E-Democracy is one of the oldest innovators of online participation and their Inclusive Social Media Initiative was an attempt to expand the use of online Issues Forums among social diverse, lower income communities typically excluded from digital forms of engagement.
Problems and Purpose
At the time of this project in 2010, government efforts to engage with citizens through online or digital means largely only attracted the participation of those either already active in the public sphere or with ready access to the internet. Furthermore, due to technological restrictions at the time, political discussions online tended to be of poor quality. E-Democracy - active in the online engagement space since 1994, launched their Inclusive Social Media Initiative in 2011 in an attempt to expand their successful online Community, Neighbours, and Issues Forums that follow a highly inclusive model of online participation and deliberation. E-Democracy's Forums are designed to connect citizens with official neighborhood associations thus gaining the support and collaboration necessary to take action - either independently or with officials - on the issues brought up and discussed online. E-Democracy's ability to host such online interaction from a neutral position has allows them to innovate with online discussion models that encourage true, candid openness of the kind governments and stakeholder organizations are unwilling or unable (politically) to attempt. The Inclusive Social Media Initiative was undertaken by E-Democracy in an effort to understand how to expand the use of these online Forums among marginalized, largely immigrant, and low-income communities. The findings of the Initiative were intended to inform further outreach across the organization's full 30-forum network currently operating in the U.S., England, and New Zealand.
According to the project website, the primary objectives of the Inclusive Social Media Initiative were to:
- "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"
The urban neighbourhoods in Minnesota - Frogtown in St. Paul and Ceder-Riverside in Minneapolis - were chosen for their demographics: high-immigrant, low-income, and racially- and ethnically-diverse.
Background History and Context
In 2010, the Pew Internet and American Life Project conducted the "Neighbors Online" study which found that 22% of American adults "talk digitally with neighbors." For households with income over $75,000 the participation rate is 39% and half that at 20% for just under $50,000 and only 12% for less that $30,000. Further, among Internet users 15% who make over $75,000 belong to the most intensive and community empowering neighborhood e-mail lists and forums like our forums. In comparison, only 2% of those with household incomes under $30,000 participate, 3% up to $49,000, only 3% of Hispanics (both English and Spanish Speaking), and only 2% of rural residents.
The Inclusive Social Media Initiative was an attempt to rectify these disparities in participation and prove false the (at the time) pervasive assumption "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."
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Initiative was led by E-Democracy, a non-profit, non-partisan organization with a mission to "harness the power of online tools to support participation in public life, strengthen communities, and build democracy." E-Democracy has been a pioneer in internet-based community engagement efforts, establishing the world's first voter information website in Minnesota in 1994. From there, they have expanded and now host "over 50 local forums in 17 communities across three countries - New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States." They also have open, ongoing 'online town halls' and 'community life forums'. The organization has also partnered with the successful Citizens Foundation: the Iceland-based developers of Your Priorities online participatory budgeting and idea generation platform.
According to the final report, both communities selected for the Inclusive Social Media Initiative had Community Forums prior to the start of the project. Early grant funding - $25,000 from the Minneapolis Foundation and $7,500 from the Knight Foundation - allowed for the establishment and extension of these forums in Cedar-Riverside and Frogtown respectively. The Initiative itself - including the research and analysis of these communities' use of the forums and efforts to expand their participation - was funded by the Ford Foundation.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
Know how participants were recruited for this initiative? Help us complete this section!
Methods and Tools Used
E-Democracy's "Local Community Forums" and "Neighbours Forums" are defined as "public online community gathering places where you exchange community information and discuss local issues that matter to you. Participants use their real names and agree to be civil. This builds trust and helps build strong communities." The Community and Neigbourhood Forums are the local version of "Issues Forums" which cover larger georgraphical areas (typically cities). The Inclusive Social Media Initiative was E-Democracy's attempt to expand the use of these Forums especially among low income, high immigrant neighborhoods that are often unable to participate in Internet-based methods of community and democratic engagement.
At the outset of the project, E-Democracy's executive director Steven Clift decided that the best way to increase the diversity of participants and content of conversations was for the organization to:
- "[Reach] out to and engaging people from communities who are racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically underrepresented on neighborhood online forums
- [Identify] 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 [E-Democracy] call[s] “digital inclusion for community voices”
- [Move] forums beyond token experiences where the diversity "in the room" is recruited, but silent or essentially ignored"
Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction
E-Democracy's work during the Inclusive Social Media Initiative followed an interative process:
- Work with community associations, local elected officials, and others to determine authentic community interest in citizen-led, government-relevant online participation.
- Deploy Issues Forum using open source e-mail/web technology. Link to Facebook and Twitter. See: http://e-democracy.org
- Recruit local volunteer Forum Manager and initial 100 participants BEFORE opening. (Volunteers make our efforts extremely low cost and sustainable.) We've use real names only since 1994 (years before Facebook.)
- Recruit. Provide outreach. Recruit. Use paper forms at community events. Recruit.
- Engage elected officials, government offices, neighborhood associations, community and cultural groups, and others to ensure political impact of discussions.
- Open forum with friendly round of Introductions.
- Discuss issues, share information, solve community problems. See the webinar for examples in the links section.
The Inclusive Social Media initiative targets the least likely areas and populations to be served by online engagement - the strong majority East African Cedar Riverside - http://e-democracy.org/cr - neighborhood in Minneapolis and the plurality ~40% Southeast Asian (Hmong) with African-American (20%) and White (20%) Frogtown neighborhood in St. Paul - http://e-democracy.org/frogtown
A forum was also hosted in a lower income, Native American majority forum called Cass Lake Leech Lake in northern rural Minnesota. This was part of a previous "Rural Voices" initiative which expanded the Issues Forum network to four rural Minnesota communities with the support of the Blandin Foundation. Those forums remain open with support from local volunteers.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Initiative was primarily one of research: between 2010 and 2011, E-Democracy studied how the communities of Cedar-Riverside and Frogtown used the online forums and how participation could be expanded both in existing forums and in new forums in surrounding neighbourhoods. The full results of E-Democracy's findings are compiled in a 60-page report available at https://goo.gl/dKYNjQ. The key learnings and results have been transcribed below:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, EDemocracy 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://edemocracy.org/inclusion.
In addition to the valuable research findings, the Initiative also led to some tangible outcomes as a result of community's using the online forums to discuss issues, formulate solutions, and collaborate with members of civil society and government to acheive their goals. Indeed, these results are not suprising since Community and Neighbour Issues Forums in other parts of the country have been proven to provide continuous opportunities for political impact and community agenda-setting. Most forums - Frogtown and Cedar-Riverside included - include elected officials, civil servants, journalists alongside the targetted participants: local residents and ordinary citizens.
During the Inclusive Social Media Initiative, forums in the two communities held discussions on many topics directly relevant to locals including the need for better cross-walks, the impact of light rail construction. As well, the forums provided residents with a platform to share information with fellow families - many from Somalia - regarding the dangers posed by radical Islamist groups like al-Shaab. Discussions generated in the online forums increase discussion offline "in the real world" which leads to concrete action on these issues thanks to increased news coverage, participation from elected officials, and community mobilization.
Some examples of concrete actions taken in response to forum discussions include:
- Use of Issues Forum for online consultation: http://blog.e-democracy.org/posts/224
- Push for a marked cross-walk to aide elder immigrants in particular: http://forums.e-democracy.org/r/topic/In W3Nde6m12aS24URZxPR
- Use of forums with public meetings: http://blog.e-democracy.org/posts/355
- More: http://pages.e-democracy.org/Example_dis cussions
- Note the Neighbors Online study and how this effort directly addresses the policy issues of exclusion from public participation online: http://blog.e-democracy.org/posts/858
Analysis and Lessons Learned
According to E-Democracy's executive director, Steven Clift, "The lessons from these efforts need to be shared widely. Inclusive outreach must be spread across online engagement efforts universally, or the harsh reality is that efforts to use the Internet in governance will bring anti-democratic results and simply raise the voices of the already powerful in society."
An evaluation of the Iniative itself - the work of E-Democracy outreach staff, volunteers, and forum managers - was designed by Barry Cohen PhD and undertaken by Anne Carroll. The full report is available at: https://goo.gl/dKYNjQ The evaluation answers the following questions:
1. Program Outcome: Develop outreach and information leadership development structures and techniques
- What outreach and information leadership development did E-Democracy do?
- What were the results?
- How might those results be used by E-Democracy and other organizations to foster inclusive civic engagement?
2. Program Outcome: Increase forum size, diversity, energy, and community-building potential
- How successfully did E-Democracy: Recruit more participants? Deepen the diversity of participants on the forums? Expand and deepen the diversity of forum posts?
- In what ways did E-Democracy "animate" the diversity in the forums?
- In what ways do posts and posters on the forums display a sense of community belonging, as well as government, institutional, and community accountability?
3. Program Outcome: Engage community organizers, community organizations and institutions, and elected officials
- In what ways did E-Democracy connect with and encourage proactive use by community organizers? Community organizations and institutions? Elected officials?
- Do these individuals/groups have particularly unique or different roles on the forum?
- How are community organizers and elected officials using the forums for active listening?
Community-Based Participatory Research (method)
Community Organizing (method)
Participatory Reflection and Action (method)
Inclusive Social Media Info - Note Blog Post list at end
Using Technology for Community Building Webinar
Cedar Riverside Neighbors Forum (large Somali population)
Frogtown Neighbors Forum (large SE Asian population, African-American)
Our Blog with extensive lesson sharing
Issues Forum Background/Guidebook
The original version of this case study first appeared on Vitalizing Democracy in 2010 and was a contestant for the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize. It was originally submitted by Steven Clift, executive director of E-Democracy.