How to Start + Run a Discussion Group
Or, how to empower yourself while Everything Is Happening All At Once.
In the face of massive turmoil in America in 2020, confronted with the limits of my own knowledge and experiences, I turned to the only thing left that could help me make sense of the world — other people.
I’d been thinking about starting up a discussion/learning group (a la the French salons during the Enlightenment) ever since high school. But I felt there was no opportunity — there were SAT’s to focus on, club deadlines, college apps, college classes, family problems, internships, getting a job, doing well at the job —
— all while friends casually used derogatory terms against women or Black people in online war games, when TA’s laughed at their students, while fires burnt my state, while the Pulse shootings happened, while my female friends and I experienced stalking and harassment, while I voted for the first time in 2016 and didn’t understand the propositions at all, while a shooter shot two children at a school I’d gone to for summer classes, while friends and loved ones spewed prejudices and I lacked the words and numbers and knowledge to take and defend a stand—
when the pandemic hit —
when the pandemic killed —
and on top of all those indignities, when George Floyd was killed and the resulting social media storm brought the dirty underbelly of American society to light that I’d never had to grapple with before —
well. To be this late to the party is a privilege, but I’m working on it now.
My goal was to learn about and discuss historical events, policies and attitudes behind current societal problems AND talk about what we could do about them in our day-to-day. I wanted to learn about the history of racism in the U.S., the skewed checks and balances in our government, the strengths and shortcomings of our current economic system in context, the weaknesses of our public education, and the disinformation surrounding public health and climate change — just as a start. And then, to figure out some way to feel less overwhelmed and powerless in the face of all the things wrong in the world. And back in July 2020, I thought starting a small reading group of people ready to educate ourselves, one topic at a time, would be the best way to hold myself accountable to that while cultivating a community of people who cared about more than just the best boba places in town.
How the group works is as follows: we meet every week (unless folks are not available) on the same day, same time, to discuss the topic of the week for an hour (though we often run over to an hour and a half). Topics can vary, but they can start based on questions (how does education differ in funding or focus in various regions in the U.S.?) or on sources (watch Just Mercy and read related articles).
We decide on the topic of the week a week before — or, as we’ve done a few times, we decide to focus on a broad topic over the course of a couple of weeks and split the topic accordingly (ex. in the weeks leading up to the November U.S. election, we covered 2–3 Californian propositions a week).
Everyone’s given a day or two to find and send some resources on the topic to the group: usually videos or articles. (Or, with a source, we choose whether to break it up; ex. we’re currently reading 1 chapter of All We Can Save per week.) Then everyone is expected to read up on that topic outside of the discussion and bring their thoughts to the table.
The method (templates included!)
See all templates here.
- Write up a plan with expectations and ground rules: A lot of people didn’t know what I meant by a “discussion group” when I first started out, so writing up this explanation helped a lot. Furthermore, setting ground rules for engagement clarifies what I could kick someone out for if needed. I also took care to set a time and day that worked well for me first, assuming that folks would ask me to move it if it didn’t work for them.
- Set up the infrastructure for sharing meeting notes, agendas, and communicating with group members: I started with a bunch of ready-to-use technologies: I set up a Google Drive folder to keep meeting notes (labelled by date) & lists of resources that I wanted to cover; a Discord server with separate channels to keep chats organized (#logistics, #action-items, #introductions); and a Google Meet link that we reuse from week to week to discuss. (Originally we were using the Discord voice chat for that, but some folks’ Internet connections weren’t happy with us.) I linked the Drive and Discord in my plan document.
- Reach out to people you’d like to join, one on one: It’s crucial that this be a 1:1 process. You can of course advertise that you’re starting this group on social media, but at the end of the day it’s much easier to engage folks in this idea if you reach out to them directly. I did this by (1) sending a message to my friend describing my group + the goal to gauge interest, then, based on their response, (2) sending them my plan document. From there, if they cared, they’d request access to the Drive & join my Discord. I tried to take care in this process to invite people of different backgrounds — in the end, I reached out directly to around 25 people. Only 10 people joined my server; 8 have attended meetings; currently, about 4 people other than I attend regularly. A group of about 3–5 people is about right to have an interesting discussion.
- Set a first meeting and facilitate introductions: Before you’ve decided on any topics/found many resources to go through, it may be nice to get started by watching mini documentaries together. The first order of business is to always get folks’ introductions together. I used the #introductions channel in my Discord server to do this, asking folks to do a small writeup about “who you are, what you do, and what you’re interested in talking about.”
- In early meetings, set an understanding tone starting with the agenda: This is really key in my opinion — developing a place where folks don’t feel judged because of their experiences, where they feel free to analyze themselves around others. There’s one set of questions that I feel has really allowed my group members to get to feel comfortable around one another, which is this: Where did you grow up? And what did you learn about <THE TOPIC> while growing up? That’s been a surefire way to get interesting discussions where folks feel free to bring up their opinions in an open, respectful way — and while we’ve asked this question less per each meeting as we’ve gotten to know each other, it comes up naturally now.
- In later meetings, get other members to lead the discussion: It takes a fair bit of mental energy to organize and host meetings, and you don’t want to burn yourself out. You’ll have to provide the starting energy to get the group running, but as folks get more used to the routine you should take time at the end of meetings to ask for volunteers to help host the meeting and come up with discussion questions. This shouldn’t take too much work since they’ll have the agenda template & previous meetings to base the discussions off. If no one volunteers, or if someone who’s already led discussions often volunteers again, I tend to ask someone directly if they’re willing to lead — and if they’re not, no harm no foul.
There’s a bunch of other random tips that I’ve found useful in the process, like:
- Meeting reminders: It’s helpful to know if people are planning to show up to the meeting/ have done the readings. We currently do this by sending reminder messages in Discord the day before the meeting, but I’d imagine it’d be easier if you set up a recurring calendar event in Google Calendar or the like with notifications and RSVP’s on. If we have less than 3 people coming to a meeting (including myself), I usually cancel.
- Gratitude: I routinely thank folks who volunteer to take notes or lead discussion meetings, and also thank folks who show up to meetings.
- Grow your group as you see fit: As I make new acquaintances or catch up with old ones, I sometimes think that they would make a nice addition to my discussion group because of their interesting experiences, and if attendance is low at meetings I ask them to join as well. I’d caution against making a group too large though, since candid conversations are less comfortable to have in large groups — if you end up making a large group, I’d suggest breakout rooms.
- Follow up with folks who expressed interest but have stopped coming: Folks get busy — your follow-up might nudge them back into joining, if you’d still like to have them.
- Current events are interesting to talk about: Don’t be afraid to push back your topic agenda if there are Things Going On that you think the group might want to discuss. Ex. we took time after the January coup to process it together.
- Take breaks: The world is exhausting sometimes. Feel free to tell your group to take a break for a weekend or so when y’all need it.
As of today, I’ve been leading this discussion group for half a year. I require that each attendee go over a subset of the selected materials before each meeting, which tends to take about an hour a week. We’ve had about 24 meetings broadly covering the prison industrial complex, the history of racism in America, the recent history of American education, the California propositions (pre-elections in November), and (most recently) climate change and action. Each discussion lasts~1.5 hours. That’s approximately 36 hours of active discussion that my group has started and participated in — somewhat equivalent to a semester-long class held 2x a week, 1 hour per class.
And now, our conversations are less “what is this and how did this happen?” Now, our conversations are more “what are our skills and how can we contribute to our communities?” Now, they are “what local organizations can we plug into?” Now, they are “what state, or country, or city, or neighborhood issues do we need to pay attention to?” Now, they are “when is my next town hall meeting?” And on and on.
A lot of the folks who’ve regularly attended these discussions expressed a similar sentiment: one of having felt overwhelmed and powerless, and now feeling powerful. I feel the same.
I have no plans of expanding my personal discussion group significantly, other than continuing to invite new voices to join — it’s been an entirely selfish venture. But it’s my hope that you, dear reader, might come away from this with some tools for organizing your own learning circles, your own discussion groups, for making sense of the world around you and figuring out how to pull its strings. After all, “democracy is not a spectator sport.” I’d love to hear if you get one started, and my inbox is open if you’d like advice on organizing (though of course, I’m still learning myself).
I will live in the present. I will look to the past. I will strategize for the future. I am here. I am listening. I will improve myself and the world around me. And I hope you will do the same. Thanks for reading.