Avi Viswanathan

Welcome Avi Viswanathan


Portrait of Avi Viswanathan

Interviewer: With us today, we have Professor Avi Viswanathan. Over the last 15 years, Avi has held various positions in the nonprofit, public, and philanthropic sectors. Avi currently serves as the Director of Inclusion and Community Engagement for the Minnesota Historical Society. Prior to that he served as the director of the Community Engagement Institute at Nexus Community Partners and as a Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellow with the (Archibald and Edyth) Bush Foundation in Saint Paul, MN. He holds a bachelor's degree from Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA, and a law degree from Suffolk University in Boston, MA.

Avi teaches APS 6311: Facilitating Community-Driven Leadership and he’s been teaching this course for the past couple of semesters.

Welcome, Avi.


Avi Viswanathan: Thank you for having me. I'm glad to be here today.

Course topics and themes


"I think community leaders really felt honored to be able to be part of a learning opportunity for students and to have their work talked about and highlighted."

Can you tell us a little bit about the course? What are the major themes in your course?


Avi Viswanathan: Yeah, absolutely. Well, as you mentioned, the course title is Facilitating Community-Driven Leadership and the two words community and leadership are the real key themes of the course. It's about learning about what communities are, what makes up different communities, whether it's culture, history, you know, the people, and about leadership in those communities. What does leadership look like to different communities? So, we walk through thinking about what communities the students are from and how they relate to their own communities, how leadership, what it looks like and where it is determined within those different communities. We have people explore their own leadership, their own leadership styles, and talk to and learn about different community leaders.


Do students mostly focus on communities that they live in, or is it kind of a mix where they kind of pick another community that they may be interested in?


It's definitely a mix, but we start with the communities that the students are from, and we start there so that students can think about the components of communities as they relate to what they know and then translate that and apply that knowledge to other communities that they see. So, we really want to start with the self and then build out from there and apply what people know to two different areas or different communities. And we do try to explore and learn about other communities, other than themselves, but it is starting in that core and building out.


What will students explore and expect to learn while taking your course? I know that's kind of a big question.


Yeah, there's a lot there's a lot in there, you know, and just going back to what I was saying about starting with themselves, one of the things that we want students to explore again is their own understanding of communities and what that looks like and can mean. In terms of learning, there's different skills and there's different ways to engage with communities, and so when we think about exploring your own community, exploring yourself, how that applies to other communities, part of the purpose of that is to also be able to build relationships with other communities. And there's certain skills that go into that, whether it's around facilitating conversations, building coalitions, building collaborations, and working in partnership with people. So this course really is a path from understanding how communities work into being able to relate to communities, and part of that is around understanding what leaders and communities are. You know it seems when you're in it, I think, you can see the path, and when you're outside looking at it, it seems like that's a huge undertaking. But students really are walking that path from understanding communities to being able to engage with communities, and one way is by understanding leaders.


Was it difficult for students to reach out to community leaders, or did you find that community leaders were receptive to students and responded to them in a timely manner?


Community leaders definitely were excited to speak with students and to connect with students. One of the complicating pieces for community leaders generally is that they have a lot going on. There's a lot of work in their communities. I think over the last, you know, a year or so we've been in a crisis mode in our communities and trying to support people in COVID. And after George Floyd's murder, there was a lot going on in various communities, and so people who are leaders in their communities were definitely being asked to do a lot, and so that made that connecting and having consistent communications and opportunities to build a relationship with leaders challenging. But when it did work and people were able to connect, it was really wonderful. I think community leaders really felt honored to be able to be part of a learning opportunity for students and to have their work talked about and highlighted.

The Podcast Project

"The conversations were really amazing, to hear how students were able to dive deeper into, in particular, what community means to the people they're interviewing. That was a common theme that was in there, and that's a big theme of the course, so it was great to see that applied."


One of the major assignments you have in your course is a podcast assignment. Can you tell us what students are expected to do in the assignment, and what is the major goal of the assignment?


Yeah, the podcast assignment is a semester-long project. There are different pieces and different components of it that students are working on throughout the process, but ultimately the final goal is to have a podcast interview with the community leader. So, students are identifying a leader within a community that they want to interview. Students do some background research on that individual, their organization, their work, coming up with a set of questions, planning the interview, and then ultimately doing the interview. And in addition to that, throughout the course there are different points where students are building the technical skills to be able to create, record the audio, do some editing, and music. That's part of the whole process. The goal, the main goal from the course objectives and the learning objectives really is to be able to see how community leaders developed as leaders in their own community and what it means to be a leader. You know, the type of work that they see in their communities, what are the important issues, it's really to piece together all the things that the students have learned and apply it or learn about it in a practical, real-life example.


What do you think the podcast assignment brings to the course?


It's about applying the themes and the knowledge that the students have gained throughout the course and seeing a real-world example and a real-life example of how those things—the leadership development and community relationships—came out in this individual, and we want students to be able to explore the themes that they've learned and the things they want to learn more about with this person and in the interview.

I also think it brings a different way of presenting information and the things that students have learned. Instead of writing a paper, students are looking into a different way to present information through an interview, through facilitated dialogue. And one of the skills that students pick up in this course really is about, and we want students to learn about, is facilitation—how to have dialogue with communities and to be able to have that conversation with an individual. It's practicing the skills around listening, around asking meaningful questions, around creating dialogue. So, there's a skill component in terms of engaging communities. They're seeing the example and they're learning a new way to present information.


After reviewing your students' podcasts, were they able to ask questions that are incorporated in the topics and themes for the course?


Absolutely. The conversations were really amazing to hear how students were able to dive deeper into, in particular, what community means to the people they're interviewing. That was a common theme that was in there, and that's a big theme of the course, so it was great to see that applied. I would also add that because this is a semester-long project, we've had the opportunity, I have the opportunity to review students, sort of, what they want to ask, who they want to interview, the questions, the interview protocol, different things throughout the process, so we can work on that. So, there's a couple of checkpoints in there where the students and I can really dive deep into this question about whether or not the interview questions and the conversations are going to reflect the themes of the course. There hasn't been an issue, there hasn't been a problem, like, everyone seems to be able [to do this], but we make sure that we've built in those feedback points and those opportunities for us to check in on that and make sure that the podcast really does reflect what they are learning the class.


What kind of feedback did you receive from students about this activity?


So, receiving feedback from the students has been... there has been some consistent feedback. There are a couple of points that I think were both really great and challenging for the students throughout the process, and it's been really good to receive different feedback from different people at different points in the process, so we can understand where there can be improvements and we're aware of how students interpret different parts or where they had challenges. One of the key pieces of feedback is that it was consistently challenging to schedule the interview with community leaders, and that has something to do with the time commitment that it takes for community leaders and the work that's going on in their communities and some of the challenges around communication. So, the logistics were always an issue and my thought moving forward is that we can probably build in a way to have students come up with more than one person that they might interview and have a couple of options early on. So there were a handful of students throughout the two semesters that we've done this project, where I've had to help them schedule interviews. I think it's, it was actually three students total where I had to help them schedule interviews kind of at the last second or help them find a replacement, and we actually did have one student who we were not able to connect them with somebody by the end, and we had... I asked them to just record sort of a dialogue themselves about what they had learned and to name the things that they would have wanted to learn from from a community leader. So I would say one of the biggest ones that feedback is around [is] the logistics and meetings...


Since students are being asked to work with new multimedia technology, did they run into any kind of technical problems when trying to record edit their podcasts?


Yeah, there have been a couple of technical issues, just a couple, but for the most part, students are able to work through it. I think that may be actually that could be a question for you guys, because you know a lot of the technical support and, Greg, you put together, I believe it was you who put together the instructions for it and all the links to the different pieces of software. And for the most part, honestly, students have not run into big technical problems. There is a learning curve for some students who are not, who don't have experience with this particular, you know, creating a podcast or some of the software that's used, but for the most part, students did really well with the technical parts of it.

Advice to fellow instructors

"I live for that last week of the course where I get to just sit down with my headphones for, you know, 20 minutes, half an hour at a time and just be inspired. It was an amazingly fulfilling part of teaching this course."

Do you have any tips or suggestions to fellow instructors if they are interested in pursuing a podcast activity in their course?


There are a couple of things. One is, for sure, consistently check in with the students. As I was saying, those checkpoints are really important, and reviewing what the students are submitting is really important, because you don't want to let this get too far down the road with this in this semester without making sure that the students are doing the right thing, and doing what they need to do, and have the support. And, really, it's that support piece that was the most necessary for students. There's the parts with the logistics and connecting with leaders, but also that feedback to make sure that students are asking the right questions and thinking about the right topics and helping them move in that direction. Those are opportunities, those are the checkpoints. So I definitely say make sure that you're paying attention in those moments. And then, also, just encourage students to—if we modify the project and, say, pick more than one leader, whatever that might be—encourage students to maintain a level of flexibility throughout it, because those logistical problems are, they’re a challenge, and if we can build in more flexibility to make sure that students can work through those, then we will be better for it.


Are there any other things you want to mention about the podcast assignment or overall teaching the course? Any last comments you have to add?


This project is really fun and I think that the students are more engaged, and it gives me an opportunity to engage. I also just want to say that I have learned a lot from the students and their community leaders that they interview, and I've been inspired by it. Those dialogues and conversations were just, some of them were just amazing and they were with people that I... I've been working in this field and am relatively well-connected, and there are people that I did not know, and so I learned more about leadership in those communities, myself! And I live for that last week of the course where I get to just sit down with my headphones for, you know, 20 minutes, half an hour at a time and just be inspired. It was an amazingly fulfilling part of teaching this course.

Contact ATD

Faculty members who are interested in setting up a podcast project like this for your online course, please feel free to reach out to us using the ATD course assistance form or talk to your program or faculty director about setting up a consultation or redesign with us.