School Forum: Step 5. Beginning the Forum
Step 5. Beginning the Forum
The first meeting (for forums meeting multiple times) is important in terms of setting future trajectories. This is the point at which to focus on establishing patterns of engagement and on clarifying the group’s norms and expectations.
First impressions can play a disproportionate role in our dealings with others, and first meetings can set up patterns of engagement that persist on subsequent occasions—for good or ill. It is important to go into the initial meeting (or the start of a stand-alone forum) with a clear articulation of the group’s goals and principles of engagement, and with a clear pattern of engagement in mind. Consider how to involve every group member from the beginning in the way that you hope to see him or her involved as the group progresses.
Some important elements of the initial meeting to consider are:
- Hospitality: Who is welcome? Consider what kind of greeting will leave participants feeling welcomed, and consider how to welcome each participant’s voice from the beginning, for instance, by having participants introduce themselves and briefly share what made them interested in the group. Thank participants for their willingness to be involved. Consider the meeting space and whether it will enable interaction: choose a venue where all members can sit in a circle and hear and see one another well. Consider snacks, beverages, or even a shared meal.
- Identity: Who are we? Acknowledge that members may not know exactly what they’re getting themselves into, and assure participants that although the discussion may be challenging at times, it will provide an opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. One important way to frame a potentially contentious conversation is to begin and end with prayer as well as reading a Psalm or other scriptural passage together. This Bible text should not necessarily be focused on the topic at hand, for the goal is not to dive straight into interpretations and disagreements, but to explicitly remember that even as we disagree, we are first members together in the body of Christ.
- Mission: What is our goal? Draw attention to the church’s need for thoughtful people who can engage cultural issues well in an often angry and polarized cultural context. Point out that the alternatives we commonly see are either to clam up and say nothing out of fear of offending others, or to verbally attack and demean those whose viewpoints conflict with ours. Neither approach seems to hold on to both truth and grace. Indicate that in seeking to practice a third way of honest dialogue with a focus on virtuous interaction, we can take a step towards becoming people who can hold truth and love together.
- Rhythms: How will we interact? You should have given thought to this when considering the Principles of Engagement at the beginning of the planning process (see Step 1). You could share copies of a document like that provided in the sample Principles of Engagement. As a group, consider explicitly what commitment to this shared project will mean concretely in terms of participation.
- Safeguards: Who is at risk? Hierarchies of authority will need to be acknowledged and addressed at the outset. Administrators in the group will need to let teachers know that they can openly disagree with them without fear of repercussions. Teachers and parents should let students know the same thing.
With a mix of adults and youth in the room, the issue of which names people should use to address one another should be discussed. In order to level the playing field, we recommend letting group members know they may address one another (respectfully, of course) by whatever name they feel most comfortable using. Most likely, students will feel most comfortable using first names to address their peers and last names for the adults in the room, but an invitation to use preferred forms of address can be a way of symbolizing to them (and to the rest of the group) that everyone’s opinions are welcomed and valued equally.
It is also vital to stress the importance of confidentiality between group members, as forum members’ opinions must be kept within the room.
The activity on interviewing includes a guide to asking questions and listening to answers graciously, and also offers suggestions for successful communication strategies. You may consider discussing some of the ideas from that activity at the outset of your meetings.