RealTalk for Change Boston

A revolutionary new piece of civic infrastructure for more inclusive public input.

Real Talk for Change is a collaboration between MIT’s Center for Constructive Communication, Cortico, and a growing network of local community groups in Boston. Together, we launched a new civic initiative designed to amplify the voices of Boston community members who are often underheard by current civic processes.

For our pilot program, we trained trusted community leaders to facilitate over 60 small group conversations with residents across the city in the lead-up to the 2021 Boston Mayoral and city council elections. Once captured, our Real Talk Fellows used machine-powered tools to mine over 3,000 minutes of conversation for themes and powerful audio to support them. This analysis was published to an interactive online portal that was made available to the public, in addition to candidates for Mayor and city council. We then surface community voices and perspectives in the media and electoral debate to constructively shape the 2021 Boston election cycle. 

Motivating Context

Real Talk for Change was inspired by the historic 2021 Boston Mayoral election. We recognized that in order to build a better, more equitable Boston, we needed not only bold, new leaders, but also bold, new systems for public input that were more attentive and accessible to those experiencing the most pressing issues. In a deliberate departure from opinion polls and town halls, Real Talk for Change has been facilitating deep and substantive small group conversations with residents across the city. Our ultimate goal is to build a lasting piece of civic infrastructure in which the voice of the public is based on people sharing their experiences of living in Boston. More specifically, we want to amplify the voices of folks who are too often underheard by current civic processes.


Real Talk for Change’s approach brings together age-old methods of facilitated small group dialogue, and community organizing with modern machine learning, data visualization, and social network design. Our technology enables communities to organize conversations across the full diversity of their population, identify patterns of what people share across these conversations, and channel these voices to influence decision making in a more grounded and direct way than ever before. In addition to promoting a more inclusive democracy, this system is designed to encourage cross-community listening as well as to provide improved visibility and accountability between the public officials and the people. A key role of the technology is to provide transparency to all participants. Conversation participants can see how their voices are being used and – through public forums such as media interviews and public debates – see that community concerns are influencing politics. We believe over time this kind of visible action will encourage new voters and build trust between historically underheard communities, local media, and local institutions.