Behind the scenes: Recruiting participants for World Wide Views in Washington, D.C.

For the World Wide Views on Biodiversity event, we have been striving to keep the demographic representation at the deliberation similar to that of the area. The Washington, D.C. area, including Maryland and Virginia, is incredibly diverse. As you can imagine, there is a large number of highly educated and affluent people within and around the nation’s capital. This group is probably more likely to have the inclination and ability to attend an event discussing policy and long-term issues. Members of this contingent were not difficult to reach using academic networks, listservs, and Craigslist. And, of course, many early potential participants were from urban areas.

A few demographic criteria proved more difficult to represent: those living in rural areas, those with low household income, and those with less formal education. If we focus in on the people with low household income and less formal education, we start to see why it might be difficult to engage groups with these criteria. Many do not have consistent telephone numbers and/or addresses. Some share their telephones with their friends and family. The Internet is only used maybe once per week by some at local agencies serving the poor.

Before I started working with the World Wide Views D.C. organizers, Rose and Mahmud (the student that was recruiting before I started and the project manager, respectively) visited one of the agencies serving those in need in the city. After they described the event at a meeting and their purpose there, a woman named Lisa Queen approached them and offered to help recruit participants to represent the demographic described above. She did not ask for anything in return; she saw the value of the deliberative process and only wanted to contribute.

Lisa went out recruiting with Rose a few times and brought in several people interested in participating in the event. Before Rose left to go back to school, she left Lisa’s contact information with me. I sent an email to her, nervous that perhaps she would find it unsettling that someone she did not know was contacting her out of the blue. However, she replied with an email even friendlier than most correspondences I have with close friends. We arranged another recruiting event at Bread for the City, an organization that offers food, legal representation, medical care, and other services to the indigent of the area.

I arrived not really knowing how to approach the situation. I do not feel particularly comfortable randomly soliciting others. Perhaps there are too many occasions on which aspiring entrepreneurs approached me in grocery stores trying to get me involved in pyramid schemes. Maybe it is just my remembering the feeling of extreme social anxiety at middle school dances. Whatever it is, I’m not good at it.

Lisa, on the other hand, did not hesitate. She dove right in and started talking to strangers and broke the ice for me several times so I could focus more on talking about the deliberation. I was impressed not only by her courage, but by her diligence as well; she moved with a purpose from one person to the next without delay. Working together, we had almost 15 participants signing up within an hour and a half. It seemed like quite a feat for just approaching people at random.

There were not a lot of people there that day, and as the recruiting started to slow down, I got a chance to ask Lisa about why she was interested in helping us. She told me about her story. She explained that this area was her old stomping ground and that she has been through many hard times, so she can relate to this demographic and knows how to approach people with dignity and without pretense. She also trusted that we were working to empower the people there by giving them a voice, without any ulterior motives. She wants to contribute to causes greater than any one individual, but she has experienced problems that often hold her back. She did not complain though. She explained her past with the same openness and good spirit as with her approach to strangers on the street.

She suddenly decided that we had exhausted our source of potential participants and told me to meet her several blocks up the street at Howard University to hand out flyers. I met her there and we spent another hour or so talking to students. She was able to get a few more people on board before I had to leave. In gratitude, I offered her lunch and a ride home, but she respectfully declined. She also offered to help get some of the lower income participants organized and lead them to the Koshland Science Museum for the World Wide Views D.C. event.

Lisa Queen and Brian Milchak at the Koshland Science Museum after the deliberation

We did not have to go recruiting again. That last push put us where we had to be to represent that particular demographic. My contact with Lisa was a little sporadic at first due to some previous technology limitations. However, she saved up and bought a new phone, so I was able to confirm that she will be participating in the event on September 15. I let her know that I was not able to bring in any more participants from rural areas in a recent recruitment attempt, at which I set up a table at a farmers’ market in The Plains, VA. She told me that if I had invited her along, she would have made it happen.


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