Sparking a Conversation Around Policing in NYC

Helping the New York Civil Liberties Union activate a city-wide, nontraditional campaign centered on listening

Sparking a Conversation Around Policing in NYC

Helping the New York Civil Liberties Union activate a city-wide, nontraditional campaign centered on listening

Sparking a Conversation Around Policing in NYC

Helping the New York Civil Liberties Union activate a city-wide, nontraditional campaign centered on listening

Sparking a Conversation Around Policing in NYC

Helping the New York Civil Liberties Union activate a city-wide, nontraditional campaign centered on listening

New Yorkers experience policing differently depending on who they are and where they live. Some communities are patrolled; others are profiled. When your neighbors’ experiences are starkly different from your own, it can be almost impossible to understand their perspective.

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), a state branch of the ACLU, hoped to spark a dialogue around race and police tactics in over-policed communities, and to engage voters on this divisive issue before New York City’s mayoral election. But the NYCLU also understood that traditional slogans and billboards weren’t enough to foster deep personal conversations and effective political action—the city needed real talk.

The organization engaged IDEO to help create a city-wide, nontraditional campaign. In talking with New Yorkers, the NYCLU advocates and IDEO designers honed in on two simple truths: Transformative conversations happen only when people feel safe enough to listen—and to speak. And people become more compassionate listeners once they themselves feel heard. In a time of entrenched interests and growing social conflict, listening can be a radical act.

Together, IDEO and the NYCLU designed Listening NYC, a grassroots campaign to promote interpersonal listening, meaningful discussion, and collective action around policing.

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To get New Yorkers—famously brash and always bustling—to stop and listen to their neighbors, they created a pop-up installation called the Listening Room that travels through the city to catalyze one-on-one conversations. It’s a portable safe space, with tables, chairs, two walls that provide a degree of intimacy, and two sides left open for a feeling of psychological safety.

At the center of the experience is a deck of Conversation Cards that encourage New Yorkers to share their stories and hear those of others. Simple prompts like “I believe the role of police is to _____,” and questions like “A cop stops you in your neighborhood. What do you do?” empower people to find common ground. Through straightforward but structured activities like these, many New Yorkers who enter the Listening Room expecting to disagree instead find themselves sharing stories and opinions in ways they never imagined.

Beyond face-to-face dialogue, the Listening Room also features a radio loaded with stories from different neighborhoods across the city’s five boroughs. By turning the dial, visitors can learn about encounters with policing culture from fellow New Yorkers, including two NYPD officers. 

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To turn talk into action, visitors are invited to send a postcard to the mayor. People choose the policy proposals most important to them—from, “Police shouldn’t be disciplining kids in school” to, “If police want to read our emails, they should have to get a warrant”—and add them to a pre-stamped postcard dropped into a special “ballot box.” The NYCLU delivered more than 2,000 of these cards to Mayor Bill de Blasio upon his reelection in late 2017.

"A lot of us live in a bubble and are sometimes unaware of all the other issues happening in the city, so this is good to bring to light."

– LISTENING ROOM VISITOR

IDEO and the NYCLU also led an interactive campaign event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Residents, students, philanthropists, and police were led through an exercise called Creative Tensions, positioning themselves around the room according to their views on everything from surveillance technology to school safety. Experts helped guide the conversation including Sheriff Jerry Clayton, director Liesl Tommy, and NYCLU organizer Brandon Holmes. The process allowed participants to see how fluid people’s positions can be.

Listening NYC has now reached thousands of New Yorkers at more than 35 locations. Schools, from a public middle school to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, have requested visits from the Listening Room, and the installation’s modular design has inspired new incarnations on topics including student safety and discipline.

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The NYCLU has sent Conversation Cards to celebrities, influencers, and every member of the New York City Council. Sending postcards to Mayor de Blasio and Conversation Cards to the city council led directly to passage of the Right to Know Act—legislation that incorporates some of the NYCLU’s proposals for police reform.

Today, the impact of Listening NYC has moved beyond city limits. The NYCLU’s Syracuse chapter is introducing the pop-up installation there, while in Boston, mayoral candidate Tito Jackson even promised a visit from the Listening Room if elected. To keep dialogue flowing, the ACLU plans to distribute Conversation Cards nationwide.

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"It’s exciting to be expanding the cards beyond New York City. They are one of the best things I’ve ever worked on."

JOHANNA MILLER, ADVOCACY DIRECTOR, NYCLU

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