conversations.
From these discussions, Iowa ACEs 360 gathered all of the feedback and ideas and generated a report that captured themes and recommendations for next steps. Conversations among the district and stakeholders continue to build out how to implement the ideas identified, with the intention of continuing to bring community together to work on the plan.
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