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December 9, 2022
Extramural Listening Sessions on Racial and Ethnic Equity in the Research Community
UNITE Co-Chairs’ Corner
NIH UNITE seeks to address longstanding challenges that affect the entire biomedical research community.
Structural racism. Lack of diversity, equity, inclusion. Health disparities.
These are complex issues for which perspectives and experiences vary and no easy solutions exist. In the spirit of humility, seeking understanding, and engaging people and groups affected across sectors of the research community, the U Committee, or the Understanding Stakeholder Experiences through Listening and Learning committee, conducted 14 listening sessions (between December 2021 and February 2022) among members of the extramural scientific community.
We were delighted that nearly 1,300 participants representing multiple sectors generously offered their time, voices, and virtual presence – indeed because they are invested in seeing positive change. In this monthly UNITE update, we share our strategies and suggestions for conducting listening sessions.
Why listening sessions?
Listening sessions can be an instrumental approach for understanding lived experiences, perspectives, practices, as well as seeking feedback and desired solutions. They are distinct from focus groups and interviews because they are less structured and allow participants to lead the conversation and raise topics of their choosing. While open-ended, the desired purpose(s) should be specified at the outset to optimize the experience and information obtained. The overarching goals of the UNITE listening sessions were to inform both ongoing and future UNITE efforts, stimulate deep discussions, and catalyze possible recommendations. During these extramural (i.e., external to NIH) sessions, we sought to engage the voices of individuals who represent, work within, participate, or are interested in biomedical research.
What were our engagement approaches?
U Committee implemented a multi-component outreach approach centered on equity and safety. Briefly, we:
- Determined the audiences from which we intended to listen and learn. We sought to engage persons representing multiple sectors of the community and were intentional about including groups beyond those most engaged with NIH (or “the usual suspects”). Our target sectors included
- Colleges and universities
- Historically Black Colleges and Universities
- Minority serving institutions
- Health centers and systems
- Non-profit organizations, community-based organizations, advocacy organizations
- Foundations and professional societies
- Faith-based organizations and houses of worship
- Tribal Nations and American Indian/Alaska Native communities
- Students and trainees
- Research staff (assistants, associates, technicians)
- Utilized multiple outreach channels. We developed and executed a comprehensive outreach plan. Opportunities to register for listening sessions were disseminated through NIH networks and listservs, a published notice, social media, direct email invitations, internet searches to generate lists of organizations and key stakeholders, and word of mouth. We also contacted and offered to meet with points of contact or key partners to underscore the importance of the listening sessions and to understand and integrate the preferences of specific groups (e.g., virtual, in-person, or hybrid sessions).
- Offered a variety of scheduling options. Sessions ranged from 90-120 minutes and occurred on different days of the week and times of the day. Two sessions were scheduled for the larger sectors (e.g., colleges and universities).
- Facilitated accessibility. We were mindful of logistical considerations (see #3), offered virtual sessions to maximize attendance, allowed anonymous participation, and provided American Sign Language interpreters and live transcription.
What do we recommend for those considering conducting listening sessions?
Conducting efficient and effective listening sessions requires careful planning and implementation. Here are a few strategies to consider when embarking on similar activities.
- Utilize strong moderators to facilitate the sessions. The moderator sets the tone for the discussion, guides the conversation, and raises topics (as appropriate) while maintaining a neutral stance. A successful moderator will elicit responses resulting in rich observations reflecting participants’ lived experiences, perspectives, and desired solutions.
- Ask for the three C’s: contribution, candor, and confidentiality. Listening sessions are most effective when diverse perspectives are shared with honesty and transparency. Given the group environment, we must also acknowledge the limits of confidentiality.
- Less talking, more listening. Moderators should seek to hear from as many participants as possible, allowing them to share experiences, offer feedback, express concerns, and listen to others. The organizers and moderators should be in listening mode for most of the session, while keeping the discussion on track and respectful. Remember that many participants are there to be heard.
- Be okay with silence. Do not avoid silence during the sessions. Periods of silence may seem awkward but are to be expected during listening sessions. Allowing participants time to respond to a raised topic, reflect on what has been shared, and formulate their thoughts is a positive element of listening and learning.
- Create safe spaces to the extent possible. Listening sessions are optimized when participants feel safe to contribute candidly and without repercussions. Diverse views and comments are not likely to yield consensus, and an openness to hear all perspectives and experiences is important. UNITE listening sessions were moderated by contractor teams skilled in group facilitation on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Indicate how participants can stay involved. Attending a listening session creates a personal investment. At both the start and end of the sessions, provide information on how attendees can continue to follow the initiative and get involved, including pointing to the website and email address.
- Determine plans for understanding or analyzing the information obtained. Develop a strategy to summarize the primary observations and themes both within and across sessions. We suggest deidentifying the discussions and utilizing qualitative analytic software to generate themes and summarize the information in aggregate.
- Return the observations and/or themes to the community. Sharing what was learned in a transparent way is important for trust building and continued engagement. Disseminate the findings using the same strategies used during engagement efforts and beyond.
Want to know more?
Summaries of the 14 listening sessions are posted on the UNITE Initiative Events page. Findings of the UNITE RFI, which received more than 1,100 responses in 2021, are now available as a full Report and Executive Summary. You can also watch the UNITE presentation from the December 9, 2022 Advisory Committee to the Director meeting for high-level findings from the external listening sessions and continue visiting the UNITE website for updates and reports from our listening activities. The U Committee will continue to listen, learn, and recommend actions to support UNITE’s goals. Please view the UNITE Progress Report to learn more about the select accomplishments associated with UNITE’s four focus areas.
Authored by the UNITE U Committee led by its Co-Chairs
This page last reviewed on December 9, 2022