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A Dispatch From a Project to Build Wired Neighborhoods

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, May 9 2012

Steven Clift of E-democracy.org has for years been running projects to build online forums and email lists.

Through 2010 and 2011, Clift and others ran a pilot project to build up such online communities in neighborhoods in St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. They recently finished a report evaluating this project, and have it online. The forums were targeted specifically to high-immigrant, low-income, racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Minnesota — the kind of place that past survey data on the digital divide between rich and poor indicates might not be so receptive.

The report looks at two online forums, funded by grants from the Minneapolis Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and later the Ford Foundation, in two neighborhoods in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The first forum, in Cedar-Riverside, had 549 members by December 2011, the other in Frogtown had 489 members, after both had started in January and and September 2009 respectively.

The forums are just two of several local issues forums that e-democracy helps to host around the country, as well as in the U.K. and New Zealand. The forums, on which participants can post via e-mail or the web, are envisioned as online town hall meeting spaces where users can discuss local issues, make announcements, ask for input and journalists can research story ideas, to help give a greater voices to citizens in local decision-making. With the Ford Foundation funding, e-democracy has in particular been working on bringing such projects to lower-income, highly diverse neighborhoods.

The forums grew through outreach to community and cultural organizations and individuals, elected officials, neighborhood organizations, and volunteer forum managers, as well as through recruiting on Facebook.

Much of the report focuses on the challenges and the opportunities for growing the forums, and how both offline and online outreach played a key role. It also raises an interesting question: In tight-knit communities that have long held together offline, why ask members to go online at all?

"A common assumption when launching a new online local forum or website is that most participants will find their way to a forum through various online promotions, links, and online sharing," the report notes. "While that may be true among some groups, online recruitment is neither broad nor deep enough to be effective in high-immigrant, low-income, racially/ethnically diverse neighborhoods." Outreach staff found that one of the must successful ways that one of the best ways to grow users for the forum was by reach people face-to-face with a paper sign-up sheet. As part of that effort, outreach staff posted flyers in the neighborhood, and also emphasized recruiting members at community events. "In Cedar-Riverside the key event for us has been the annual multicultural dinner. Of the 300+ members on the forum about 110 of them were signed up at one of the last three dinners," the report quotes an outreach staffer as saying.

The particular emphasis on diversity brought with it challenges of its own. "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 report notes. "The understood challenges to email communications are compounded many times when both forum posters and readers are e-talking across such diversity."

In some cases, cultural attitudes towards the Internet hindered interest in the forum. "In Cedar-Riverside, outreach staff noted that the people who community members are interested in connecting with are not online at all, and that the Somali community has a very oral tradition," the report notes. "Events are not planned weeks in advance, but rather someone decides to do something in the next few days and they communicate that when they go out to shop, pick up a child at the Community Center, and so on – and then it happens." The report also quoted another Somali resident saying, "The community it wants to serve is very oral. Is E-Democracy imposing technology/the Internet on this community? Do they need a forum? When Cedar-Riverside mothers need a babysitter they will knock on the door next door; if there is a community event they will hear about it from their neighbor. Why do they need an online forum? Who is the forum serving?"

In another instance, a Cedar-Riverside resident posted about an issue she had with the University of Minnesota Police Department. “I made a comment about the University of Minnesota Police Department’s description of ‘East African’ suspects because I wanted to make constructive criticism, and to show that what they were doing was not right," the resident wrote according to the report. "One of my [college] instructors read my post and said that I was being rude to [local City Councilmember] Cam Gordon who I thought should have played a larger role in having UMPD change their suspect description. Anyway, I did not want my online comments to affect my relationship with my instructors.”

But online spaces also created room for people to communicate with government officials.

In the Frogtown forum, City Councilmember Melvin Carter was often a lurker, though he didn't post himself, the report notes. “I get the daily digest and I definitely read it. If there is something in there that someone needs help with or an answer to, I’ll take it to my staff and one of us will contact the poster privately," he said in the report. "It’s really helped us to find out what’s going on and what people are talking about. We also can tell from discussions whether we’re doing a good enough job getting the information out there because if there are questions and we have to respond, we might have to look at that.” In the report, he said he didn't post regularly because he didn't always have time for a staff member to look over his comments first, and it would become to cumbersome to respond every time.

“I don’t think that E-Democracy holds enough public officials accountable. I think that it allows public officials to know what people are saying, but it does not make them do anything about it," one resident said, according to the report.

E-democracy says it plans to produce a guide for elected officials on how the forums work, how they differ from other online communities, and what the challenges and benefits are in participating.