We the People MN

June 25, 2018

We the People MN is a collection of individuals who came together out of a commitment to building a pluralistic, multicultural, just, and equitable society by understanding, engaging, and influencing the Constitutional as a living document at work in community life. The information here is based on a series of community self-organized conversations held between November 2016 and April 2017 in Minneapolis where neighbors educated themselves about the Constitution.

These notes and resources are meant to help others engage the Constitution as a resource in community conversations and civic dialogue. It is important to note that We the People is not a program to be replicated exactly as it looked in its first iteration. Instead, it is an approach that others can adapt to address any of a range of issues of concern in their own contexts, engaging local voices and knowledge on local issues. For instance, if a community is concerned about issues of data privacy, felon voting rights, or free speech on a college campus, a We the People community conversation would be one way to approach that topic. Organizers could draw ideas from this guide, and would also need to engage those knowledgeable about and impacted by the issues in their own context.

With questions, contact Cara Letofsky, cletofsky {at} yahoo(.)com.

We the People Community Conversations

The 2016-17, We the People organizers arranged ten two-hour sessions on the seven articles of the Constitution and select amendments. Up to two hundred neighbors, largely adults of all ages, participated in each session. The conversations took place in a large room at a community location where participants could sit in small groups while also seeing a speaker.

Neighbors were motivated to convene by a general sense that they didn’t know the Constitution as well as they wanted to. Many expressed concerned about the wellbeing of their communities and democracy. They knew that the Constitution and interpretations of it heavily influenced the issues they cared about. Many wanted to better understand the specifics of that relationship and know what they could do address issues they cared about. While some attended all ten sessions, there were others who were concerned about specific issues and attended only sessions on those topics. The model allowed for either mode of participation.

The ten sessions had an arc, beginning with a community reading of the Constitution, followed by sessions about the seven articles, select amendments, and finally culminated in a “take action” session in which participants accessed information about community organizations working on issues they cared about. The model could also be used a la carte for a single session or shorter series addressing a specific question or issue(s).

The organizers, members of the community, chose the topics and amendments for the ten sessions based an initial grassroots group gathering and responding to the following prompt: “What are three things you want to know more about in regard to the Constitution?”  A long list resulted, and by clumping questions by theme, the group arrived at ten session topics.

Session Structure

Organizers asked participants to greet someone they didn’t know and provide an introduction, including why they came.

  1. Respect the opinions of others; disagreement is healthy and welcome, but disparagement is not.
  2. Keep your remarks short and on topic.
  3. Do not interrupt others.
  4. One speaker at a time. Please participate, but make space for others to participate as well.
  5. Speakers should not address one another; remarks should be addressed to the group and relate to the topic.
  6. The session should not be used as a forum to promote political agendas or events on campus. There is a table outside available for literature, notices, and events.
  7. The group leader will determine the relevance of any comment and may limit the length of comments.
  8. Please respect our host’s time and space.

At the start of each session, organizers asked each participant to write one word on a sticky note about how they were feeling about the topic at hand. Were they grim, optimistic, or nervous? Participants kept the word for the end. (See closing.)

  1. The talk addressed a specific issue or question about the Constitution raised by the participants.
  2. Talks were twenty minutes long, though participants often wanted them to be longer.
  3. Organizers selected the speaker from the community, a nonprofit organization, public office, or a college faculty based on their knowledge and experience of the question at hand.
  4. Organizers tried to bring state and local issues into each conversation through the speaker selected.
  5. After presenting, the speaker(s) took questions.
  6. Participants were able to submit questions in advance.
  1. Groups of 6-8 people worked best.
  2. Facilitators were assigned to each group.
  3. Organizers set principles for participation, or group agreements, for each session.
  4. Questions were typically along the lines of: What is at risk What are private/individual and public actions we could take to protect it?
  1. Community Reading of the Constitution. Participants each took a section to read aloud. Organizers noted this was a powerful exercise. This took 90 minutes and served as the first session.
  2. Three Things. Organizers in a planning group read the Constitution and each listed three things they wanted to know more about regarding the Constitution without regard for what they thought they “should” know. The list was long and the exercise generative.
  3. Rank Your Rights. Participants were presented with a list of rights granted by the Constitution and challenged to rank them, then discuss in small groups which is the most important? Why?
  4. Participant Share-Out. Participants often had valuable experiences regarding sensitive issues that the Constitution touched on, such as prison reform. In addition to invited speakers, organizers asked participants to share or write on a postcard their experience and how it informed their view of an issue. Organizers either shared this with the group or posted it in a community location.
  5. Film Screening. Organizers also showed films related to participant’s selected session topics such as 13, Gideon’s Trumpet, Loving, or Milwaukee 53206.
  6. Mail Yourself A Letter. Participants wrote themselves a letter detailing actions they would take in the next month, key takeaways from the session, how they planned to sustain themselves in doing advocacy work, reminders of how they felt after this activity, etc. Organizers asked them to fill out an envelope with their mailing address and seal the letter inside. They then mailed the letter back to the participants after a specified amount of time, such as 3-6 months.
  1. After conversation and activities were done, organizers asked participants to write on a sticky note one concrete action that they would take in the next week. Organizers collected these and displayed them for all to see.
  2. Examples of actions included identifying an official to contact, a bill to monitor, a cause to support, or a news alert to sign up for.
  3. Organizers encouraged action at the state or local level.
  1. Before closing the session, organizers asked participants to write one word describing how they were feeling about the issue at hand on a sticky note.
  2. In pairs or small groups, participants discussed whether this had changed from the beginning or not and why.
  1. At the end of each session, organizers asked participants to write down one question or comment.
  2. The organizers would review, tweak future plans, and share these back with participants at the following session, creating a feedback loop and accountability.

Issues and Questions

Many issues and questions of interest to your community can be addressed through the lens of the Constitution. Here a few examples from this initial We the People series:

  • The census (Article 1, Section 2)
  • Protest and the freedom of speech (1st Amendment)
  • Sanctuary cities (10th Amendment)
  • Felonies and the right to vote (15th Amendment)
  • Incarceration (5th, 6th, and 13th Amendment)
  • Voter ID laws (24th Amendment)
  • Perspectives on the right to bear arms (2nd Amendment)
  • Data privacy (4th Amendment)
  • Law versus executive order
  • Constitutional Crisis

Considerations for Recreating We the People:

  • The session content would look completely different based on the organizing community.
  • People in the community should be on the planning committee.
  • Choose speakers that are relevant to and suited to the context.