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Groundbreaking Analysis – Inclusive Social Media Project – 60 Page Participatory Evaluation

Written by Steven Clift


Our 2010-11 Inclusive Social Media pilot funded by the Ford Foundation built a foundation for taking our inclusive online engagement work to the next stage. “Knowing” what we are experiencing requires a reflective evaluation.

Led by Anne Carroll, with extensive participant interview assistance from Boa Lee, Julia Opoti, and Marny Xiong, it shares more “ah ha” moments than anything I’ve read related to local civic engagement online period. Dig deep. Go long.

Jennifer Armstrong and Steven Clift contributed to the report and Barry Cohen, Ph. D with Rainbow Research advised us on its design. Thank you everyone who assisted with this report and agreed to be interviewed.

As this evaluation focuses on 2010, it should be noted that in 2011 we focused on dramatically expanding and scaling our inclusive outreach efforts to more neighborhoods and added another 2,000+ plus members across many more forums.

Notably the 2010 focus on “engagement” is extremely relevant to our new 2012-14 project as we scale our efforts to 10,000 participants across all of St. Paul with $625,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation. Today St. Paul is 44% people of color and 17% percent foreign born. In 2010-11 we focused on working with lower income, highly diverse neighborhoods to discover what was possible. Our success is embryonic and we now know far more about the real challenges and seek to meet them.

This project and evaluation has inspired us to take the next step and attempt to establish the world’s most inclusive and diverse network of public neighborhood spaces online over the next three years. Inspired by the exciting online neighborhood movement, frankly almost exclusively linking “the haves,” it is only from understanding and sharing our initial experience that we can hope to gather the many people and organizations needed to build an effort that that truly reflects, engages, and build bridges among ALL the diverse people and communities of St. Paul.

Report feedback, particularly during our online teleconference/webinar gathering on May 16, will directly shape our new effort’s metrics, research, and evaluation.


Inclusive Social Media Project: Participatory Evaluation (2010)

A strategic effort generously supported by The Ford Foundation
December 2011, Final Version Released Online May 2012

1    Executive Summary: Overview and Key Learnings

This section provides an overview of the objectives and methodology for this participatory evaluation, and then highlights key learnings.

1.1     Objectives and Framing

This participatory evaluation of’s Inclusive Social Media project responds to the Ford Foundation grant supporting this work, as well as key goals of E-Democracy’s Strategic Plan. A complete description of E-Democracy’s Inclusive Social Media project can be found on our website at   

The primary objectives of E-Democracy’s Inclusive Social Media project are as follows:

  • Demonstrate that neighborhood-based online forums can and should work in high-immigrant, low-income, racially/ethnically diverse neighborhoods
  • Identify how such success is accomplished
  • Serve as a platform to help improve the success of others pursuing similar goals
  • Increase interest by other funders to expand such efforts

At the beginning of this project, E-Democracy executive director Steven Clift framed our commitment, making clear that within the online community dialogues and spaces we host, with intent we can and should increase the diversity of participation and content by doing the following:

  • Reaching out to and engaging people from communities who are racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically underrepresented on neighborhood online forums[1]
  • Identifying community and cultural organizations and individuals, elected officials, neighborhood organizations, and other local leaders to intentionally contribute more information and conversation to the forums – what we call “digital inclusion for community voices”
  • Moving forums beyond token experiences where the diversity “in the room” is recruited, but silent or essentially ignored

Through this work, E-Democracy hopes to debunk assumptions that people in poverty, of color, new immigrants, and others historically disenfranchised are digitally disconnected or less interested in connecting with their neighbors online than those in homogeneous, wealthy neighborhoods – and instead demonstrate that they in fact bring assets, capacities, information, and agenda-setting value to online civic participation.

To this end, two high-immigrant, low-income, racially and ethnically diverse urban neighborhoods were selected for this Minnesota-based project: Frogtown in St. Paul and Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis.

1.2     Methodology and Program Outcomes Evaluated

Central to this evaluation effort was determining the suitability and value of our approach and methods relative to outcomes – what we can learn from the results to inform our future work and that of others committed to inclusive online engagement.

We chose a participatory approach that relies on the insights and wisdom of the outreach staff, volunteer forum managers, and numerous participants in our Frogtown and Cedar-Riverside Neighborhood Forums, supplemented with simple data analyses of forum posts and posters.

The program outcomes evaluated are as follows:

  • Develop outreach and information leadership-development structures and techniques
  • Increase forum size, diversity, energy, and community-building potential
  • Engage community organizers, community organizations and institutions, and elected officials

1.3 Key Learnings

It could be better. It could always be better. Cedar-Riverside is very diverse, so more voices are needed on the forum.

—Julia Nekessa Opoti, Cedar-Riverside outreach staff

1.3.1     Outreach

We learned a great deal about how to attract and retain forum members in these high-poverty, high-immigrant neighborhoods, and believe these lessons apply across the full range of E-Democracy forums.

  • The fact that our forums are online doesn’t change how people make decisions to participate – or not – in one of our forums. Face-to-face connections, paper signup sheets, and a personal approach are by far the most successful recruiting methods.
  • Building trust is essential. Knowing that “someone like me” is on the forum makes a difference. Personal invitations and direct support help people get started.
  • Understanding people’s needs and then helping them find ways for those needs to be addressed through the forum smoothes the path for their participation and continued involvement.
  • Partnering with respected neighbors and event organizers creates opportunities to participate in community activities and offer people the chance to sign up for our forums.

1.3.2     Content and Participant Diversity and Animation

As discussed in detail in Section 5, intentional content “seeding” by E-Democracy staff, volunteers, or forum members, accompanied by some level of active support and encouragement for participants has a huge impact on content and participant diversity. That combination of seeding and support helps set a welcoming and inclusive tone that in turn increases the numbers of forum member and participants and likely adds to forum stability.

We have also seen that the Frogtown and Cedar-Riverside neighborhood forums have a less intimate feel than some others in the E-Democracy network because they’ve stayed more issue-oriented rather than having a large base of community life exchanges. In all cases we are aiming for that “tipping point”[2] of around 10% of the households, and have to find ways to make that work whether community residents are renters or homeowners. In some cases there have been active exchanges about community life issues such as child care or school choice or safety, and as we discuss in the section on Age, Digital Capacity, and Forum Relevance, there is more work needed to help a cross-section of community members see neighborhood forums as great places to ask questions and share information.

1.3.3     Cultural Competency

Issues around culture, home language, race, and ethnicity are central to all of these discussions, whether around who is reaching out to whom, who posts and who doesn’t, or the content of the posts. Being able to discuss the forum with cultural awareness and in the community member’s home language is essential. In high-immigrant and racially/ethnically diverse neighborhoods, one outreach staff person cannot reach all communities. Building and supporting an active and diverse forum base will increase capacity and forum sustainability. At minimum, everyone involved in outreach or forum leadership must be able to demonstrate cultural awareness and cultural proficiency, and continually evolve on both fronts along with the communities they serve.

Both forums and especially Cedar-Riverside have also been challenged because many of the forum’s posters have English as their second or even third language. And on both forums members not only speak different languages and dialects but also cross cultures, races, sexes, political affiliations, ages, affinity groups, and so on. The understood challenges to email communications are compounded many times when both forum posters and readers are e-talking across such diversity.

There are also complex cross-cultural and cross-gender issues as noted in the Culture, Race, Power – and Gender section, especially when the inherent transparency of an E-Democracy forum post or exchange gives community members information about someone that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Additional and very real dynamics that we did not explore in this project include the high number of immigrants on both forums who may currently or recently have been at war with each other “at home,” as well as the varied and sometimes volatile legal status of some immigrants.

1.3.4     Forum Structure and Leadership

While issues around culture, language, and power are explicitly not E-Democracy’s responsibility, we must nonetheless be aware of and sensitive to their implications on our forums, and consider ways we can design, structure, or run our forums that help minimize or mitigate unintended negative impacts on forum members.

Even that limited scope seems daunting, but we learned that E-Democracy’s forum outreach staff made exceptional headway on both forums by putting in an average of only about 7 hours a week. In addition to these two paid contractors, the neighborhood residents serving as volunteer Forum Managers contributed to this effort. That means the cost of effectively engaging and supporting forum participation – particularly at startup – is extremely low, making it realistically replicable.

We also need to continue providing support as each forum defines its own tone and tenor, style, and energy. Frogtown and Cedar-Riverside “feel” very different from each other, and equally different from other neighborhood forums and the larger citywide forums around them. That is, of course, a positive measure of the localness of these forums, but as each forum settles into its own rhythm it’s not always easy for E-Democracy to discern what is “normal” within that forum community compared to what we’re accustomed to seeing elsewhere.

1.3.5     Moving Forward

Having already shared several lessons, the best insight gained from our intensive outreach and support in 2010 is a much deeper understanding of the potential of our neighborhood forums to increase civic engagement and accountability.

Neighbors told us the forum has provided them with new information and alternative viewpoints. We learned that elected officials pay attention to posts appearing on the forum, even if only a few post. Community organizations that found ways to actively participate found it relevant and rewarding. We believe all of this is a testament to the hard work of community members – those who participate in their forum and who volunteer to keep it healthy, respectful, supportive, and animated.

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 of another way, the success of the forum is circular, where the participation of all members sparks newer, far richer, and increased numbers of conversations, expanding the circle and emboldening all participants.

Finally, while this evaluation of our inclusion efforts in Frogtown and Cedar-Riverside is for 2010, E-Democracy continued to actively support these efforts in 2011 with a substantial additional grant from the Ford Foundation that deepened both our outreach and the sustainability of these forums. In 2012 we were awarded a major grant from the Knight Foundation to fund our three-year Inclusive Community Engagement Online initiative. Current information on all our work can be found at


[1]  According to the “Neighbors Online” report released in June 2010 by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 7% of Internet  users report being members of neighborhood e-mail lists of forums. While Whites and African-Americans participate equally at 8%, those in households making over $75,000 a year are 5 times more likely to belong than those making $50,000 or less (15% versus 3%). Latinos participate at 3%. While there are not data on more recent immigrant groups, we suspect it is even less nationally.

[2] “Minority Rules: Scientists Discover Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas,” Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,, 25 July 2011.




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14 Comments on Groundbreaking Analysis – Inclusive Social Media Project – 60 Page Participatory Evaluation

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