Thousands of New Members Across St. Paul – BeNeighbors Outreach Highlights from 2012

What an exciting year!

Thousands of St. Paulites have joined their new local online Neighbors Forums (info) and you can too.

Last January, we announced our outreach campaign to inclusively connect 10,000 neighbors online across St. Paul by 2015.

Our dynamic 10 member, part-time, summer outreach team, led by our Outreach Coordinator Corrine Bruning, hit the pavement in late May.

They delivered.

Today, we’ve almost tripled our forum memberships to just shy of 6,000 (up from 2,189 on Jan. 1) across the full network of St. Paul Neighbors Forums.

Our goal is to lead a respectful and meaningful effort that reflects the vibrant diversity of St. Paul as the city approaches 50% people of color. We will not just recruit the easiest-to-reach people to achieve 10,000 neighbors online.

No one in the world has attempted a local online civic engagement effort at this scale with this level of inclusive outreach seeking such a great diversity of participants. The support from the Knight Foundation and our partnership with the City of St. Paul is just the start of a lesson generating effort for all communities interested in civic technology that raises new and diverse voices. Building community bridges across race, ethnicity, income, generations, political perspectives, and more is important and challenging work.

Building Diverse, Lively and Compelling Forum Engagement

Donna Evans is our African-American “grandmother” and the Summit-U volunteer Forum Manager for E-Democracy.  This summer, Donna worked with our Outreach team going door-to-door to connect with neighbors and invite them to our forums.  Donna worked with youth baseball coach and outreach team member Vang Yang, who recruited his baseball team of 11 and 12 year olds to help.  These youth were able to help Donna by translating in Hmong, as the team went throughout the neighborhood.

“Working with these young people and seeing them connect with the Hmong-speaking community in a way that I could not, brought to life the importance of building connections and reaching out to people where they are.” – Donna Evans

Donna’s rewarding experience of working with these Hmong youth culminated in late summer when the team assisted her in her own personal journey.  Nearly six years ago, Donna was living in her truck and on friends’ couches after a house fire left her homeless.  Near the end of this summer, with the help of some of Yang’s team, Donna moved into her first permanent housing since the fire.

“These youth, at such a young age, understand the importance of building community. Their desire to connect with their neighbors and to help me in building my community, is what E-Democracy is all about.” – Donna Evans

If we want to build virtual connections that build bridges in real community, we first need to reach people where they are.  Second, we simply need to ask. We can’t let fears about the digital divide or concerns about someone’s ability to speak English stop us from giving people the opportunity to decide if an online local community connection is relevant and useful to them. By creating an outreach team made up of community members already connected to their local and cultural communities, we not only give neighbors the opportunity to say “yes,” but we instill a sense of trust and comfort in what our online forums can offer.

Walking the talk of inclusion and diverse community outreach is hard work that takes real resources.  We have the Knight Foundation to thank for setting in motion the nation’s largest locally concentrated effort to inclusively connect neighbors online.

What We’ve Achieved – By the Numbers


St. Paul Neighbors Forum Growth

  • Recruited over 3,600 new Neighbors Forum members across St. Paul—Up 266% to almost 6,000 members from 2,189 at the start of grant on January 1. This number above does not include the over 1000 memberships on our long-time citywide online town hall for St. Paul.
  • We now have over 16,000 forum memberships across the Twin Cities on all forums. St. Paul is catching up to Minneapolis, where the combined neighborhood and citywide number is 9,200+ members today. We are seeking support to extend inclusive outreach across Minneapolis. It works.
  • 3,000 members signed up in-person through door knocking and across 129 different outreach events. Our part-time, 10 member Summer Outreach Team, spoke six different languages and each worked about 15 hours a week. They recruited:
    • 917 new members by door knocking in 20 targeted areas; 132 individual assignments
    • 692 new members at 39 community events
    • 340 new members at 28 community locations (tabling at libraries, etc.)
    • 182 new members at 10 National Night Out sites
    • 89 new members at 4 ethnic soccer games
    • 76 new members at 12 community meetings
  • Over 10 new forums launched across St. Paul’s, including the very diverse East Side, North End, and West Side areas. Central Corridor forums were bolstered and are among our largest with Frogtown, the most diverse and lowest income area of the city, now reaching almost 800 members. Some neighborhoods host their own forums on Facebook, YahooGroups, etc., which we also promote through our “Got Milk?” style directory.
  • Gathering diverse neighbors into a unified virtual room is only the beginning. Making the experience useful, relevant, and reflective of the diversity in that room is our current focus. The evaluation of our previous Inclusive Social Media pilot supported by the Ford Foundation shares lessons in-depth that are guiding our work. Stay tuned for a future blog post on our forum engagement and volunteer development strategies.


Thank You Team

You made a real difference for people of St. Paul that will have an impact for years.

You’ve also inspired deliberative democracy and civic technology projects around the nation to explore ways to step up their inclusion efforts. In October, we shared lessons in Seattle at a community event and at the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation. Our view is that it is not good enough to build a good “civic app” that in reality ends up being used almost exclusively by those “who are already show up.” Expanding social benefits and generating new social capital is a challenge the engagement and technology field can tackle together if we capture and share lessons from outreach efforts like we had this summer.


We are excited to announce that Will Howell and Donna Evans from our summer team are still with us on a part-time contract basis. Stay tuned for future position announcements for diverse community forum engagement and our next wave of field outreach as we innovate further in 2013.

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