Each day, in the halls, meeting rooms, and offices of state think tanks across the country, policy experts discuss reforms that will improve the lives and livelihoods of the people in their communities.
Grant Callen is the founder and CEO of one of these think tanks in Jackson, Mississippi. As head of Empower Mississippi for more than eight years, Grant has seen his organization advance big wins over the years, including helping the state lower the income tax, reform its broken criminal justice system, and expand education options for Mississippi families.
But one day Grant had an unnerving thought. What if the reforms his organization works on aren’t going to change lives like he thinks they are? What if he looked back on the work that he and the staff at Empower spent their lives doing, and while they had policy wins, they couldn’t point to real people whose lives were changed?
At the same time, Grant had been working with, and learning from, groups like the Beacon Center, Institute for Reforming Government, and Georgia Center for Opportunity. All of whom had been running listening sessions across their states to learn what people really felt and thought.
This group empowered Callen to try something new. Empower Mississippi launched a new initiative called listening sessions.
Listening sessions are events that bring people within a state or community together to discuss the challenges they face in their everyday life.
The Beacon Center in Tennessee conducted listening sessions to see if the policy issues they pursued were the same issues that the people in their state cared about. Mark Cunningham, Beacon’s vice president of strategy and communications, explained: “We had a feeling the polices we were working on didn’t really fit with what the people of Tennessee cared about. Not that they weren’t good policies or issues that we didn’t think were important—our issues just weren’t resonating with the people we were supposed to represent.”
Beacon launched a listening tour to understand what Tennesseans cared about, what problems they faced in their everyday life, and the barriers preventing them from pursuing the American Dream.
In Wisconsin, the Institute for Reforming Government started to conduct listening sessions to see if state government was being responsive to the needs of its citizens. The sessions give IRG valuable information about what Wisconsin residents care about—and what policy issues those residents want addressed.
So often state think tanks start the work they do—including research, campaigns, and initiatives—with solutions first. Organizations think they have good policy ideas, such as advancing Education Savings Accounts, reforming job licensing, or removing certificate-of-need laws. State think tanks will start with these solutions and then find people in their state who benefit from those ideas. Listening sessions, on the other hand, do the opposite—they are a way to reverse that process. These sessions enable state think tanks to start with the people they are trying to help, and then figure out the solution.
Callen added: “Before we assemble policy ideas and reforms, let’s have conversations with people we want to impact, and determine what their real challenges are. Then we can see whether our policies are a match for it.”
Listening sessions can take many forms. It’s all about getting people from all walks of life into a room to have an informal conversation. Participants can include parents, business owners, single moms, college students, retirees, and low-income families.
Empower Mississippi has held two listening sessions in high poverty areas in their state. To get people to attend, Empower identified a very active member of each of those communities.
They used that contact to invite people to the listening session. Participants discussed life in Mississippi, the challenges they faced, and why some people struggle while others thrive. Empower hosted the sessions, and noted they made sure they were not too involved in the conversation. Listening sessions are not a place to pitch policy. It’s an opportunity to sit back and listen—and learn what’s top of mind for participants.
The Beacon Center held both online listening sessions as well as in-person events in Memphis and Chattanooga. Although Beacon was the host and led the conversation, they too, understood the importance of listening to participants and refraining from inserting their opinions into the discussion.
As of summer 2022, IRG in Wisconsin has held more than 10 listening sessions across the state. IRG keeps these sessions small, between eight and 12 people. Like Beacon and Empower, they like to encourage informal, intimate conversation.
After listening to people across the state, what Beacon learned was surprising. The top five or six issues that Tennessee residents cared about, were, for the most part, not issues Beacon has ever touched. With this revealing information in hand, Beacon is readjusting their policy priorities.
Cunningham added: “Our entire agenda, not just for this year, but for the next few years, will be dependent on what these results show.”
IRG also noted the importance of these sessions for shaping their policy priorities. Madison Hartmann, IRG’s director of external affairs, added: “It also serves as a really effective planning tool for the policy team—both looking backwards as we consider what reforms we want to fix, and also looking ahead at what policies should we pursue next.” In addition, IRG is going to compile the results of the listening session and what they learned into an end-of-year report that outlines what Wisconsinites want. They plan to send the report to policymakers in the state, including the Wisconsin Governor.
After hosting their first two listening sessions, Empower Mississippi is refining the way they host these sessions and hoping the information gleaned will help them with their messaging and priorities. Empower also plans to continue to build relationships with the people they meet at these sessions—and use their platform to share their stories with influencers across the state.
If your organization would like information on how to start a listening session, please reach out to State Policy Network’s Sarah Keenan at email@example.com.
Listening Sessions: Fast Facts