Frogtown “is a complete news desert. There’s a complete absence of access to local information,” said E-Democracy founder Steven Clift. With no local papers and limited coverage by regional publications, Frogtown residents struggle to find a way to connect. According to Clift, E-Democracy offers residents an opportunity for connection, providing an online forum for community conversation. “For no cost, someone can reach hundreds of people in Frogtown, who care about Frogtown, in minutes.”
However, after four years of E-Democracy in Frogtown, residents have mixed feelings on the site’s ability to engage their community.
Frogtown resident Dameun Strange recognizes E-Democracy’s possible value, but believes the forum is not currently working up to its potential.
“There would be potential to educate people on issues… figure out solution [and] celebrate something within the community,” said Strange. “But there are issues.”
Ten percent of households in Frogtown are involved with E-Democracy. Clift said the Frogtown forum is E-Democracy’s third most active site. From February to March 8, the forum averaged 18 posts a week, and this March has been a very active month. Posts range from community meeting reminders to discussions about race. The forum hopes to serve two purposes, to provide the community with news, and to facilitate conversation among neighbors.
However, only a small percentage of neighbors participate. According to E-Democracy, this March’s 48 posts were written by 17 authors. There are 897 forum members. Clift said that in 2013 only an average of 3.2% of members posted per month.
“I don’t get the sense that a lot of people know about it,” said Strange. “There’s a small percentage of the community represented in the forum. You see the same names [participating] over and over again.”
Sam Buffington, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association’s organizing director, sees this as a huge problem for organizers in the community. He says that community members often will look only at the forum when looking for community perspective on an issue. This excludes much of the community from the discussion.
“It’s a new way of connecting with the community, but it leaves out a lot of people,” said Buffington. “It’s a really easy way out for supposed community organization. It [can] take away from [actually] going out into the community.”
E-Democracy is using grassroots organizing to spread awareness for the forum. They often have information tables at neighborhood events, and also go door to door to inform residents about the forum.
“The problem [is that] it’s a privilege to participate. You have to have Internet access,” said Strange. “Democracy is not the best description [for the site].”
Buffington says that this is the main flaw of online community forums.
“There needs to be recognition that [E-Democracy] inherently cuts out a large chunk of voices,” said Buffington. “These are the same people who are continually left out. There’s a digital divide.”
Language barriers may also be an issue. Frogtown is one of Saint Paul’s most diverse neighborhoods, and many of Frogtown residents speak English as a second language.
However, Clift believes the diversity of Frogtown is exactly why it needs a forum like E-Democracy to discuss rising issues.
“If you think of all the divides in America, along race, income, immigration [status], Frogtown has it all,” said Clift. “It is tomorrow’s America today.”
On the forum, divides have already appeared. In November, one of E-Democracy’s paid engagement leaders, Pastor Devin Miller, questioned whether Dai Thao, District Seven’s city council member, could effectively represent the African American population as a Hmong man.
“How do you propose the African American community will be represented within a historic Ward by a person not from the culture?” wrote Miller.
The response was swift and heated. Many members were offended by Miller, and some even called for his termination.
On March 10, Miller brought up the topic again.
“With the recent change in the Ward One Legislative Aide position, from an African American to a person from the Hmong community, I am only asking because now there is NO African American representation or voice physically within the walls of the our Council Government,” posted Miller.
Again, members responded with a strong answer—a Frogtown resident of any race can represent them.
Miller was hired to represent the African American community as part of E-Democracy’s effort to have diverse forum engagement leaders. This effort will phase out this summer, and after that all volunteers will be unpaid.
However, his post raised questions: How does one best engage a community? Is controversy the answer?
In response to criticism, Miller defended his right to use personal opinion to facilitate conversation.
“They are paying me to be who I am. How can I engage you unless I give you my opinion?” said Miller. “Engagement in any way is still engagement. We might not agree, but you’re still engaging.”
Strange considered leaving the forum, but decided to stay, offering Miller his advice for future issues.
“The [engagement leader] role should more facilitory,” said Strange. “You are not taking sides, trying to engage and get cooperation from as many sides and issues as you can.”
Though Miller has been active in Frogtown for over 20 years, he is not a resident. Clift said that ideally, a Frogtown resident would lead the forum. He has called for volunteers.
“[We] need a community volunteer who will spark discussion, forward community announcements, seek to encourage the community to ask their own questions and share their own topics,” said Clift.
Anthony Schmitz, a Frogtown resident and former local newspaper owner, hopes E-Democracy can hire someone with journalism training.
“It is astonishingly common in stories you read about Frogtown who only quote people who don’t live here, have never lived here, and will never live here,” said Schmitz. “Some training… might be necessary or desirable to look at those kinds of issues you want to explore. It would be good to approach this as a serious job.”
Though E-Democracy currently has no plans to hire a journalist, it is looking towards many other changes to make the forum more accessible for Frogtown residents. Clift and his colleagues are currently working on design changes to make the E-Democracy website more attractive to younger audiences.
“Facebook natives have billion dollar design expectations,” said Clift. “We can’t compete with those resources but we can [work to] keep our design simple and accessible to multiple technologies like smart phones and tablets.”
Clift is also brainstorming ways to partner with city officials, local newspapers, and possibly create a community news blog. He is also encouraging the city to offer a discounted Internet plan for lower income residents to encourage online participation.
If efforts are made to promote mass Internet access and greater awareness, Strange expects that E-Democracy will become a great tool for the community.
“If all of us work on that there’s access to broadband city wide, [E-Democracy] would be one of the perfect places to connect,” said Strange. “It has potential to replace the community or neighborhood newspaper. It could be a place where we could log the history of our community.”
Related story: E-DEMOCRACY | Race and representation in St. Paul’s Ward 1, Multiple authors (E-Democracy issues forum, 2014)
Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.
This is one of a number of articles produced by students at Macalester as part of a New Media class.