Power to the e-people

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Most of us would be hard-pressed to fit concrete flooring, crime prevention and dog poop all into a single conversation. It seems even less likely that those topics would find their way into hundreds of homes in the same neighborhood, at the same time.

Such a confluence of conversation has been happening in Prospect Park for close to six years, however, thanks to the rise of the email list, commonly known as an “e-list.” The Southeast neighborhood is not the only one in which these grassroots, localized email forums have cropped up around the Twin Cities; the Seward neighborhood launched its own e-democracy e-list late last year, and Cedar-Riverside could be next.

E-lists work like this: registered members from the community send emails or online posts to a moderator, who reviews the message (watching for things like profanity or personal attacks) before approving it and sending it to or publishing for group members, who can (and often do) post replies that can turn into a conversation chain on the topic.

When used in neighborhoods, the lists become places to receive and exchange information pertinent to a particular locality. People can subscribe to the lists, or unsubscribe at any time.

Putting the ‘e’ in democracy

Steven Clift, the founder of the organization e-democracy — a Minnesota-based non-profit that has helped to start several neighborhood e-lists in the area – said the group’s mission is to empower people to have a voice.

“Our goal is to launch a forum that is reflective of the neighborhood [as it exists] today,” he said.

For the Seward neighborhood, that means posts about everything from possum sightings and the theft of catalytic converters, to traffic on Franklin Avenue and where to find the best holiday light displays.

Sometimes, posts come in the form of a question: “Does anyone know of a good landscaper in the area?” Others may be about an upcoming community event, a suspicious activity neighbors should be aware of, or hot-button topics such as environment issues.

Peter Fleck, one of two list managers for the Seward e-democracy group, said the list gives neighbors the ability to communicate with people beyond just those that they live next-door to — people from the same neighborhood who might not otherwise know each other.

Since Fleck began managing the Seward e-list, which at last count had close to 130 members, he’s noticed two major themes in the posts: crime issues, followed by the dangers of crossing Franklin Avenue, which some have complained is poorly lit and much more congested since the collapse of the I-35W bridge.

Already, several of e-list issues have garnered attention from Seward Neighborhood Group (SNG), including the Franklin Avenue traffic issue, said SNG board president (and former list manager) Sheldon Mains. Online discussions about the Midtown Eco Energy burner were partially responsible for the neighborhood group sending a letter to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, requesting an environmental assessment worksheet on the project, which is now underway.

“Having those two things already show up, I think that’s pretty good,” Mains said of e-list items addressed by SNG.

Good e-mails make good neighbors

E-democracy isn’t the only organization responsible for launching neighborhood e-lists; dedicated neighbors have built their own lists, too, from the ground up.

Prospect Park resident Lois Willand, who is active with the Prospect Park/East River Road Improvement Association (PPERRIA), said she started a list for her neighborhood after becoming “aware of the power of the internet to connect people.”

Willand, a self-described “e-mail nut,” brought the idea before PPERRIA’s executive committee in 2002. She said the only real rules they wanted to implement were bans on spam (junk-mail), negativity, and the discussion of politics. Everything else was fair game.

Willand complied her list in much the same way as the Seward e-list — by passing around clipboards and sign-up sheets at community events. What started as an e-mail list with around 100 subscribers (through Willand’s own e-mail account and service provider) has grown to an operation of 460 members strong. Because of its size, it is now managed as a Google Group through the popular web search engine’s site.

The Prospect Park e-list — “ppe-list” for short — has become a sort of community bulletin board, Willand said. She describes the list as “more basic information sharing than discussion,” although sometimes one person will start in on a topic and “others chime in.”

Post topics run the gamut from neighborhood events and issues to the more practical, mundane and even downright hilarious. Subjects have included odor complaints, overhanging branches, hoses spilling onto sidewalks, lost dogs and found cats, hooting owls and garbage-can possums, a mysterious helicopter flyover, tax preparer and handyman recommendations, babysitting referrals and —Willand’s personal favorite — posts from parents looking to start play groups for their children.

In one recent posting, Willand herself offered to forward a video of a horse “who rides in a convertible, goes to the drive-[thru] with its owners and eats cheeseburgers, sits on a couch to watch TV, answers the phone, and does other amazing things,” she wrote. (And it’s all true; you can see it on youtube.)

The e-list has hosted its share of controversies, as well, including whether posts should be signed and objections to crime postings that include the names of individuals arrested but not necessarily charged (in contrast to the common practice of newspapers, for example, to name only those who have actually been charged with a crime.)

On a few occasions, Willand has mediated problems that arise between neighbors via e-mail — settling them off the e-list to keep the issue between the parties involved. (As moderator, she approves every email sent to her before forwarding it to the larger group.)

Whether on the list or behind the scenes, Willand said she likes the satisfaction of connecting people.

An imperfect sample, but an expanding model

Like any major undertaking, those who manage the e-lists admit the forums aren’t perfect.

“One of the challenges is who’s on the list,” said Mains, who handed off his list managing responsibilities when he took over as SNG board president. “We know it’s not a representative sample of the neighborhood,” he said. “We’re gonna work on that.”

The majority of people on the Seward list are computer-owners with a high-speed Internet connection, Mains said. According to Clift, e-democracy recently received a grant from the Minneapolis Foundation to help develop e-lists in high-immigrant and low-income areas.

The e-democracy organization has contacted the West Bank Community Coalition (WBCC) in the Cedar-Riverside area, Clift said, though it hasn’t yet made a formal presentation to any of the organization’s committees. While the Cedar-Riverside list has not been officially launched, Clift has already created a domain where people can sign-up.

“Technically it’s taking reservations,” he said, adding that the list will not be launched until it gets at least 100 members. Plans are to recruit additional members at neighborhood functions and other community events in the coming months.

On the subject of community e-lists, Mains conceded that while not all the posts deal with “earth-shattering, major issues” they can be a valuable way to find out about and discuss issues in the neighborhood. “It’s a great way of communicating,” Mains said, “no matter what the topic.”

For more information about any of the e-lists mentioned in this story, including the Cedar-Riverside group, which has not yet been launched but is allowing online registration, visit the following sites:
Cedar-Riverside
Seward

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