Minnesotans get involved in E-Democracy


The discussion began when Minneapolis Ward 2 City Council member Cam Gordon posted a University of Minnesota Police crime alert about a robbery that took place the previous day to E-Democracy.org’s online Minneapolis Cedar-Riverside Neighbors Forum. The police report contained language indicating the suspects “spoke with an east African accent,” and the next day, neighbors had questions about the report for Gordon, who represents the near-campus neighborhood. 

Should the police have used that description? What is an “east African accent?” Was it a helpful description or racial profiling?

As a result of the discussion, Gordon offered to convene a meeting with U of M Police Chief Greg Hestness, Minneapolis Police, the Somali Student Association and West Bank Community Coalition Safety Committee to discuss concerns and see if the crime alerts can be improved.

That discussion and others like it are taking place daily on E-democracy’s seven Twin Cities neighborhood forums about issues ranging from crime and safety to organizing potluck meals, said Steve Clift, the non-profit’s founder and executive director.

Originating in 1994 as an online discussion group for Minnesota and national politics, the Web site and e-mail discussion group branched out into neighborhood forums three years ago, Clift said.

“I don’t post but I read almost everything that comes through. Lots of good information about the neighborhood, civil exchanges about differences of opinion, practical tips about who fixes windows, funny discussions about what to do with raccoons etc. Twice, after shootings of young people in the neighborhood, the exchanges offered clarifying information and some real commonsense strategies for improvements that might work against street violence.” — Florence Golod, Minneapolis Powderhorn Neighbors Forum.

Now, with forums in the Twin Cities, Bemidji, Winona, Ohio, Massachusetts and even New Zealand and Great Britain, neighbors in Minnesota and around the world are using E-Democracy to find their voices, solve problems and get to know each other a little better.

Another five Twin Cities neighborhoods are organizing forums, and their popularity is spreading as people hear what other neighborhoods are doing, Clift said.

“People who live near each other should be able to be involved in their neighborhood any time, anywhere,” he said. “You can’t always make it to the 7 p.m. neighborhood meeting.”

The key to the success of the neighborhood forums has been aggressive in-person recruiting, in which neighbors have to sign up on paper to participate and someone has to step up and volunteer to be the neighborhood’s virtual community organizer, Clift said.

The group received a Ford Foundation grant this year to develop and support inclusive social media connections in high-immigrant, low-income neighborhoods, and the money is helping grow neighborhood forums in Cedar-Riverside and St. Paul’s Greater Frogtown neighborhoods, he said.

“It is a new challenging way of communication for a lot of new Americans but in the near future this forum will be indispensable for these communities. I deem this forum to be a very vital tool for the voiceless to get their voice heard.” — Abdirizak Bihi, Minneapolis Cedar-Riverside Neighbors Forum.

As a result, Boa Lee joined E-Democracy’s team in February on a one-year mission to cultivate participation in the diverse neighborhood, which lacks a communitynewspaper but which now has 267 neighbors signed up for the neighborhood forum.

Lee leads discussions, shows neighborhood leaders and residents how to post to the forum and respond to others’ questions and attends community meetings to build trust and learn what the neighborhood’s concerns, she said.

“This kind of forum is only sustainable if people continue to find it relevant, if people who live and work in Frogtown are the ones who post and respond, if do so regularly and they do so even after I leave at the end of the year,” she said. “I’m optimistic that it will happen because I’ve worked in Frogtown as a community organizer and I know the passion of the people in the neighborhood. Their strength is that they value communication with each other – they want to be involved and they want to know what is happening in Frogtown.”

Shirley Yeoman signed up for the Minneapolis Standish-Ericsson Neighbors Forum out of a sense of duty. The Neighborhood Association employee felt she needed to know what was being said and to respond for the association when necessary

“I think it’s a fantastic way to engage people to become active participants in their community. It also acts as an easy way to reach out to a number of people who typically wouldn’t have the opportunity to get informed or interact in a meaningful way. I believe it helped generate the overwhelming participation in the Frogtown Farms project.” — Sarah Montgomery, St. Paul Greater Frogtown Neighbors Forum.

“There have been a couple of cases where information was posted that was inaccurate – and by monitoring that I was able to post some corrected information,” she said. “Mostly though, I have seen it as a place where people share concerns and ask questions and generally get responses from their neighbors.  It feels like at least some people are getting to know neighbors – electronically, at least.”

Participation in the neighborhood forums has traditionally been mostly limited to white, middle-class neighborhoods and among community and neighborhood organizers, Clift said. But that’s changing, with discussions such as the one about the U of M crime notice in the Cedar-Riverside forum, he said.

“We’re trying to bring people of different ethnic backgrounds together to participate in a shared community experience,” he said.

Bad information and rumors can leak into neighborhood forums, but the truth also comes out and the forums provide a way to disseminate it, Clift said.

In addition to neighborhood forums, E-Democracy is working on a project code-named “Neighborly” that would allow people to connect to neighbors in their immediate vicinity in semi-private discussion forums to discuss what’s going on at the neighborhood block level, he said.

“People may want to talk about helping the elderly neighbor down the street, or who has a lawnmower they can borrow, or what’s going on in that rental house next door, without it getting out on Google,” Clift said. “This would be a way to do that.”

The project is in the concept stage and could be rolled out in prototype form in a few blocks this summer, he said.