Front Porch Forum

Front Porch Forum Creates 'Online Block Parties'

Burlington Free Press
By Sally Pollak
2008-07-03

-- Know your neighbors --

Michael and Valerie Wood-Lewis moved to Burlington from Washington, D.C., 10 years ago for its sense of community. They didn't know at the time they would be instrumental in enhancing the very quality they sought.

The community bonds were created and strengthened by computer, in the digital neighborhood called the Front Porch Forum (www.frontporchforum.com), started by the Wood-Lewises.

"We were spurred by the desire to get to know our neighbors," Michael Wood-Lewis, 42, said. "We were really eager to get to know people. We didn't have a dog to walk."

The Front Porch Forum is a place where neighbors can communicate and connect through e-mail newsletters. It's easy to join and requires nothing more than access to e-mail to read or write a message.

The couple started the forum in the Burlington neighborhood where they live, Five Sisters, in 2000. "It was just a little hobby," Wood-Lewis said.

The e-mail forum was a way to connect with neighbors and keep up with what was going on in his community. The Wood-Lewises didn't want to arrive home from a day's outing, as they did years ago, to find neighbors cleaning up a barbecue they never knew about.

The Five Sisters forum was successful, and in 2006, Wood-Lewis decided to expand the forum, embarking on the undertaking as a full-time commitment. He calls the home he shares with his wife and four children, ages 8 to 2, "world headquarters" of the Front Porch Forum.

There are now 130 neighborhood forums in Chittenden County and 10,000 subscribers to the free service, Wood-Lewis said. Each forum -- and there's one covering every neighborhood in Chittenden County -- represents a small and discreet slice of the community, an area delineated and named by Wood-Lewis.

On the forum's e-mail postings, neighbors who are identifiable by name and street address post information or questions on a range of issues. The combined forums generate about 2,000 messages a month, Wood-Lewis said. The topics, whether a missing cat or a hazardous cross-walk, are typically bound by the interests and parameters of the neighborhood.

"I think of these as online block parties," Wood-Lewis said. "For us, it's almost more important that there's communication going on, than the topic."

A Richmond forum, in recent days, has been alive with conversation about a flash flood, Wood-Lewis said. In the Old North End, there's been discussion about how to help someone who has a drug habit. People in the East Woods neighborhood are using the forum to organize a summer party, he said.

Each neighborhood forum encompasses about 400 (potential) households, with participation varying throughout the county. In Burlington, one-third of the households subscribe to their local forums. (The Five Sisters forum is saturated, with 107 percentage participation; some families have more than one subscriber.)

On average, about 20 percent of county residents participate, Wood-Lewis said.

"What we're trying to do is catch people where they are (computers) and get just a little smidgen of their time," he said.

He said that over time, people get to know more and more neighbors -- acquaintances or friendships that originate on the Front Porch Forum.

"With all those messages from clearly identified nearby neighbors passing through your inbox, change starts to happen," Wood-Lewis said. "I don't live among neighbors; I live among people I know. Things start to come together."

The Front Porch Forum has received national recognition for its work, including grants from the Middlebury-based Orton Family Foundation and the Case Foundation. Both organizations are interested in and support efforts related to community-building and civic engagement. Orton selected the Forum for its 2007 Innovator in Place award.

David Mindich, professor of journalism and mass communication at St. Michael's College, said the Front Porch Forum is an "excellent medium" for getting out information.

"I would suspect that most people who are members of the Front Porch Forum get as much news about their neighborhood there, if not more, as they get in the Free Press," Mindich said.

He noted a distinction between the way the two mediums function, one that concerns "hard-hitting journalism" that can hold leaders accountable.

"It's a great addition to the community," Mindich said. "I certainly hope 10 years from now, as the Front Porch Forum continues to flourish, we still have a vibrant, independent journalism in the state as well, with a business model that pays reporters to dig and hold officials' feet to the fire."

The Forum's success can be measured not just by a growing number of subscribers, but by advertising sales.

Six months ago, the Front Porch Forum started selling ads that run at the bottom of the e-mails. It also sells subscriptions for $99 a month to Burlington municipal departments, allowing for two-way communication between residents and police officers and other city departments -- with public officials a click away from citizens' concerns.

Every message that's posted on Front Porch Forum is monitored and given a headline; subscribers at a glance can see what information follows.

Of the 30,000 or so messages that have been sent to the forum, Wood-Lewis has declined to post about a dozen because of tone or content, he estimated. These are sent back with a request that they're rewritten.

"People behave themselves," he said. "Each neighborhood has to think of this as their forum."

Contact Sally Pollak at spollak@bfp.burlingtonfreepress.com or 660-1859.

Common messages among neighbors
- Car break-in last night on Maple Street
- Seeking post-hole digger to borrow
- Lost dog!
- Organizing block party
- Roofer recommended
- Neighbor running cancer fundraiser
- Traffic concerns... speeders!
- Baby sitter available
- Seeking meals for ailing neighbor
- Owl sighting

How to sign up for Front Porch Forum
- Any resident of Chittenden County can join; it's free and won't clog your inbox
- Go to: http://frontporchforum.com and click Join
- For news and information about FPF, check out its blog: http://frontporchforum.com/blog

Tips for neighborhood engagement
- Encourage friends, neighbors, co-workers and others to sign up at http://frontporchforum.com
- Post brief messages frequently: It's all about getting a conversation rolling
- Use your FPF neighborhood forum to organize a block party, group yard sale or other event

Source: Michael Wood-Lewis, co-founder/owner of Front Porch Forum

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Join the conversation about neighborhoods and community building on the Front Porch Forum blog