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E-Democracy.org – Project Blog

E-Democracy News: Stories from the Sidewalk – Minnesota Edition

Written by Steven Clift

Stories from the Sidewalk


Message from E-Democracy

Steven Clift, Executive Director and Cirien Saadeh, Communications & Outreach Assistant

E-Democracy spends a lot of time talking about community. It turns out that even the White House is listening.

Our entire team was very proud of Executive Director Steven Clift this past week when he was honored as a White House Champion of Change for Civic Engagement. Check out the blog post and press release here.

Steven headed to Washington, D.C. and the White House because efforts like E-Democracy’s BeNeighbors.org project are changing the way your neighbor and you are engaging in your communities. Our country is only just starting to realize just how important the Internet is to engaging individuals in their community. When you use the forums, you are engaging with your neighbor in what may seem like a whole new way, but in reality is just a new incarnation of what community has always been.

Back in the day, I worked with a wonderful woman named Susan who ran the blog Poultry & Prose. She spent a lot of time defining community without ever mentioning the word “community.” Community was the small town laundromat, the no address post office, the gravel pit/pond that’s been in the family for a generation but nobody in town remembers it, the not-so-local drug store, the bus ride to school, the tips for reusing everyday goods. Susan lived in what I fondly call “the Middle of Nowhere, MN.”

I, however, am a suburban girl with the adopted homes of Highland Park, Saint Paul and Cedar-Riverside, Minneapolis (yes, I willingly crossed the river). To me, community happens when we experience the corner coffee shop, the cafe a few blocks away, the familiar face on the street, and yes, the strangers too, and when we miss the old willow tree that’s not there anymore.

If there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that community is one thing—us together and alone doing our thing, respecting each other, crying, laughing, arguing, barbecuing, discussing the serious issues—that looks like a million different things.

You may have joined the E-Democracy forums at an event. You may have joined because one of our summer outreach staff knocked at your door and asked you to join. Whatever the reason, when you joined the forums three great things happened:

First, you joined an extension of your community.

Second, you connected with those on the forums and those that make the forums happen from Steven Clift and Corrine Bruning to Chia Lor and Donna Evans.

Third, you made a new and powerful commitment to engaging in your community in a whole new way.

If you’re in St. Paul, that same summer outreach staff went to your door with the express intent of getting you engaged via our BeNeighbors.org project. We know that in order to fully engage communities, we have to include the whole community. The disappointing truth is those who use the Internet and forums like these tend to be middle-class, white, and middle-age or younger. That means the communities of color and low-income communities, who help make Saint Paul such a fabulous city, are less represented. We’re trying our best to make sure that our forums truly engage everyone that calls Saint Paul home.

With over 3,600 new St. Paul forum memberships in 2012 and at least 3,000 more expected by the end of the year, well over half will be signed up in-person by summer outreach team members. They are awesome, and combined with the new forum engagement team working to build online conversation exchanges in St. Paul’s lowest income and most diverse neighborhoods, together we are building the nation’s (if not the world’s) most inclusive local online community engagement network.

Our e-newsletter reaches up to 20,000 folks in 100+ countries and the highlighted work in St. Paul is meant for everyone as we seek to buck the trend that the Internet is pretty much for the same folks who’ve shown up in civic and political life in the past with those same new and less-represented voices under heard or ignored. We know that if we can change that trend in St. Paul, together we can raise new voices in neighborhoods everywhere.

We named the newsletter “Stories from the Sidewalk” because the sidewalk—literal or digital—is an often used space for neighbors to connect with each other and talk about their communities. We’re hoping that you’ll take a moment to check in with us on our sidewalk and let us know your thoughts.

We also hope that you enjoy this newsletter and newsletters to come. And we want to thank our funders. This year, thanks to funding from the Knight Foundation, the Bush Foundation, and the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, as well as essential forum member donations and new forum sponsorships from local businesses, we are doing more than ever. We look forward to communicating with you more frequently.


On the Blog: Local Work Gains National Attention


 Upcoming Events

  • National Night Out – Will be held on Tuesday, August 6th this year. It’s a national tradition with strong roots here in St. Paul and Minneapolis. Last year, the City of St. Paul was named #1 for St. Paul’s number of National Night Out events in 2012. Contact your local district council, block club, or neighborhood forum for information on your National Night Out event.
  • Community Garden Day – On August 10th Gardening Matters will be hosting Community Garden Day. It’s a great chance to tour local community gardens, meet local farmers, and learn how to get involved and grow your own fruits and veggies.
St. Paul Police Chief Tom Smith grills some tasty burgers and asks you to
“start your own party” in this fun video message from St Paul Communications Services.

Stories from the Forums—Christmas in Corcoran

Just before Christmas, a family in the Corcoran neighborhood of Minneapolis was burglarized. Unfortunately, this was also just a few days before their daughter’s seventh birthday. Martha, a Corcoran Neighbors Forum member heard about the robbery in her neighborhood and turned to the forum for help. Within three days, the neighborhood worked together, buying gifts for both Christmas and the daughter’s birthday. Afterwards, Martha shared this post on the forum:

“Thank you everyone who responded to our Corcoran neighbor that experienced a robbery. I was able to deliver 4 bags of gifts for mom, dad and daughter that people donated; as well as some for daughter’s birthday. Gifts came in all shapes and sizes: gift cards for Target, Cub and Riverview Theater, free entrance to Mall of America attractions and rides, 2-3 hour face painting gig for a kid’s party sometime in the future, books and many more things. Because I’ve known them over time we were able to talk in depth about the decision of where to “keep” money. We had cash donations of $130 and dad and I drove to the bank and deposited the money so the money would not be in the house. They were incredibly appreciative and thankful. They said when their daughter saw all the presents she said Santa had come and it was magic! I love this neighborhood and you all as my neighbors. Thank you for your generosity.” —Martha Bird, Corcoran Neighbors Forum

This story is a great example of what can happen when neighbors are connected to one another. They look out for each other, come together to solve problems, and reach out when someone is in need.

All across our forums, stories like this are being shared and we’d love to hear yours. Share your story by emailing it to stories@e-democracy.org. You can also support your forum by making a donation on our GiveMN page.


Becoming a Community

Cirien Saadeh, Communications & Outreach Coordinator

Just what is community? Community is family, friends, your alumnae class, your karate class, and your co-workers. It’s also the neighbors down the street, the neighbors up the street, the neighbors on the other street, and you.

Community is when you watch your neighbor’s house, mow the lawn, or grab the mail because they’re out of town. Community is the annual neighborhood block party. Community is something tragic has happened and you come together to support each other. Community is sharing joy and sorrow, excitement and frustration, with those who can understand the circumstances and experiences you’re sharing.

Earlier in July, our staff got together for a summer picnic. Many of us brought foods we had grown up with, we played several games, and a few of us even brought family members along. It had been an incredibly busy summer and an incredibly busy week for us. We have been out almost every day signing people up for the forums door to door and at events. Our picnic was a phenomenal opportunity to walk the talk.

E-Democracy is all about building community in neighborhoods. We hope that you use the forums to reach out to your neighbors and that your E-Democracy forum is a space for you to building community together. If we can help, please let us know.


Volunteer Spotlight

Jocelyn Sweet, Volunteer of the Month

Jocelyn is the Forum Manager for St. Paul’s West Side and an experienced community organizer. She was picked to be our first Volunteer of the Month, because of her deep commitment to building St. Paul’s West Side community. In the past, she has worked to support young families and local communities of color, and she now works in foreclosure counseling.

Jocelyn has plenty of ideas for both building the forums and building community:

  • Post to the forums! The forums need multiple voices to truly represent the diversity of St. Paul.
  • Host community events that inspire diversity and growth.
  • Use community resources to develop and support community programs that benefit your community.
  • And, finally, nominate another Volunteer of the Month, post your nominations to your forums and let us know why!

Jocelyn demonstrates the kind of leadership St. Paul needs!


Field Notes

Since June 13th, our summer outreach staff have:

  • Collected almost 600 sign-ups resulting in over 450 new forum memberships to-date.
  • Outreach veteran Donna Evans has collected the most sign ups with over 200 and Chia Lor running a close second with over 150.
  • June 20th was our busiest day. It took every single staffer to cover three events: Rondo Days, Highland Fest, and Como Fest.
  • Since mid-April, our forum engagement team has participated in over 150 conversations engaging the cultural communities of Saint Paul.

Digital Inclusion Update

BeNeighbors.org—Creating more informed, active, and connected neighbors and neighborhoods

Jennifer Armstrong, Project Coordinator

A lot of words get bandied about to talk about how we can work together to co-create thriving neighborhoods through the E-Democracy Neighbor forums …and sometimes we get push back for some of them.

“Digital Inclusion? I don’t want to be part of anything racially motivated.”

“You’re focusing your efforts on culturally diverse and lower income communities? Why would I want to be part of that?”

The answer is, because it’s important. And we’re extremely fortunate to be doing this work—intentional outreach and online civic engagement targeting the full spectrum of community members—here in the Twin Cities. According to the Knight Foundation, “Ultimately, success at making democracy work and sustaining healthy communities requires engaged individuals, organizations, and institutions.”

Healthy communities are places where children and families thrive. Schools are good, streets are safe, parks are clean, wage-earners are employed at businesses that are prospering, people have the resources to support quality of life pursuits beyond meeting basic needs, and local government services reflect the will of the people who endorse a stable tax base. But how do we know the will of the people?

It used to be these conversations happened only at public meetings and local gatherings among a limited group of people with shared social capital: white, male, educated, upper middle class. Decisions were made by a few for the many.

But with the advent of the Internet it doesn’t have to be that way.

Steven Clift coined the term e-democracy in 1994 to refer to how we use information and communications technologies to inform the public agenda.

In 1998 the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) analyzing telephone and computer penetration rates that introduced the Digital Divide.

Since that time, we’ve evolved in our understanding of what it means to use online technologies to build thriving communities.

  • The term Digital Divide refers to the differences between populations based on demographics and geography that have Digital Access. Originally used in a binary “on-off” way—either you had access or you didn’t—today, there are more variations from describing speed (dial-up to high speed), to equipment (desk top, lap top, notepad, mobile devices, etc.), to connecting points—at home, work and public facilities such as schools, libraries, and publicly accessible computer labs.
  • Digital Tools and Digital Technologies describe the equipment, the desk tops, lap tops, notepads, and mobile devices previously mentioned, as well as the “Apps”—an acronym for the software applications developed to run the equipment so as to accomplish results.
  • Digital Literacy refers to skills people develop to effectively use Digital Technologies and Digital Literacy Training refers to the programs created to deliver the training people need to develop those skills.

Getting Digitally Connected in the Twin Cities

Do you have a Twin Cities neighbor without Internet access? Print this brochure for them!

And as researchers further investigated the Digital Divide they began to talk about Digital Differences in terms of how people access and use the Internet and Digital Disparities to describe the Digital Inequalities between how different populations of people have that access and how they’re using the Internet for various purposes.

And yes, there are Digital Inequalities when it comes to how populations of people use the Internet to inform the public agenda.

According to the April 2013 Pew Internet report, 34% of all adults participated in online civic communication and 39% participated in civic communication offline in 2012, but:

  • 47% of households making over $75,000 per year participate this way compared to 24% of households making less than $30,000
  • And when looking at race/ethnicity, while 38% of Whites participated in online civic communication, only 23% of Blacks and 17% of Latinos did so

The racial gap in “learning about a political or social issue” is less than with other measure where 46% Whites, 38% Blacks, and 34% Latinos did so. However, “taking action” based on what was learned about an issue has an almost 2 to 1 gap by race with 20% of Whites taking some kind of action compared to 12% for Blacks, and 11% Latinos.

After nearly two decades, we continue to see those who already “show up” dominating online community spaces.

E-Democracy seeks to demonstrate that all communities, regardless of income and diversity, can be part of an integrated neighbors online revolution. We focus on less represented groups within our most highly diverse neighborhoods to create inclusive online spaces where neighbors can collaborate to improve neighborhoods, spark community problem solving, and build healthy communities. With the recent Central Corridor Funders Collaborative (CCFC) award we hope to build on and extend the Knight-funded inclusive engagement we’re doing in Saint Paul to promote the equity goals of the CCFC.


How to Get Involved

Corrine Bruning, Outreach Manager

E-Democracy is your not-so-average, locally-based, internationally-recognized nonprofit. First of all, while we do hire a paid staff, it’s a fantastic group of great volunteers who keep things going. (Give them a round of applause, please!) Secondly, we only exist because we have community members like you using the forums. Thirdly, everything that makes the forums an important community tool is because people are able to talk to each other. With that said, here’s a few ways we can be mutually beneficial to each other.

Top Four Ways to Get Involved

  1. Be active on your forumActively model how these online spaces can be used to connect with your neighbors and to build a stronger community. Help with this by sparking conversations about local issues, inviting folks to upcoming events, or asking your neighbors join you for a pick-up ball game or to work on a fun project like a community garden with you.
  2. Tell your neighbors/friends about your forum experience Word of mouth is one of the best ways for your forum to grow and become an even better community resource. If they know how you use it and what you like about the forum, your friends and neighbors could be building community online too!
  3. VolunteerWe have a number of volunteer opportunities. If you have a special skill you’d like to utilize or if you want to be an integral part of building community in your neighborhood, please let us know!
  4. DonateLast, but certainly not least, you can help with a tax-deductible donation. As a nonprofit, we’re committed to work that supports the community as inclusively as possible. E-Democracy’s work has been successful with great community members, but it takes money, too. Help us continue this great work by making a donation today.

Welcome to E-Democracy!

Get Started!

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♦  Start a forum in your neighborhood!

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4 Comments on E-Democracy News: Stories from the Sidewalk – Minnesota Edition

[…] – I’ve been recognized as a White House Champion of Change for Open Government (see the Minnesota edition). The main newsletter is written by our awesome team. Did I say awesome? Yes awesome. Check-out our […]

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