History of E-Democracy

E-Democracy has been a consistent pioneer in online civic engagement work in local communities for nearly two decades. We began in 1994 by creating the world’s first election information website, powered by volunteers. These key milestones shaped our history:

  • 1994 – World’s first election information website. First online candidate debate. MN-Politics online forum launched creating longest lasting statewide online citizen-to-citizen discussion active to today.
  • 1995 – Our statewide “online town hall” takes hold and E-Democracy becomes a trusted, neutral, nonprofit host of dialogue among people with differing views and backgrounds
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  • 1996-97 – E-Democracy invited to share lessons starting in Sweden, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and more
  • 1998-99 – The Minneapolis Issues Forum and St. Paul Issues Forum took the online town hall model local. More women, elected officials, and active citizens participate
  • 2000 – Winona Community Forum launched; global Democracies Online Newswire promoting civic participation online grows to 1,000 members
  • 2001-03 – E-Democracy receives Minneapolis Award from Mayor R.T. Rybak, the John F. Finnegan Freedom of Information Award, and is listed among the 25 Who Are Changing the World of Internet and Politics
  • 2005 – British government funds pilot forums and “how to” guidebook for the UK; E-Democracy receives Honourable Mention for online communities in the Ars Prix Electronica Awards in Linz, Austria
  • 2006 – E-Democracy receives Minneapolis Foundation MSNet Fund planning grant for inclusive Minneapolis neighborhood forums targeted to lower income, highly diverse, high immigrant areas; lead founder Steven Clift’s election to the Ashoka Fellow fellowship for “leading the way to healthier democracy by using the Internet for local discussion and citizen participation” allows him to focus on the nonprofit full-time
  • 2007 – Bristol and Oxford neighborhood forums launch; E-Democracy blog starts; MSNet funded Neighborhood Forums Project starts; Minnesota Rural Voices project launches with Blandin Foundation support; Forums launch in Minneapolis in Cedar Riverside, Roseville, Seward, and Standish Ericsson neighborhoods, and in Las Vegas, Nevada
  • 2008 – New forums include Twin Cities: Minneapolis- Northeast, Powderhorn; St. Paul- Frogtown; Greater Minnesota- Bemidji, Cass Lake Leech Lake, Cook County, Grand Rapids, Minnesota Voices online community of practice; UK- Bristol: Brislington, Greater Bedminster; Oxford: Cowley, Headington and Marston, Central and Southwest
  • 2009 – PACE, in collaboration with the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, features E-Democracy in the guide “Funding and Fostering Local Democracy: What Philanthropy Should Know About the Emerging Field of Deliberation and Democratic Governance;” new forums include St. Paul- Highland Park and the United States Issues Forum
  • 2010-2011- E-Democracy receives a multi-year Ford Foundation grant to deepen inclusive – serving lower income, strongly immigrant/diverse neighborhoods – online forum engagement in the Cedar Riverside and Frogtown neighborhoods and to prepare for expansion; Digital Inclusion Network, Locals Online, and other online communities of practice launch
  • 2012-2014 – Major Knight Foundation funding received to expand inclusive online community engagement to reach 10,000 forum members across St. Paul and to share lessons nationally. Minneapolis forums in Standish Ericsson and Powderhorn cross 1,000 members each and connect an estimated 25% of local households daily. E-Democracy in collaboration with Code for America, serves as the host for Open Twin Cities, an open government civic technology meetup and network.
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  • 2015 – 2016 – World’s most comprehensive “neighbors online” participant survey results released showing many reason why forum members love their forums.  E-Democracy transitions to self-sufficiency doubling the number of individual donors to support forum hosting and support 100%. Contracts with the Kettering Foundation to lead experiments with their Common Ground for Action online deliberation platform and with UK-based mySociety to grow the global Poplus.org to over 80 nations in their online community. As a global convenor, E-Democracy brings their Open Government and Civic Technology Facebook Group to nearly 5,000 members from 120+ countries.

connectedheartCurrently, we have over 40 online forums with over 26,000 members across the globe focusing on inclusive online community/civic engagement. Of the 18,000+ forum memberships in the Twin Cities, over 80% of our participants engage at the neighborhood “community life exchange” level where our funded programming is currently focused. As of today, our story has been told by co-founder and Executive Director Steven Clift, around the United States and in over 35 countries.

Survey Says – 56% credit their Neighbors Forum for increased community satisfaction and more

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While we have more in-depth analysis to do, we wanted to share the top line results from our 1350 respondents. That’s a big pool – about 10% of our individual participants just on our Twin Cities Neighbors Forums (not our city-wide forums or other cities) with active accounts.

If you are new to E-Democracy and our Neighbors Forums (our BeNeighbors.org project), our online neighborhood spaces (combined email/web forum/social network) connect up to 30% of households ~daily in some areas.

Here are our top line results in PDF and responses comparing Minneapolis and St. Paul forums (PDF) (notable differences) – the answer tables for questions 9-12 are most insightful.

connecting-neighbours-online-strategies-for-online-engagement-with-inclusion-london-2013-13-638The questions PDF might be useful for those creating similar surveys for use elsewhere – we spent nearly two years crafting these based on dozens of surveys we collected and gathered feedback along the way including support from Network Impact who was commissioned by the Knight Foundation to work with a number of leading civic technology projects they had funded.

We will add more analysis as it is available here.

Here is some useful background on the three year inclusive outreach project which ended with 2014 funding wise. We even received some White House Champions of Change recognition along the way.

SONY DSCWe used Census data to help target our Saint Paul outreach and our forums use official city neighborhood boundaries which in theory mean Census data can be used in further analysis (we used this data source on neighborhood profiles extensively). We are seeking opportunities to further this extremely unique online inclusive engagement work as part of a research initiative for greater lesson-sharing. Along those lines, our public forum data is generating useful research and leading to academic papers and publications. We are interested in how survey data might be combined with forum data (of course on an anonymous basis) to generate more knowledge on impact and what works.

Some analysis now:

Some compelling results …

Percent of participants who said “as a result of information or discussions on your Neighbors Forum” (Q11) they:

  • 79% are more informed about community issues
  • 67% were introduced to new ideas and views
  • 45% learned more on how to influence community decisions
  • 32% learned more about neighbors of difference races, ethnicities (39% in the lower income parts of St. Paul we targeted for inclusive field outreach)

And amazingly (to us anyway):

  •  56% credit their forum for making them “more satisfied with my local community as a place to live or work.”

In deeper analysis, we’ve found that increasing community satisfaction is an indicator question where respondents on our four most engaged Minneapolis forums credit their forum far more at 70% for increasing satisfaction. For neighborhoods and cities seeking to attract and retain residents including new talent, fostering online neighborly connections appears to be part of the secret sauce “welcome mat” for great communities.

While our funded inclusive outreach makes our network perhaps far more representative than other online civic engagement/online neighborhood efforts, participants are essentially self-selected. To that end, we are excited to share our rough analysis from the 3,000 respondent Minneapolis Digital Inclusion survey which actually allows us to see our forum’s likely direct impact on the population as a whole.

In terms of prompting action (Q12), forums that led “you to do or increase any of the following” the forums delivered (Yes, I did this AND it increased because of the forum):

  • 8.5% more volunteer locally (39% did this already at level not increased because of forum)
  • 11% donate more often to a local charity or cause (43% did this already…)
  • 15% work more with residents to make change (32% did this already…)
  • 16% sign a petition more often (34% did this already…)
  • 17% meet community members in-person more (36% did this already…)
  • 18.5% contact elected officials or government more (32% did this already…)
  • 22% do favors or share goods with neighbors more often (31% did this already…)
  • 28% attend more community meetings (28% did this already…)
  • 41% attend more community events and festivals (35% did this already…)
  • 42% visit a business, restaurant or hire someone recommended on forum more (25% did this already…)

See question 12 for results on what people already did (Neighbors Forums do attract community-spirited people). Separating out those who would have generated social capital anyway without our forum from those who credit the forum with moving the needle on civic engagement is hugely important. Future analysis on the characteristics of forums generating more action will be useful. Future projects that build on these positive outcomes would be exciting the explore.

Emerging analysis

  • Other Platforms – With question 19, it is notable to point out that only 19% of our respondents are members of NextDoor and 29% report being on a private online group/email list for their nearest neighbors. 32% in St. Paul compared to 23% in Minneapolis report being on a public or large Facebook group or other forum outside of E-Democracy for their larger neighborhood. In St. Paul, folks who are both E-Democracy and NextDoor members compared to all E-Democracy members are somewhat less likely to be immigrants or the children of immigrants, higher educated, less likely to be a renter, more white, and higher income. This requires more analysis, but initial results support our concern that without inclusive outreach online neighborhood groups will cement ties among neighbors who are most similar or already socially connected and leave out vital parts of our local communities by the design of their systems even if not by intent. (Mar 3)
  • Gender – Also notable is that 64% of our respondents were female. A 2010 survey by PewInternet.org found a similar gender mix. Notably a recent participant survey of mySociety’s online political participation efforts had the reverse gender mix – it is our view that intentionally connecting neighbors online up into civic participation is perhaps the best path to better representation in civics online. (Mar 3)
  • Word of Mouth Power – Despite the focus on our in-person outreach on St. Paul, more people in Minneapolis learned of their forum offline (44% offline, 38% online) compared to St. Paul (37% offline, 48% online). Why? An active and engaged online civic forum like those in South Minneapolis can spread via community connections face to face. Such invites probably increase trust in the forum building a virtuous circle. Of course this also suggests just how challenging it is to go into new neighborhoods with less existing civic capacity from scratch AND how important it is to do what we did with inclusive intent to go beyond existing ties. In future work, combining our inclusive outreach with our strongest existing forums presents an untapped opportunity for reaching all neighbors with an integration oriented and inclusive bring all neighbors approach (for example Latino outreach in Powderhorn or East African outreach in Seward neighborhoods).Here is a recap on how our participants found out about their forums:
    • St. Paul – 48% Online, 37% Offline
    • Minneapolis – 38% Online, 44% Offline
    • Of those who found out offline:
      • St. Paul
        • Door – 20%
        • Community event/festival – 41%
        • Word of mouth – 27%
        • Community newsletter – 7%
      • Minneapolis
        • Door – 1%
        • Community event/festival – 29% (we did table in Mpls at major/ethnic events)
        • Word of mouth – 66%
        • Community newsletter – 7%

(Added Mar 8)

This article is a work in progress …

Survey Says … (text from our e-newsletter)

The exciting participant survey results are coming in from Minneapolis and Saint Paul with over 1350 responses. They show great comparative success in reaching the broader local community with inclusion in Saint Paul while clearly our Minneapolis neighborhood forums are stronger.(1)

Door to door worked. Community festivals worked.

Working with two awesome summer outreach teams that spoke ten different languages total over two summers was amazing. The dedication and perspiration of young people who once lived in refugee camps in Kenya and Thailand to an African-American Grandmother homeless and living with friends when we hired her was was amazing.

Here is what participants find “very important” in ranked order:

  • Get community news and event announcements
  • Neighbors helping neighbors
  • Learn about local businesses and services
  • Share information or ideas
  • Discuss or understand others views on community issues
  • Get involved in local initiative or causes
  • Meet neighbors and other community members (in-person)

The survey tells us that the more active your forum is the more you are actually satisfied with your community as a place to live. Wow.

Because of your forums directly, more of you attend community events (41%) or meetings (28), visit local businesses or hire neighbors for odd jobs (43%), do favors for neighbors (22%), donate to local groups (10%), contact elected officials (18%), sign petitions (16%) or work for local change (15%), or volunteer in the community (8%). This is above and beyond the many who said they already did these things and did not credit the forum for an increase. Our members are community builders.

In fact, on our four super active forums in South Minneapolis 70% agreed that because of their forum, they are “more satisfied with my local community as a place to live or work.” On our less active Saint Paul and Minneapolis forums, the average who agree with this came in under 50%. Notably however, those who better represent the diversity of Saint Paul that we signed up at their door reported in with one of the highest percentages strongly agreeing with this statement – more so than all but one of our super active forums!

 

(1) Our South Minneapolis forums became well established a few years earlier before the diffusion of local online spaces like Facebook Groups and NextDoor. These new choices divided neighborhood attention and likely attracted the engagement of people in St. Paul similar to those who naturally flocked to our Minneapolis forums and to this day share community content actively. Participants who share – who post useful content are key to engagement. While not all Neighbors Forums in St. Paul today are more limited one-way community announcement services, two-way community discussions and trust-building community engagement on our strongest Minneapolis forums continues to thrive.

 

Key Tables and Charts

Here are someone detailed results. See the full PDF for more including how people learned about their forums specifically.

 

9. How important to you are the following things you can do on your Neighbors Forum?

edemQ9important

 

10. To what extent is your forum meeting your needs? How *satisfied* are you with the opportunity that your forum has provided in the last 12 months to…

edemQ10satisfied

11. As a result of information or discussions on your Neighbors Forum, in the last 12 months…

edemQ11value

It will be very interesting to compare Minneapolis and Saint Paul results related to learning about neighbors across diversity. As our field outreach was only funded for St. Paul and our four most active Neighbors Forums are in Minneapolis, to really test this goal new resources to do inclusive outreach in S. Minneapolis would be crucial. It is our experience that location-based neighborhood connecting, particularly on commercial sites, connect wired, wealthier, whiter home owners most easily and that inclusive outreach requires real intent and resources.

Being more satisfied with their community as a place to live because of their Neighbors Forum tells a big story about about forum quality. Those one our four “super” forums as noted above were far more likely to give their forum some credit. In forums that are honestly relatively quiet (particularly in areas of St. Paul with competing Facebook Groups or Next Door traction) I our view people were more satisfied than they should have been. If they only knew what they were missing from how our active forums really thrive. This question showed the impact of a strong forum versus those not used on a literally an hourly basis to connect the community.

12. In the last 12 months, did something on your Neighbors Forum lead you to do or increase any of the following?

edemQ12domore

Here are open ended survey responses sorted into theme.

Select survey comments/stories sorted by theme:

  • Promoting local festivals and events –
  • Promoting local businesses and service providers –
  • Discussing community issues and happenings –
  • We especially appreciate the neighborhood councils, recreation centers and libraries using the forums –
  • And the connections made between being alert about crime and building strong neighborhoods –
  • And other local issues that matter –
  • Being connected and informed helps us take action –
  • Together, we make things happen –
  • Our ideas get carried forward to committees and local councils –
  • We build strong communities when we meet –
  • That keep us in touch with our humanity –
  • We strengthen our connections when we exchange things –
  • And, together, we care for our companions –
  • And build welcoming communities –
  • And yes, there’s more work to be done –
  • But in the end –

 

Having just completed the participant survey, this is an opportune moment to give a shout out to those who make the forums thrive by:

Promoting local festivals and events –

 

  • Because of this forum my family attended several summer events in the area. Thank you.
  • Events shared are always appreciated and make me feel more involved in my community.
  • Without a neighborhood newspaper the forum has provided basic community happenings, which has improved my sense of community.

 

Promoting local businesses and service providers –

 

  • I think one of the biggest things the Neighbors Forum does is help you when you’re looking for a service. We discovered a new mechanic who we are extremely happy with thanks to the forum. Same goes for our plumber. It’s great to hear the different suggestions and experiences folks have had. Invaluable.
  • As a local business owner, I make an effort to support other local businesses near my own. I try and use the hardware store, gas station, restaurants and other service providers in my neighborhood.
  • I just contacted one person highly recommended for handyman, and discovered he had lived across the street on my block since 1980–the same year we moved here! He’s going to patch our ceiling soon.
  • Our neighbors forum has been celebrating small business in the area. My partner and I are launching our own venture, and it has been so helpful to have community support behind our shop. This has been made possible by the Neighbors Forum, as we meet people that we don’t really “know” but have a mutual affinity for, as they are neighbors, locals who really want us to succeed.
  • I found amazing locally sourced fresh strawberries available the last few autumns by a local farmer only available with E-Democracy.
  • Someone shared CSA options in the neighborhood and I signed up for one and I very much enjoyed it this summer.
  • Finding recommended vendors and service providers has taken the stress out of guessing.

 

Discussing community issues and happenings –

 

  • The forums keep me up to date on the issues of the city, especially the controversies that people want to talk about. They’re the best place to learn about what is going on with proposed developments, vacant lots, city ordinances that impact the neighborhood.  [combined]
  • Even though not all topics are of interest to me, reading them gives me a better understanding of community perspectives other than my own. I believe this to be a crucial component of an inclusive and diverse community.
  • I did learn a little more about the complexity/differences between long-standing community members and newer residents, differences in perception regarding whose voice is “authentic,” “credible,” “legitimate”.

 

We especially appreciate the neighborhood councils, recreation centers and libraries using the forums –

 

  • I work for SENA – the neighborhood organization for Standish & Ericsson. The forum has been a very valuable means for us to get information out to a large part of the community.
  • We were able to get the word out about National Night Out and had lots of participation from the neighborhood.
  • Excellent programs and lectures at the library are posted. I have discovered this is a much better resource than expected.
  • A community member on the Forum read one of my library postings about the Library Card Art Contest. She entered her art piece and it was picked as a runner-up!
  • I like when the police liaison and the neighborhood association chime in on discussions.

 

 

And the connections made between being alert about crime and building strong neighborhoods –

 

  • It has made a big difference to me to know about crime in my neighborhood and how connecting with others can make a difference in how we watch for each other.
  • Being informed and aware of what is going on has made me feel safer and more connected.
  • I think in general when someone shares about crime or suspicious activity in the neighborhood it is helpful. Everyone knows to stay more aware and keep their eyes open for things like that.
  • There was a lot of discussion about the Ray Widstrand incident — very heated at times, with opposing voices being heard, albeit not without some hurt feelings. I felt this ongoing discussion was very enlightening because it gave insight into how differently neighbors from the same community saw this and other negative events that occurred around the same time.
  • A few years ago, when the woman was sexually assaulted in Powderhorn Park at gunpoint, with her children present — the way people in the community organized an event and got the word out through the forum was great.
  • We have helped each other be more aware of increases in specific crimes, and helped each other take precautions against them.
  • We’re not in the safest neighborhood, but when we heard gunshots right outside our house, our friend and neighbor was quick to find the police report and post it for everyone. It made me feel a little safer, just that everyone was talking about what happened, not ignoring it or hiding, or becoming too scared.
  • I attended the open forum on crime at the local police station which was advertised in the forum. The tips on how to make your home, garage, and yard more secure were very helpful. I really appreciated the time and effort of the neighborhood crime specialists to share their expertise with the public.
  • It’s kind of like a virtual neighborhood crime watch. I love knowing what is going on in the area!!  It makes me feel more secure. [combined]

 

And other local issues that matter –

(formerly Campaigns/Elected Officials)

 

  • It really helped me to understand the rationale behind some decisions being made by our local government. It was nice to hear others opinions, both those that agreed with me and those that did not.
  • When I was an appointed official, it helped me stay connected to the community and plugged into their thoughts/ideas, and what was important.
  • It has been a very useful source for information about candidates running for public office.
  • Powderhorn Park hosted a school board candidate forum which was mainly geared toward the Spanish-speaking community. As a white person, it was fascinating to listen to the stories and hear candidates point of view.
  • The discussions about Ranked Choice Voting in St. Paul allowed us to discuss different opinions on that important subject, including a lot of misconceptions.
  • I enjoy reading others’ take on city matters–what our politicians are doing and the progress or lack thereof in the school district.
  • I like it when people who know the facts of a matter can share those facts and change perceptions and the tone of a discussion.

 

Being connected and informed helps us take action –

 

  • I learned about the city’s Adopt a Trash Container program and got one placed in a garbage-strewn area. It REALLY made a difference!
  • I attended several forums/community meetings because of the Neighbors Forum.
  • I went to a local meeting and learned about the plans for the Snelling and University area.
  • I learned about the Library Love Run and Historic Hamline Village and attended a community meeting.
  • It got me to attend a couple of meetings about biking and bike lanes at the NE Library.
  • I heard about meetings concerning the new co-op that I was able to attend.
  • I heard about – and attended – a crime meeting at Matthews Park.
  • I went to the community meeting at the church next to the Arlington library and got introduced to the Youth Ambassadors. I learned a lot.
  • I was prompted to attend a MPRB meeting about “the yard” and to speak at the meeting.

 

Together, we make things happen –

 

  • We were trying to get bike racks installed at the post office. I shared information about the City of Minneapolis bicycle rack program with neighbors and now we have two new bike racks at the post office. [two combined]
  • The city parks department was going to tear down a bunch of trees and make a parking lot in our community and the neighborhood forum announced it and organized a group to make our voices heard and we were successful in stopping their actions.
  • We helped to build the new playground at the St. Paul Music Academy.
  • We helped get the co-op built.
  • I volunteered to help spread the word about the Powderhorn365 Kickstarter campaign, and we used the forum extensively.
  • Our direct neighbor was being cited for junk by a new inspector. Everyone on the forum and many others signed a petition and got them to understand it was garden art. It worked.
  • We used the forum to help spread the word about the privatization of a local recreation center and got over 100 people to attend a meeting with officials. This stopped the process and allowed us to set up a community task force to discuss what a partnership would look like.
  • We used forum to organize group to care for Hamline Park– “Friends of Hamline Park.”
  • The controversial Marshall Avenue median galvanized me and my neighbors, and the forum was instrumental in exchanging ideas and motivating attendance at meetings associated with the issue. The forum helped coalesce support to reduce the proposed length of the median on Marshall at Wilder. [two combined]
  • I have been very grateful to the work and efforts of the folks trying to get MAC to listen to our neighborhood concerns about increased air traffic, decibel levels, and noise/air pollution. They have kept us much better informed about studies, meetings, and issues than the local news.
  • When I saw that the studies on the Snelling Avenue road design were coming to a close, I was able to dig a little deeper into what that meant for our block and intersection, the West side of Snelling and Taylor Avenues. We organized, met, and discussed how the closure of the left turn lanes would affect residents on our block, and the surrounding area. This led to a signed group letter, individual letters, and documentation being sent to the proper MDOT and other government staff involved in this project. As of today, we’ve been told that the project will leave the northbound left turn lane onto Taylor Ave. W. open. I credit e-democracy in alerting us to this important study while we could still have an impact on the outcome. It is important for us to be involved in important decisions which affect our everyday lives in our community. [Edited down]

 

Our ideas get carried forward to committees and local councils –

 

  • There have been discussions about a household hazardous waste site that was going to be placed in the neighborhood and due to a lot more discussion than some local officials expected, it appears such a site will be located in a different and more desirable location than originally proposed.
  • I enjoyed the discussion on the forum about what to do with the old Rainbow store building and brought some of those ideas to the Longfellow Neighborhood Development Committee.
  • I sent an email to the list to explore ways neighbors could work together to make their homes more energy efficient. Several people responded and as a result, a group of us met several times during the year and several homeowners did energy efficiency home improvements. We are continuing this energy efficiency work now through the District 10 Environment Committee.
  • When I was on ParkWatch we posted minutes and Park Board agendas on the forum with opinions of what we thought this meant to the city. This led to the MPRB actually putting their agendas and minutes online and actually announcing newly released agenda on this forum
  • I first learned about some controversial issues (Randolph Ave) in the forum and was able to bring those issues to the MGCC Transportation committee and worked with Ramsey County to provide feedback.
  • Discussions on the forum showed me that I was just as informed on issues as anyone else, so I decided to have more influence on the community by joining the Highland District Council.

 

We build strong communities when we meet –

 

  • I was asked to lead a neighborhood history tour (posted on the forum) that led into two free sessions (posted on the forum) for neighbors to learn how to research their houses’ histories at the Hennepin County library. Forty people got to know each other and talk about their houses. Soon I will invite them all (via the forum) to share their research findings at the Hennepin County History Museum.
  • We organized a book reading with a local author at our house. A lot of people from the neighborhood whom we did not previously know came to the event. A big driver for this was the announcement posted to the forum. A lot of neighbors met each other for the first time because of this.
  • I went on a Seward Walk and met a lot of people from the neighborhood while learning some great history and having a hoot!
  • It was a source of networking for my family and me when we first moved into the Powderhorn Neighborhood and did not yet know anyone. We were able to post about ourselves as a family and offer a gathering for other people interested in meeting for social engagements.
  • I have always liked the “introduction” email that pops up at intermittent times. Sometimes I wish people shared more about where they lived (900 Block of Wilson Ave, for example) because if I “meet” someone on the forum, it would be nice to know how close they are relative to where I live. At times I have taken the next step to ask more about them and say “welcome!”  [Edited down]

 

That keep us in touch with our humanity –

(formerly Help neighbors in need)

 

  • I like hearing about neighbors who help others and make a difference in the lives of others in my neighborhood.
  • A local neighbor with a lot of history died recently and her funeral was announced on the forum. I believe many more people came than would’ve otherwise. It was a great time to catch up with old friends, meet new ones, and learn some fascinating neighborhood history.
  • One of my friends who is getting older needed some help with heavy things, and he found a young person through the forum who was happy to help him. He didn’t know where else to turn.
  • I used the forum to create a list of those in need of snow shoveling help and those that could offer such help.
  • Last year during a huge storm that downed 100s of large trees in the neighborhood there was an outpouring of email exchanges sharing tools and offering help to residents who were affected. Wonderful to see.
  • I learned how quick neighbors are to help one another in times of need.
  • I am new in the neighborhood and had a bike stolen from my yard. A neighbor told me about the forum and when I posted, I think three people offered to lend me bikes if I needed one.  Heartwarming kindness and real neighbors!
  • After the New Year’s building explosion/fire last year, the forum was a great way to see what had happened and to know where/what to donate to survivors
  • I offered up some free worms for composting. Two ladies took me up on the offer so I left containers of worms on my porch for them to pick up. Later I got an email from one of the ladies. She had noticed my concrete front steps were falling apart after the brutal winter. She wanted to pay it forward and she offered to fix my steps for free. I agreed but wanted to learn a skill so I joined her. She told me that her neighbor had taught her the simple fix and she was so excited when I wanted to learn the skill, knowing that I could pass it on to others.
  • There was a call for the high school baseball team needing equipment that really stuck with me. I hope there are more requests from good people doing good things who could use more community support.

 

We strengthen our connections when we exchange things –

 

  • The reuse opportunities have been very valuable. When a neighbor took down a chimney, we were able to salvage them to better our property. They saved on hauling away costs and we saved by not having to purchase landscape materials.
  • I had a friend moving into the neighborhood from another state who was needing support with resources. I was able to help her find items for her home through postings from neighbors who were giving things away.
  • I was able to get a very nice ceiling fan for free because one of my neighbors was giving it away on the forum.

 

    • I have used the Neighbors forum to connect with other gardeners in the community, and we have shared plants. It’s fun to connect with other gardeners and to learn about gardening from people with actual experience in our neighborhood, and the plants I’ve gotten from them have been much more successful than nursery-grown plants.

 

  • I had a lawnmower that I wanted to get rid of and was able to give it to a new neighbor because of the forum.

 

    • I was looking for raspberry bushes and the forum help me find options to transplant from a neighbor.

 

  • I was able to find a free A/C unit for my daughter’s father for his apartment. The outreach from the forum was enormous and fast! I really enjoy the frequency and timeliness in which people share their ideas/post questions, etc. on this site. I visit every day!

 

  • I was looking for a Cherry tree branch to graft onto my Cherry tree. I happened to find the exact variety I needed through a neighbor.
  • I was feeling overwhelmed by yard work and hired a youth in response to his mom’s post. Not only was I glad for the help, I enjoyed connecting with the mom and the young man.
  • I was able to get many perennial plants for the teen program I facilitate at a homeless shelter downtown.

 

  • I have been trying to find a home for Christmas tree that was given to me, and was delighted to pass it along and so relieved to have it out of my house.

 

And, together, we care for our companions –

 

  • I love all of the posts about missing pets. Having lost a pet, I understand how hard it can be. Given our technological advances, it pleases me that we go to the forum before sending a rogue pet to the shelter. Very inspiring!
  • We rescued a puppy and needed to fence off our yard quickly. We posted on e-democracy and within 30 minutes a neighbor offered to lend us his posts and wire fencing and we were able to contain the pup immediately and keep her safe until we could put up a more permanent fence.  
  • We moved in to this neighborhood in March. I posted about our cat who escaped and many helpful neighbors responded and we got him back!
  • A chicken appeared in our yard and we were able to locate the owner via the forum.

 

And build welcoming communities –

 

  • I just moved here from out of state, and it has been incredibly helpful to know that there’s a community of people out there working to make this place a more welcoming, equitable, livable place.
  • We are new to the community so having access to the online forum helped us decide if it was the right neighborhood for our family. We were able to gauge how involved people are and what they do. We are looking forward to participating in this on a regular basis.
  • I enjoy living in a large city, and the sense of community that the forum provides enhances the experience.

 

 

And yes, there’s more work to be done –

 

  • I wish the city council leadership and police had actively used the forum to help us understand the discussions.
  • In the last few elections, even the primaries, I didn’t just feel like I was checking off random names on the ballot based on a few lines of political propaganda written by someone’s campaign manager; some of these people had actually engaged with each other over local issues in a forum that wasn’t carefully vetted and scripted, which too few of our candidates for elected office are willing to do these days.

 

But in the end –

 

  • It’s really inspiring to see how benevolent the community is. I appreciate reading about people taking animals in, or giving away free stuff, or standing up for things.
  • I just love that it exists. It makes me feel connected to the people in my community.

 

 

Facebook-Native Politicians – Slides, Webcast and Live Hangout Q and A Dec. 3/4

Minneapolis City Council Members - Source MinnPost

Are you ready for something completely new?

Introducing the “Facebook Native Politician” … meaning someone on Facebook from their teens or college days now entering elective public office. Facebook user first, politician second.

In my view, Minneapolis has the most exciting 24/7 “Facebook” engaged City Council in the world.

With this embryonic case study, you can decide for yourself, explore the lessons, and adapt them to your community.

This unfolding story is about what happens when you elect seven new city council members with an AVERAGE age of 33 who are Facebook Natives. This is combined with 6 returning council members and a new Mayor who in their own right  are also quite social media savvy and engaged online with their constituents.

This is no longer a story of using social media to gather votes and then going silent once power is gained. This “engagement generation” sees things differently.

You may have heard about #pointergate. Now check out the deeper context of social media engagement in Minneapolis public and political life and join our live online Hangouts and Facebook Group topic to share Facebook engagement stories from your elected representatives around the world.

Image Credit: MinnPost

Video

Watch the snappy half-hour presentation by E-Democracy Executive Director Steven Clift hosted by Involve with the University Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy  (Clift starts at 5:15):

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Slides

Google Slides (includes updates)

SlideShare (as of Nov 18 2014):

Blog Posts

About this event/presentation:

 

 

 

Neighbors Online Workshop @ DigiDaze June 20 – St. Paul Rondo Outreach Library

It’s time to get excited about digital inclusion in the Twin Cities!

On June 20th, the Community Technology Empowerment Project hosts DigiDaze from 10:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. at the St. Paul Rondo Community Outreach Library at the corner of Dale and University. Free Parking – enter on University going east before Dale.

From 2:00 p.m. – 3:15 p.m. in the e-classroom, join Steven Clift and “BeNeighbors.org” volunteers and participants for an insightful and in-depth presentation on inclusively connecting neighbors online. Check out DigiDaze booths before and after the presentation.

With 20,000 participants across our Twin Cities neighbors forums combined with the world’s most inclusive local online civic engagement outreach effort and challenging efforts to engage across community diversity, we have lessons to share and questions to ask. If you want to connect neighbors and communities online – across ANY platform – these tips will help us all connect thousands more residents.

RSVP not required.

But let us know if you hope to attend. Or say you are coming via Facebook Events.

If you can’t make it, watch this video version from NYC.

The session will cover:

  • Bonus – Opening preview from Knight Green Line Challenge
  • Startling national statistics on the income, racial, and related divides in terms of online civic participation
  • Ten awesome things strong neighborhood online groups produce (be it hosted by E-Democracy, Facebook, and others)
  • Specific lessons from our inclusive field outreach and ideas on how online groups outside of our BeNeighbors network can go beyond the easiest to reach residents to intentionally bring ALL kinds of neighbors together

Here is more information about DigiDaze …

DIGIDAZE COMMUNITY TECHNOLOGY FAIR comes to Rondo Library on Friday June 20, 10:30 AM to 4 PM

Every year, CTEP and the Saint Paul Public Library sponsors a free public fair to showcase learning opportunities related to technology for youth, adults and seniors. There will be laptop computer giveaways throughout the day, free food, classes on animation for youth and using online library services for adults, face painting, free tech advice, media production games, and sign ups for free classes about computer and employment skills in your neighborhood.

Where: Multipurpose Room, Rondo Community Outreach Library in Saint Paul 
Who: Sponsored by the Community Technology Empowerment Project (CTEP) AmeriCorps program and the Saint Paul Public Library.

Click here for a slideshow from past DigiDaze Fairs.

E-Democracy Outreach-001

Neighborhoods USA Presentation – Slides and Video

We had a great time at the Neighborhoods USA conference the other week here in Minneapolis.

We added some general content on email newsletters and Facebook Pages for neighborhood associations presented by Executive Director, Steven Clift and then a nice and condensed version of lessons from our inclusive BeNeighbors.org effort by our Outreach Manager, Corrine Bruning.

Long story short – don’t underestimate the value of neighbors inviting you into their email inbox where you retain full control over when and how you want to communicate with local residents. With Facebook “edgerank” determining whether your updates are actually seen by those who use Facebook regularly, ironically you might find your organization using email to drive viewers to your Facebook Page with the hope of it then being shared with that social ecology.

Slides

 

Video – Part 1 – Opening, Email Newsletters, Facebook Pages – Steven Clift

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Small Groups Reports –  available here, but poor sound quality

Video – Part 2 – Inclusive Online Engagement – Corrine Bruning (fast forward to 7:22 to get to Corrine’s main presentation, note that the final 3 minutes are cut off)

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One interesting side note – as you can’t see the raising of hands during the in-room survey. It was clear that very few of the neighborhood-focused government civil servants and neighborhood association staff wanted to use their named personal Facebook accounts as part of their public work … except for some the elected officials in the room (of course a third are also blocked from Facebook at work). Facebook terms only allow you to have one account. We think it is vital that staff with community groups and government offices (from the place of worship secretary to the local park director or librarian) should be able to engage the local public online without over exposing their private life online.

One other survey result – while well over half of the room reported “electronic block club” like activity in their community, when I asked if it covered more than 5% of blocks, all but one hand went down. This put the challenge of how we spread online nearest neighbor connecting beyond those block with a communications “maven” or leader.

¡Junta con tus vecinos por el Internet con E-Democracy! (with English translation)

Last summer Dan Gordon of our summer outreach team wrote this article on BeNeighbors/E-Democracy for La Prensa. Below is the article in Spanish (on La Prensa) and below also in English. Note our BeNeighbors information page in Spanish.

On a related note, we seek Spanish speaking volunteers as well as candidates for our current Latino forum engagement position. In the Summer of 2013, we will have additional outreach positions.

 

Somali E-Democracy outreach lead with Latin American Native dancers
E-Democracy es una organización con una meta sencilla: crear un espacio en el Internet donde cada barrio puede tener su propio voz, sin costo. Fundado en 1994, hemos crecido poco a poco con la ayuda de donaciones, becas, y voluntarios.

Ya tenemos más de 40 foros sobre Minneapolis y St. Paul, con más de 15,000 vecinos participando. Cada foro es un lugar para discutir cualquier asunto que se aplica a la comunidad. Ahora mismo la mayoría de la conversación es en Inglés, por nos gustaríamos que hay comentarios en Español y cada otro idioma hablado en el barrio. Algunos han tenido éxito en usarlo para encontrar una mascota perdida, otros para anunciar que hay un negocio local nuevo que viene al barrio, y otros para discutir la delincuencia y maneras para combatirlo con otros vecinos.

Somos “E-Democracy” porque creemos que la verdadera “democracia” tiene que empezar con encontrando soluciones locales a los asuntos que todos enfrentamos como vecinos. Por la primera vez, gracias a una beca de la Fundación Knight, tenemos un grupo que está dedicado a hacer alcance comunitaria, para asegurar que nuestros foros representan toda la diversidad de cada barrio.

Hemos pasado este verano tocando puertas, visitando a organizaciones comunitarias, y dando charlas sobre nuestra misión-creando un sitio de web donde todos pueden participarse como iguales. La comunidad Latina representa una gran parte de los barrios en Minneapolis, especialmente en Powderhorn (32%), Phillips (31%), Corcoran (28%), y Whittier (20%). En San Pablo, tenemos el West Side (27%), y Dayton’s Bluff (14%), que también tienen una población muy significante.

Tenemos foros en cada uno de estos barrios, y nuestra esperanza es incluir más voces Latinos en las conversaciones que están tomando lugar sobre su barrio por el Internet. Para inscribirse, sigue a www.beneighbors.org. O, si te gustaría ayudarnos con nuestro alcance, contacta a E-Democracy. ¡Bienvenidos a tú barrio de Internet!

beneighborsspanish

 

Meeting with your neighbors by Internet E-Democracy!

E-Democracy is an organization with a simple goal: to create a space on the Internet where each local area can have its own voice, without cost. Founded in 1994, we have grown gradually with the help of donations, grants and volunteers. We already have more than 40 forums on Minneapolis and St. Paul, with more than 15,000 participating neighbors. Each forum is a place to discuss any matter that applies to the community. Right now most of the conversation is in English, but we may comment in Spanish or any other language spoken locally in the neighborhood. Some have succeeded in using it to find a lost pet, others to announce  a new local business in the neighborhood, and others to discuss crime and ways to combat it with other neighbors.

We are “E-Democracy” because we believe that true “democracy” has to start with finding local solutions to the issues we all face as neighbors. For the first time, thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation, we have a group that is dedicated to including all, to ensure our forums represent the diversity of each neighborhood. We have spent this summer knocking on doors, visiting community organizations, and giving talks about our mission, creating a web site where anyone can participate as equals. The Latino community is a big part of the neighborhoods in Minneapolis, especially in Powderhorn (32%), Phillips (31%), Corcoran (28%), and Whittier (20%). In St. Paul, we have the West Side (27%), and Dayton’s Bluff (14%), they also have a very significant population. 

We have forums in each of these neighborhoods, and our hope is to include more Latino voices in the conversations that are taking place in your neighborhood by the Internet. To register, follow www.beneighbors.org. Or, if you would like to help us with our power, contact E-Democracy. Welcome to your neighborhood Internet!

New Volunteer Orientation – Love your neighborhood? Want to help it from the comfort of your own home?

E-Democracy Outreach-001

Attend the next Volunteer Orientation/Training on Wed. March 13, from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. and you can be a community builder too!

(Or April 18th or May 16th, same time and place.)

E-Democracy is launching a new Volunteer Program. For years, we’ve relied heavily on committed volunteers to successfully build the neighbors and issues forums. Now, as our forums have grown larger and more resources have allowed us to go deeper into Saint Paul neighborhoods, we’ve found it essential to bring in even more skilled neighbors as volunteers.

Are you interested in being a part of a stronger and even more connected neighborhood? Would you be willing to volunteer an average of 2 hours a month from home? Many of our new volunteer positions involve sharing important information online with your neighbors, helping to build a welcoming and neighborly atmosphere on and offline, or sending a review of that new restaurant in the area.

Take a look at these exciting new volunteer positions and ask yourself what you could do to help make your neighborhood an even greater place to live!

  • Local Forum Manager (needed for Summit Hill, West Seventh and four Minneapolis neighborhoods)

Monitors announcements and discussions, encourages participation, and objectively enforces the forum rules to maintain civility. As a forum leader, they work in conjunction with E-Democracy staff to involve forum volunteers in generating community value from the forum.

  • Neighbor Greeter

This personable volunteer is the kind of the person who brings cookies over to the new neighbor in the “real world.” Their role is to invite, welcome and support new forum members. They are an outreach ambassador at community events and help build a welcoming atmosphere on the forum.

  • Community Reporter

This information-seeking volunteer has a passion for community news, happenings, and history. They monitor, read and share news and announcements from different sources that have local relevance. They might also love sharing neighborhood photos and finding historical stories of how the area grew over time.

  • Cultural Connector

This volunteer has a deep passion for cross-cultural communication, connections, and understanding. Whether they share information from local ethnic organizations or introduce local cultural activities of their own or other diverse groups of neighbors, this volunteer is a bridge builder. This volunteer supports the goal of raising all local voices and assisting immigrant forum participation. An example might be sharing information about local events in the Holy Month of Ramadan or prompting a Muslim member of the community to share their experience of the celebrations.

  • Social Coordinator

Although we are primarily an online organization, one of our goals is to use our online networks to bring neighbors together in-person. We see ourselves as a “virtual icebreaker.” This volunteer organizes in-person events for forum members to get together, have fun, build community, and engage in local conversations. Forum potlucks and picnics are a great way to build forum engagement and increase neighborliness online.

  • Neighborhood Linker

This volunteer gathers web links from community groups, etc. across the neighborhood and adds them to the Neighbor Forum’s community links page. They may also produce a regular round-up of very local events compiled from community websites (weekly or monthly).

Volunteer Orientations/Trainings are held monthly. The next training will be Wednesday, March 13th from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. at Kings Crossing Senior Living Apartments (on the corner of University Ave and Dale St, Saint Paul). If you are interested in attending this training or another, please fill out this form and you will be contacted by the Volunteer Coordinator. You can also email her directly at corrine.bruning@e-democracy.org.

Seeing St. Paul’s Diversity – Thank you CURA!

 

St. Paul Race and Ethnicity 2010 Dots

 

Thanks to mapping help from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, we’ve been able to target our inclusive online community engagement doorknocking in St. Paul.

Not on a Neighbors Forum? Join here for St. Paul and Minneapolis or any of our 17 communities across three countries.

(Yes, we are one of the only projects that signs people up for two-way online communities on paper … this technique is central to real inclusion and engagement. Our goal with each of our 16 St. Paul Neighbors Forums is to have forums that reflect the actual diversity of the area based on the census. We have challenging numeric goals based on population not just households (much of the non-White population is under 18) so we recruit toward the increasingly diverse St. Paul of tomorrow as it becomes majority non-White.

The “dot” format takes its inspiration from the work of Bill Rankin. When you scroll through these maps of metros around the country (note that we changed colors so you could “see” more), you get a sense of just how dynamically layered much of St. Paul is compared to other communities. In St. Paul, much of the population is all mixed together with no single absolute majority population in almost half of the District Councils. This means bridging cultures/races online within the same neighborhood is possible.

Here are the large PDF files. Zoom in via the PDF to get a close view.

  • St. Paul Map – Major Race/Ethnic Groups – Each dot represents five people. Note that white folks represent 56% of the population and are light on the image to help us “see” the diversity we are targeting in our special outreach. National surveys and our experience is that majority groups, particularly higher income homeowners, flock to online neighborhood groups.
  • St. Paul Maps by Race:Asian, African-American (includes all Blacks including newer immigrant groups like East Africans), Latino
  • St. Paul Diversity by District Council Charts – A chart showing the age break-down by major ethnic/racial groups by District Council as well as a comparative chart (image below) on diversity as a whole by District Council. It is important to note that District Councils range in size from 7500 to 30,000 people with most of the largest ones except Highland being lower income and far more diverse than the smaller ones (they were created in the 1970s).
  • Minneapolis Map – Major Race/Ethnic Groups - Each dot represents five people (image below). Other than some Latino/East African outreach in S. Minneapolis, we currently do not have funding for the kind of intensive inclusive outreach we seek to deploy in any community interested in bridge building online engagement among neighbors.

St. Paul Race and Ethnicity by District Council 2010

Minneapolis Race and Ethnicity 2010

Meet Our Summer Outreach Team, Outreach Kick-off Potluck June 5, Carty Park in St. Paul

Our exciting summer outreach team is in place and survived their first week of training. They will be recruiting thousands of new Neighbors Forum participants with the goal of building forums that reflect the dynamic diversity of St. Paul today. They will be at many of these community events this summer.

Here is most of them:

Summer Outreach Team

Join these folks and the rest of our team at a friendly potluck on Tuesday, June 5 from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Carty Park in St. Paul (easy to get to just west of Dale, just south of I-94). Details/RSVP via Facebook.

We will have free grilled items including non-Pork and vegetarian options and beverages.

Stay tuned as we share more about our team and the St. Paul neighborhoods where they will focus their inclusive outreach.

In addition to St. Paul, we will be doing a bit of outreach to the Latino and East African communities in Phillips and Powderhorn.

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

 

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 E-Democracy.org’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 http://pages.e-democracy.org/Inclusive_Social_Media.   

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 http://e-democracy.org/inclusion.

 

[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, http://news.rpi.edu/update.do?artcenterkey=2902, 25 July 2011.

 

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