MIT’s ‘Real Talk’ campaign gives likely voters a voice in Boston’s race for mayor




By Meghan E. Irons

For the past several months, Boston residents have heard a lot from the candidates running for mayor about their aspirations for leading this city.

But on Monday, a half-dozen residents came together as a part of a new civic engagement campaign, aimed at refocusing the narrative and giving voice to regular people, especially those who feel ignored.

The effort, called “Real Talk for Change,” was launched this summer by MIT researchers, who have enlisted community facilitators to convene roughly 600 residents from different parts of the city to share their stories—and dreams—about the future of Boston.

“We see this as the first step to building what I like to call a new civic infrastructure,’’ said Ceasar McDowell, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor spearheading the effort. “We need new ways to do democracy in this country that are really about honoring the experiences that people have on the ground.”

Targeted community conversations in the run-up to an election are not new. But MIT’s approach combines grass-roots dialogue with modern technology.

The conversations, held either in person or online, are recorded and uploaded to a data dashboard on a system called Local Voices Network that allows users to hear, search, and highlight the various discussions.

MIT’s artificial intelligence tools organize the conversations, matching voices with transcripts. They identify patterns and trends in the conversations. The aim is to allow the candidates, or any user, to really listen to what the participants are saying.

The organizers said the technology provides transparency, allowing participants to see how their voices are used and, through public forums and the media, see that their voice can influence the election process, said McDowell, professor of the practice of civic design at MIT.

Over time, he said, this kind of visible action will encourage new voters and build trust between marginalized communities, the media, and local institutions.

One of those conversations took place Monday in a meeting room in Back Bay’s Loews Hotel, where six participants sat around a table. McDowell asked them to craft a question about what they see as the future of Boston and their place in it. Then he urged them to explain how they arrived at their question.

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