Four Frogtown Lessons – Trust, Usability, Diversity, Potential – By Boa Lee – Community Outreach and Information LeaderWritten by Steven Clift
This blog post marks the conclusion of that year-long effort, summarizing four key points learned in Frogtown:
- 1. Trust and relationship-building is to be highly regarded;
- 2. Model with caution how to use the forum;
- 3. Diverse communities (communities of color and immigrant communities) require special focus and strategic outreach; and,
- 4. E-democracy has the potential to increase civic engagement and accountability.
1. Trust and relationship-building is to be highly regarded
At the beginning of the year, the first project blog laid out how we might build upon the relationships we already had in the neighborhood – with neighbors, businesses and community organizations. We began the year with the intent of continuing to nurture those connections through active listening and partnership – asking others what they needed in a communications vehicle and trying to connect this to what we could provide here on the Frogtown Neighbors Forum.
Yet, we understood the complexities involved with what we wanted to do. We knew most people do not traditionally associate an online forum with civic participation; most people would still consider attending an in-person meeting to be the primary way to get involved in their neighborhood, for example. We did not seek to change or compete with this fact but instead enhance it – providing a medium for neighbors to discuss important issues like the ones explored or debated at those meeting. In 2010, E-Democracy invested in on-the-ground staff – a face or two to an otherwise abstract entity like an online forum – to carry that message to the greater Frogtown neighborhood.
By the end of our pilot outreach project, we returned to some of the organizational leaders we met with at the beginning of the year. While we saw greater participation (posting versus just reading or “lurking”) among a few community organizations, we also noticed that a few never participated at all or rarely posted. The reasons varied but one organization told us they simply were not ready to participate. One organization wanted to preserve the quality and depth of dialogue on the forum by first having solid research and details to share with the community, its executive director said. Another organization we met with began using the forum to regularly post meeting and event announcements. We heard that at one of its meetings, when people were asked how they had heard about the meeting, the majority in attendance said they had seen it posted on the Frogtown Forum.
We have never expected all community organizations to participate on the forum. We know the pressures community organizations face and, in particular, their reservations about technology and online forums – chiefly that with their base in a lower income neighborhood not all of their constituents are online. We have used this past year in service to these organizations – helping to post their meeting announcements on their behalf on the forum. We look forward to having them participate on a greater level in the future and in a manner that is helpful to them.
Residents are the life blood of this forum. They are our volunteer forum managers and most active posters – rightly so, as much of what happens in a neighborhood will be felt by those living in it. This year, we spoke with some of our most active resident participants, as well as with those who did not post as frequently or ever. By actively participating in the affairs of the neighborhood – attending events and meetings and conducting one-on-one outreach – we learned about the communications holes neighbors felt existed. Some forum members told us that if it had not been for our presence in the neighborhood, they would not have known about the forum, nor would they have trusted the forum enough to participate on it. In other words, because people saw us in the neighborhood, they lent us greater credibility.
2. Model with caution how to use the forum
The E-Democracy.org website
Technology is fast-changing. Many people are using the Internet to connect with one another – through e-mail, chat, social networking websites. The forum is one vehicle we hoped communities could use to connect with one another – “over the digital fence” as we like to call it sometimes. With the prevalence and ease of joining and using websites like Facebook, however, comes the expectation of what a 21st century website should offer or look like. We heard from many Frogtown Forum participants that the E-Democracy website simply wasn’t usable.
Many told us they no longer bother going to the E-Democracy website because it is too cluttered (too many links), they do not like the layout of the website or thought the platform “too 1990s” to use. Most told us they only respond and view messages through their e-mails (the default feature of the forum allows posts to appear in a member’s regular e-mail inbox each time a post occurs or as a daily digest). While participating via e-mail is one feature many told us they liked best, it also has some drawbacks. By not visiting the E-Democracy website, people did not know what was happening on other forums; did not realize that pictures or video could be uploaded to the forum; and, we theorize, did not post as often as a result.
We are now working on redesigning the E-Democracy website to increase usability. Some changes have already happened. (Editor’s note: New group home pages and one-click sharing to Facebook and Twitter are just being released). We also took time to explain to people, in person, how to use the website. Had we had more time, we would have also offered free, short tutorial courses at Rondo Outreach Library on how to navigate and use the E-Democracy website.
During our year-long effort, we also hoped to show people the many ways they could use the forum. We attended meetings and events and posted summaries, photos and video. Frogtown is unique in that it is one of few neighborhoods that does not have its own neighborhood newspaper. We found that community members were increasingly relying on our reports as a news source. Some participants told us that because we had gotten so good at posting “news” on the forum, we had probably intimidated others from posting their own summaries, photos or videos. This was clearly an unintended consequence; we wanted to seed topics for discussion – not necessarily become the neighborhood “newspaper.”
Going forward, we must be cognizant that our discussion seeding effort does not become so overzealous. We also have to be clear that our outreach and information coordinators are not journalists and that while discussion seeding can become a “news source” for community members, the forum should really be a place for true engagement where people can discuss community issues with one another in a democratic way, rather than using the forum as a one-way vehicle to share information.
3. Diverse communities (communities of color and immigrant communities) require special focus and strategic outreach
We spoke with many who said they welcomed more voices of the greater Frogtown Hmong community on the forum. This past year, we were intentional in being at meetings, events and locations where we could interact with members of greater Frogtown’s diverse communities. We spoke with many people and collected names and e-mail addresses of people from these communities who wanted to participate; yet, participation and posting in particular from the diverse communities was still below our desired level.
We know communities of color and immigrant communities are online. The most active of them are under age 30. We can make some reasonable assumptions about the low participation rate: issues appearing on most neighbors forums are uninteresting to the most likely participants or we just have not interfaced with those who would potentially engage, etc. Regardless, we must do more. We need to do more research with members of these communities; we should organize focus groups to capture these communities’ needs and their opinions about the forum. One person we spoke with suggested we send a flyer to every household to inform them about the forum. We are currently exploring participating in radio programs and advertising on websites and in publications of these diverse and immigrant communities. There is much more work to be done to reach out and build relationships and trust with these groups.
4. E-democracy has the potential to increase civic engagement and accountability
Having already shared several lessons, the best insight gained from our intensive outreach in 2010 is clarity in the potential of the neighbors forum to increase civic engagement and accountability. We learned that elected officials pay attention to posts appearing on the forum, even if they do not post. Neighbors told us the forum has provided them with new information and alternative viewpoints. We believe all of this is a testament to the hard work of community members – those who participate and volunteer to keep the forum alive. The range and depth of conversations on the forum is dependent on forum members’ willingness to share their opinions, ask questions and seek input from people of many backgrounds. Thought another way, the success of the forum is circular, where the participation of all members sparks newer, far richer and increased numbers of conversations, and the circle can expand and become emboldened.
Editor’s Note: On behalf of E-Democracy.org, I want to thank Boa Lee for all of her hard work and dedication this year. First some great news, the Ford Foundation has renewed our grant for 2011. This will allow us to build our Inclusive Social Media work in Frogtown, the Eastside, Cedar-Riverside, and more lower income, highly diverse neighborhoods. Because our pro-active “digital voice for engagement” work for inclusion in such neighborhoods is nation-leading and essentially non-existent elsewhere, the Ford Foundation wants us to package up our lessons to share them around the country. Boa’s excellent blog posts are part of that practical story that we hope will inspire others to bridge the digital civic engagement divide and help direct our own work and expansion. We wish Boa the best as goes to graduate school full-time and joins our ranks of dedicated participants on our forums. – Steven Clift, Executive Director
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