Editor’s Note: Every few months our Community Information and Outreach Leaders with our Inclusive Social Media effort will share their lessons via and update on our Project Blog. This special outreach effort is funded by the Ford Foundation with additional contributions from the St. Paul Foundation for St. Paul efforts. This new digital inclusion to “raise voices” work in lower income, high immigrant/diverse neighborhoods currently focused on Greater Frogtown in St. Paul and Cedar Riverside in Minneapolis, is very unique and yes, it seems people are noticing.
Getting to know the neighborhood in which you will spend an entire year doing outreach is not only a good thing but also crucial to outreach.
There is no better way to get a feel for the neighborhood heartbeat than to spend a few days – an evening, during the weekday or on a weekend – getting acquainted with the businesses, distinct sections/unique neighborhoods and residents in the community.
I had the advantage in Greater Frogtown of having already spent more than two years recently working as a community organizer in the community. I knew who the key organizations and directors were. I knew the names, addresses and phone numbers of resident leaders. I was familiar with the business owners. If you don’t have this knowledge yet or, in my case, your knowledge is a bit outdated, it’s important to schedule several one-on-one meetings with people in the neighborhood. Through these one-on-one meetings, you’ll extrapolate some very critical information that will aid you in your outreach work. These usually last 45 minutes to two hours depending on how much information you want to extract from your interviewee. Find out what issues the community is facing, what people care about and how they currently engage with the community. Get a list of events, meetings or issues you should pay attention to. Most important, ask them who else you should speak with.
You can also use this one-on-one time to market the neighbors forum. Ask them if they are already registered, whether and how often they participate or, if they don’t participate, what keeps them from doing so. Ask them for advice about how to make the forum more accessible and relevant to them and their neighbors/constituents.
Connect the Dots
One thing I was aware of going in is the nature and condition of relationships between the different organizations serving Greater Frogtown, and those organizations and residents or those organizations and businesses. People who hold leadership positions at these organizations have been around for quite some time. They bring a rich historical knowledge of and allegiance to the community. The flip side of that is some of them are also wary of new entities that begin working in the community. Never assume that all the organizations work well together or that they even agree on approaches or solutions to the issues facing the community. Know also that as a (“virtual”) newcomer, you and the work you will be doing would be highly scrutinized. It’s in your best interest that you don’t go into a meeting with an established organization thinking you will get or demand that you get their attention, participation and trust. Those are things built over time and an organization will give you more respect if you let your actions (your work) speak for itself. Being transparent is extremely important and they appreciate that.
Setting Realistic Goals
Now that you know the community better, you can begin to see where your work will begin and you might be better at predicting where the challenges will be going forward.
Identify Your Best Allies
When I began exploring the Greater Frogtown Neighbors Forum and reviewing previous posts, it was my opinion that the forum was not being utilized as frequently as it should even by the people who are gatekeepers in the neighborhood. Once we have established ourselves as the place where these specific neighborhood leaders can connect online, our legitimacy is strengthened and not only will the forum begin to see more traffic and (in due time) a greater number of posts, but I predict we will also start getting the attention of these organizational leaders (the ones who are still watching us closely).
Never begin from square one when someone else has already been there. Find out who the influential residential and organizational leaders are. Here is a tip: when you schedule your one-on-one with them (and you definitely should), ask them to commit to posting once every couple of weeks (or whatever is manageable for them). It is more than OK to flatter someone by saying you appreciate their opinions. The goal is to encourage resident to participate and we need to remember to thank them for being engaged. Telling someone their opinions matter and that their involvement matters does not necessarily mean you support everything they express, but rather it lets them know that you think others might also like to know what they think.
Continue to nurture this relationship by checking in with your allies on a regular, casual basis: send an e-mail to them personally thanking them for starting a rich discussion or sharing crucial information that you did not know about. Operate from the standpoint that you don’t know everything and seek to get those who do know to share what they know.
Build Your Base
Outreach is all about the band-wagon effect. You get your best allies on board and sooner or later, you will also get a few primary organizations involved. These organizations want to be seen and heard wherever their constituents are. If these organizational leaders post, you’ll begin establishing your presence in the community and garnering some trust among participants. (Editor’s Note: We have a start-up web directory of local organizations and links.)
One of my first one-one-ones with was the leader of a new business association in the community. His organization had been strategizing about how to bring in tourism dollars, especially since they feared a planned light rail line in the community would upset business. When I asked this organizational leader how I might make the forum more useful for him, he told me that his organization needed to garner public input about an idea to name a very specific area of the neighborhood as the Little Mekong business district.
Seeding the Little Mekong commercial district topic on the Greater Frogtown neighbors forum was a way to meet this organization’s needs. Greater than that, however, was knowledge about the neighborhood’s history and the general opinions of my “best allies” related to any idea of branding. Resident leaders who had already been participating, as well as the ones I wanted to start posting, responded overwhelming – and within a matter of hours. From my single post, we got nearly 20 additional posts from residents. Best of all, this gave the neighborhood association leader a chance to increase his participation by posting a response to educate forum members.
A goal of the Greater Frogtown neighbors forum outreach in 2010 is to engage Hmong community members. We had a list of Hmong members (see the list of all current 275 members) but very few posts were from those Hmong members. In 2009, another E-Democracy.org outreach leader, Marny Xiong, took the first step of getting e-mail addresses and names of Hmong individuals and signed them up as members of the forum. Getting people to sign up, however, is completely different from getting them to participate.
Complicating that circumstance is the fact that elders in the Southeast Asian community, and Hmong in particular, don’t normally see or use (or know how to use) the Internet as a way to discuss and connect. Young Hmong, however, do use the internet frequently to network and engage in discussions. It is possible to reach and engage the Hmong community through its young people.
This next step involves getting a list from our Help Desk and Special Projects guru, Ed Davis, that contains the e-mail addresses and names of these Hmong folks Marny had spoken to. I also wrote Marny an e-mail to ask her opinion about who she recommends I speak with. I’ll arrange to connect (at random) with some of these Hmong individuals in person (one-on-ones) to gauge interest and compile information about their neighborhood concerns. Greater Frogtown has organizations like the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT) that work with the identified target group. It will be necessary to meet with them too. After this, I’ll start seeding topics that interest them. The bottom line is to be open to new ideas about how others view the forum and how it might serve them best, and then doing your best to make it relevant to them.
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