A post appeared on the Minneapolis citywide issues forum in mid-March 2009. The poster, Jay Clark, the director of the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing and a well-known community organizer in the North Minneapolis and Hmong communities, told forum members about a recent Minneapolis Park Board meeting. At that meeting, Clark wrote, Latino kids and their parents were separated from the wider audience â€“ and eventually removed from the premises â€“ without having been given a fair opportunity to air their concerns. The Latino community members had attended the meeting to advocate for soccer fields at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis; the meeting was taking place in another part of the city. Even before attending the park board meeting, the Latinos who were extracted from the meeting â€“ with Clarkâ€™s help â€“ had began a large awareness campaign to put pressure on the park board and city leaders to create soccer fields for the Latino kids already playing soccer in Powderhorn. The group had also been distributing hundreds of postcards to residents, asking the residents to send the notice of support to decision-makers like the mayor of Minneapolis.
Meeting organizers saw Clarkâ€™s post and one park commissioner responded the next day, explaining that park commissioners were aware of the groupâ€™s campaign to get the soccer fields. Neighbors responded to the topic.
My mid-April 2009, the topic had moved to the Powderhorn Neighbors Forum, where dozens more posts from residents both in support of and against the soccer fields shared their thoughts. One Latino teen who played soccer at Powderhorn logged on to the forum using Clarkâ€™s name (but signing his own at the end of post). The teen invited neighbors to come watch a game. By this time, the issue was also receiving wide media attention and several neighborhood newspapers picked up the story and/or published Letters to the Editor written by the Latino teens asking for the soccer fields.
The best success indicator of the communityâ€™s campaign to get the soccer fields was not necessarily that the soccer fields actually came to be or even that a public official responded to Clarkâ€™s original post; rather, it was the ability to reach many more people â€“ neighbors â€“ through the forum and garnering a wider and more diverse base of supporters that Clark would later note in an interview with me as the most positive part of the project. Clark said he has used the forum to help highlight other campaigns â€“ for example a campaign spearheaded by Hmong teens to get more Hmong-speaking officers to work the day shift in North Minneapolis â€“ and intends to continue using the E-Democracy forums as another tool in his community organizerâ€™s toolbox.
While community organizing is not E-Democracyâ€™s direct mission, the organizationâ€™s desire to increase civic engagement by providing an online space for neighbors to meet and discuss issues lends well to also aiding in, or perhaps inciting, organizing work. Giving neighbors and organizers a venue in which to share information can complement traditional community organizing. At the same time, this raises the question of how E-Democracy might enhance community organizing and social change in the 21st century.
Lessons Applied in Frogtown
In June 2010, I seeded a topic asking the Greater Frogtown Neighbors Forum members where they got their hyper-local (neighborhood) news. No one responded to that thread. But one person did start a new related thread that same day in response, stating that Frogtown was at a disadvantage by not having a dedicated newspaper and asking for creative ideas to get community news distributed to neighbors. The following day and just eight posts later (the thread ballooned to 19 posts), Tony Schmitz â€“ a Frogtown resident and the former owner of the now defunct Frogtown Times newspaper â€“ offered to take the online discussion offline. Schmitz offered to host a brainstorming session at his house.
Seven days after the thread started, Tony and two other residents (one of whom was Tonyâ€™s wife), Mary Turck from the Twin Cities Daily Planet (an online news site) and I discussed the idea of starting a Frogtown neighborhood newspaper. By the time the meeting ended, those in attendance had each volunteered to do more research or outreach about the idea. The neighbors become their own community organizers.
The two stories shared above represent the convergence of new technologies with old organizing models. What we know of traditional community organizing is that results are met when a group of people can come together to push for a common benefit. To build a foundation of support requires outreach, strategic planning and, oftentimes, good timing. Organizers will need to determine whether and when E-Democracy is the proper venue in which to share information and receive input. As community organizing takes greater advantage of social media and the Internet, adding a new tool like posting on the E-Democracy online forums can become part of the strategic outreach method that capitalizes on changing technology and a growing and attentive audience.
Editor’s Note: The soccer field story is ongoing with some Powderhorn Park changes and a permanent artificial turf field being built in next door in the Phillips neighborhood (after making this post, I received a telephone call from an elected official crediting in large part the campaign described above even if the permanent field will be in a nearby park).