First Step Toward Narrowing Community Divides? Start Talking!

Bridging entrenched or systemic divides isn’t easy, but opening up a dialogue can be the first step toward building community.

ARTICLE | Jul 20, 2017
Photo courtesy of the National Civic League

In the wake of a divisive presidential election and the promulgation of equally polarizing public policies and ideals, the National Civic League (NCL)—one of ICMA’s newest Strategic Partners and the nonprofit organization that confers the annual All-America City Awards—challenges cities, towns, and counties to hold “conversations” that can help them identify the small but specific actions communities can take to bridge divides and reflect the best of what America can be.

These “All-America Conversations” are intended to address three primary questions:

  1. How can our community reflect the best of what we see in America?
  2. What are the divisions in our community and how do they impact our ability to live in the kind of community we want?
  3. How can we bridge those divisions?

NCL launched its All-America Conversations project in January 2017 with an instructional webinar and the unveiling of a 35-page toolkit that contains everything a community needs to hold a productive and meaningful conversation, including guidance on how to select an engagement approach, recruit conversation participants, facilitate discussions and take notes, make sense of what’s been discussed, and engage the media.

Bridging entrenched or systemic divides isn’t easy, but opening up a dialogue can be the first step toward building community. Communities that have engaged residents in All-America Conversations

  • Better understand residents' aspirations for the community.
  • Learn how residents talk about and see community challenges and divisions.
  • Gain clear insight into what small actions would give people confidence that they can work together across dividing lines.
  • Help residents engage with one another in a productive conversation.
  • Demonstrate a commitment to inclusive engagement.

Interested in community engagement but not sure how to get started?  NCL can lead a session for your community on how engagement can help build stronger communities, address critical issues, and bridge divides even in polarized times. To learn more, email Aaron Leavy at to set up a free strategy call and talk through how you can get started engaging residents.

If you want to build critical mass and momentum around engagement, share the link to the All-America Conversations Toolkit with local partners, groups, and organizations. Then set up a conversation to discuss how engagement could help move things forward locally.               


Good idea. Good article.

Good idea. Good article. One suggestion is to change the last words in the title of the program to "Start Listening!" Instead of "Start Talking!" Real listening takes time and courage. Citizens will only engage in real conversations if they first think and feel that they are listened to and their concerns and ideas are understood. Then real dialogue can begin.

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