Gary Sheng
Co-Founder, COO
The Civics Unplugged Fellowship community
Slack-powered community rituals - The Civics Unplugged Fellowship community
Civic engagement / democracy reform

There are many challenges associated with virtual community building. When your community is distributed across many locations instead of a single location, rapport must be more deliberately built. Community reflection threads are a simple invention the Civics Unplugged team employed to build rapport between high schoolers in an entirely virtual learning community.

Civics Unplugged is a 501(c)(3) social enterprise and digitally-powered community that provides leaders of Generation Z training, funds, and support to build the future of American democracy.

In January 2020, we launched the CU Fellowship, which is our six-month, digital-first leadership program through which 200 exceptional high school-aged leaders (14-18 years old), representing every region of America, come together to learn systems thinking, personal development, and participatory democracy.

The Fellowship culminates in the Fellows coming together in June 2020 to launch “Civics 2030,” a national campaign to mobilize funds and support for leaders of Gen Z to spearhead projects that strengthen American democracy.

What challenges did we at Civics Unplugged knowingly take on in creating an entirely virtual Fellowship program for high schoolers around the U.S.?

In 2019, when we talked to prospective partners and donors about our plans to launch an entirely virtual civic leadership development program for high schoolers (14-18 years old), we got a lot of funny looks.

It’s widely known that when it comes to online courses, it’s not easy to keep students engaged. It’s not easy to prevent people from dropping out. It’s not easy to help students build rapport with each other.

While this case study won’t touch on everything we have done to address these challenges, it will touch on one of the most effective recurring experiences we have built into the program: “Community Reflection Threads.”

What are “Community Reflection Threads” and how did they help build the Civics Unplugged Fellowship community?

Community Reflection Threads are a ritual we have practiced in the Civics Unplugged community every day since January 15, 2020 to encourage contemplative practices and authentic member-to-member conversation.

Every morning, a Civics Unplugged team member posts a Community Reflection Prompt in the #general channel on the Civics Unplugged Fellowship Slack workspace.

Past prompts have included a wide range of questions including:

  • “Name a favorite scientist or inventor of yours. What did they or do they do?”
  • “What are three things you are grateful for today?”
  • “What is one thing you’re excited to do today?”

Fellows are asked to leverage the Slack thread feature to reply to the prompt, so all the replies are in the same thread.

Fellows have shared with us that the Reflection Threads have helped them:

  • Learn more about and bond with their peers,
  • Open up and get more comfortable sharing out loud,
  • Become more comfortable engaging in other contemplative practices.

On any given day, about 20% (40 students) participate in these threads. Different prompts inspire different groups of students to participate.

This is what our members say about these Reflection Threads::

  • “Community reflection threads have helped with my experience in CU first by providing a reliable space/time for me to interact with other fellows on Slack. It’s one of the reasons why I check the CU Slack daily because I know something will be there. I love scrolling through people’s responses because it helps me get a better idea of who else in this community, who shares common interests/has had common experiences, etc.” – Ashley from Vancouver, Washington
  • “CU’s community reflection threads have helped connect a 200 member community by connecting people with similar interests, like people who play jazz instruments or debate and building those one-on-one friendships. It also helps members share knowledge with one another about all sorts of things, like science and literature and movies. It expands our perception of the world by showing us how different members of the community live and think and consume media, but also unites us by sparking conversation about our different ideas and creating a tradition among us.” – Iris from Fairfax, Virginia
How do you write or pick a good Community Reflection Thread prompt?

Writing or picking a good Community Reflection Thread is more of an art than a science.

As you consider running your own Community Reflection Series, note that here are a few types of prompts that we have found to generate high member engagement:

  • Prompts that tie into current events.
  • Prompts that tie into the community’s culture, vision, or values.
  • Prompts whose answers can provoke surprise/awe/excitement.
  • Prompts can be answered by just about everyone in the community.
  • Prompts that inspire forward-thinking and faith in humanity.
  • Prompts that inspire members to share interesting content.

Note that the above is not a definitive list of criteria to consider, and that it’s usually better when a prompt satisfies multiple criteria.

Prompts you want to avoid include:

  • Prompts that ask Fellows to access a dark place; the rest of the world encourages them to do that enough.
  • Prompts that would be hard for a member of a particular gender to answer.

A list of all the Community Reflection Threads so far can be found here:

In case you want to get in touch.

Contact for help on starting community reflection threads.