Catalyst Community Conversations


Catalyst Community Conversations (CCC) develops, implements, and facilitates public deliberative conversations on important issues. We bring stakeholders together to identify and act on problems in their community, business, or organization. Our structured dialogues unite stakeholder values with expert knowledge and leadership to produce momentum for real solutions.

In short, CCC turns talk into action.

About Catalyst Community Conversations

Harris Sokoloff at the Restore the Shore forum.

Catalyst Community Conversations grew out of the work of the Penn Project for Civic Engagement (PPCE) and develops, implements, and facilitates public deliberations on important issues. Our role as a neutral, honest broker helps bring diverse perspectives to the work. Starting in 1995, the Penn Project for Civic Engagement worked with political, business, and community leaders to help build bridges to address difficult challenges and create progress. Our specialty is designing and leading innovative dialogues and distilling the results of those dialogues into useful guidance for decisionmakers and stakeholders. We believe rich, textured qualitative data is a vital complement to quantitative data in support of effective decisions. 

PPCE was restructured in the fall of 2018. Work on education-related projects remains at Penn’s Graduate School of Education under the name “Catalyst Community Conversations.” Work on non-education related issues was moved to The Committee of Seventy.

Our work helps stakeholders:

  • Identify and talk about vital issues in their communities and organizations
  • Create insights and solutions for those issues
  • Connect to actors who are responsible for those key issues

The movement from talk to action is an enduring challenge of public deliberation. We structure civic engagement to have tangible impact on civic life—guiding the work of citizens and policy-makers alike.

Turning Talk into Action: How We Do It

We strategically use deliberative processes to bring people with different perspectives together. They work through different experiences, understandings, and viewpoints to reach new insights and solutions. In leading dialogues, we seek to surface the key tensions and tradeoffs that lie within any given issue or challenge, creating an environment in which participants can discuss those tensions and tradeoffs candidly, but civilly and productively, with an eye to building workable solutions. CCC communicates stakeholder input to decision makers using written and oral presentations that provide meaningful guidance for constructive action.

 CCC deliberative forums and workshops lead to:

  • People listening to differing points of view
  • Establishing steps to resolve sticky issues
  • Short-term and long-term goal setting
  • People from a variety of economic and cultural backgrounds participating in structured, constructive dialogue
  • People saying “This is the first time I’ve ever been asked what I think and, I believe, decisionmakers actually heard what I said!”
  • Generating public support for ideas and actions
  • Uncovering the language and ideas that leaders can use to connect their governing visions to public and organizational values

Highlights from our Portfolio of Education Projects

For more information about the projects briefly described below—including copies of public presentations and reports—please contact Linda Breitstein,

Mayor’s Office of Education: School Board Public Listening Tour (2018)

In May 2018, we led five community meetings, called the “Listening Tour,” for the newly-appointed Philadelphia school board members. The community had a chance to meet the new board, and the incoming board had an opportunity to hear directly from residents across the city.

Results: Comments from these meetings provided members of the new board clear information that they used as guidance as they began their new roles.


Community Engagement: Rose Tree Media School District Budget Process (2017)

We conducted four community forums from February 25-28, 2017, with an overall estimated attendance of more than 518 community members. We engaged participants in small group conversations encouraging them to work through realistic choices on how to close the district’s estimated $9.5 million budget gap.

Results:  These forums informed the public about the budget, including where there existed some flexibility, and what trade-offs were possible. We engaged the public in a process that clarified the public’s priorities (not the priorities of individuals, but the priorities of residents when they come together to confront the trade-offs involved in balancing the budget).


Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers (2017)

We supported the Reading Terminal Market, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society of Pennsylvania in implementing a series of dinners focused on bringing diverse communities together for facilitated conversations over dinner. The project consisted of twelve dinners organized into two rounds. More than 500 community members participated in those dinners, each held at the Reading Terminal Market.

Results: These forums brought diverse groups together over food and built stronger, more positive relationships. 


Our Kids…Their Future:   Strengthening Pottstown’s Children and Families for a Brighter Future (2014 - present)

Since 2014, we have worked with the Pottstown School District and their Pottstown Early Action for Kindergarten Readiness (PEAK) program to engage disenfranchised parents and families in the education of their children. 

Results: This work has included creating an ongoing series of community conversations and developing a Family Advisory Committee, which we have trained to design and lead these conversations, as well as develop reports to the Board and administration. 


Community Forums to Inform the Upper Darby School District Budget (2013)

We worked with the Board of School Directors of the Upper Darby School District to develop and implement a process to gather community input into budgeting priorities for the 2013-2014 school year. More than 484 community members participated in four community forums during which participants worked through a set of budget choices facing the district.

Results: These forums yielded a set of values-based guidelines and a set of priorities that the administration and Board used in developing the final budget.


Forums to Inform the Search for the Next Leader of the School District of Philadelphia (2012)

Working in conjunction with The United Way, we conducted a series of fifteen community engagement forums to solicit public comments and discussions of the proposed initial criteria for the next leader of the School District of Philadelphia. 

Result: The School Reform Commission and Search Committee used community input to inform their work, revising the job description and criteria for the superintendent.


The Big Canvas and Confab (2008)

The arts and culture forum series entitled The Big Canvas engaged more than 500 citizens from Philadelphia and the nearby suburbs. The closing event, The Big Canvas Confab, engaged more than 200 people, with state, county, and township elected officials in a regional conversation to develop the basis of a strategy to fund arts and cultural activities.

Result:  A discussion guide for arts and culture funding in the region and policy recommendations to state and city legislators.


Redistricting in the Lower Merion School District (2008)

A project with the Lower Merion School District involved more than 500 community residents in developing values-based principles to guide the redistricting process in the District.

Result: A set of 5 values-based principles that the Board used in its redistricting decisions. 


Camp Hill School District (2006)

Community forums involving more than 150 taxpayers developed the educational and cultural mission and vision for the Grace Millman Pollock Center for the Performing Arts.

Result: A mission and vision statement, including specific design and program ideas, that became the starting point for developing a new performing arts center.


National Summit on School Design (2006)

The American Architectural Foundation convened more than 300 professionals—from the fields of architecture, community development, and education—for this national invitational workshop to work through design, educational, and finance issues for designing schools of the future.

Result: Co-wrote book-length report of the National Summit on School Design.


Engaging Urban Students through Issue-based Deliberation (2005)

The six teachers and 75 students that comprise the Public Leadership and Service Small Learning Community in the Lancaster School Districts spent a year teaching and learning a curriculum focusing on the concepts and practices of public deliberation.

Result: A study of the project’s impact showed a marked strengthening of students' sense of themselves as citizens and public leaders. 


The Franklin Conference on School Design (2005-2006)

More than 400 Philadelphians participated in a public process to develop principles and visions for school design in conjunction with the School District of Philadelphia's capital improvement program. The project focused on three sites around the city that the District was actively considering.

Result: Architectural drawings and site plans for the three sites, along with programming descriptions, were published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.


Project 540 (2003-2005)

More than 17,000 students from 10 high schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey participated over two years in the Penn GSE sites of this national project to involve high school students in identifying issues of concern to them, developing action plans to address one of those projects, and implementing those projects.

Result: Students in each high school successfully implemented projects addressing their concerns, thereby improving their high school experience.


The Bensalem Waterfront Development Project (2003)

Students from Bensalem High School and Penn School of Design participated in an after-school activity in which they developed possible designs for the Bensalem Township waterfront along the Delaware River.

Result: Students presented their design principles and design ideas to the Bensalem mayor, township commissioners, and the public.


Mechanicsburg Area School District (2000-2001)

More than 200 community residents participated in open forums to determine what to do with an old middle school building that was being replaced, as well as the possible reconfiguration of the district’s elementary schools.

Result: A set of building use criteria that the Mechanicsburg Area School District used in making its facilities decisions.


Radnor School District (1999)

More than 100 people from Radnor Township participated in community forums on the family, the environment, and youth policy. In addition to the substantive issues, forums were part of a study to assess their impact on relationships among different stakeholder groups in the district.

Result: Reduced contention between different stakeholder groups in the district. Community forums were used for two facilities projects between 2000 and 2005.


West York District (1998)

Three hundred residents of the West York School District participated in a series of community forums on issues facing the school district, including youth policy and school funding issues.

Result: Increased community involvement in the school district policies, and smooth passage of a previously contentious budget.