Civic-Minded Success Stories

U.S. News & World Report
By Caitlin Huey-Burns

A big idea and a little determination can change communities for the better.

Sometimes you don't have to venture much farther than your front porch to make a difference. Just ask Michael Wood-Lewis. As new residents of Burlington, Vt., Wood-Lewis and his wife, Valerie, were having trouble feeling at home. The occasional wave to a passing neighbor or the guy walking his German shepherd past the house didn't constitute the kind of community the Wood-Lewises were looking for when they moved from Washington, D.C., in 1998.

So Wood-Lewis created an online neighborhood newsletter. He spread the word by passing out fliers that encouraged residents to write in about topics of concern or interest to the 400-household neighborhood. Then in 2006, encouraged by the success of the interactive newsletter, and seeking a way for other neighborhoods to participate, he launched Front Porch Forum, a Web site where folks can log on to a site designed for their particular neighborhood and discuss everything from road repairs to the school budget.

Wood-Lewis, who has an MBA, has since turned his idea into a for-profit business, serving 40 Vermont towns. While developing his site, he worked full time as an executive director of a trade organization. You don't need to be Web-savvy to create a service like his, he says. He started by using free online tools, similar to a Google group or a blog that allows for comments and forums.

Once Front Porch Forum launched, Wood-Lewis became its CEO and took it on as a full-time job. But he insists that the goal hasn't changed. Front Porch Forum sells ads and subscriptions to local businesses, municipalities, and institutions to fund itself. But residents register for free. City council members, school board members, and public works officials also subscribe--to find out what their constituents are talking about and to get a sense of the kind of help they might provide. And citizens can get their complaints heard.

"We were looking for a service that would draw people out of their digital, hurried lives and get them interested in what was going on in their street," Wood-Lewis says of turning his idea into a viable service. He was determined to keep the community website free and accessible, a safe place where people could introduce themselves to their neighbors and at the same time were encouraged to meet face-to-face. On Front Porch Forum, individuals log on to the site, pick their neighborhood from the list, and provide full names and addresses so that no post is anonymous. This helps to keep the conversation open and honest, as well as neighborly.

Wood-Lewis hasn't exactly started a revolution, but experts say he has become part of a movement of people finding custom ways to build a community. "We've come out of a period of pretty steep declines in the traditional forms of engagement, and we are also in a period of a lot of experimentation and innovation," says Peter Levine, research director of Tufts University's Jonathan Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Levine says that while people may still belong to a traditional membership group, meeting attendance has been declining since 1975 and people are less inclined to meet and interact with other members one-on-one.

Wood-Lewis's own experiment appears to be working. He applied for the 2010 Knight News Challenge grant, which rewards "innovative ideas that develop platforms, tools and services to inform and transform community news, conversations and information distribution and visualization." Wood-Lewis got $220,000 to expand Front Porch Forum to almost all Vermont towns over the next year. Front Porch Forum now has four employees, or "expert community managers for neighborhoods," to monitor and maintain the sites.

Of course, some forms of civic engagement might require you to roll up your sleeves and get your hands off the keyboard and into the dirt. Linda D'Avirro and other members of her San Francisco community had grown weary, and wary, of a dilapidated playground in a nearby park. D'Avirro had lived in the neighborhood for over 20 years and had never seen a time when children or families were able to use the playground. Year after year, the grass would grow taller around the rotting wooden swing set, and the bushes had become unruly. "It was just scary, creepy, and no one would go over there," says D'Avirro, who at the time worked in hotel sales.

"It all started with the old phone call and E-mail route," she says. D'Avirro and a group of neighbors contacted the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department, which advised them to partner with the local park advocacy group. After roughly 10 months of community meetings and phone calls, and successful grant applications, Crocker Amazon Purple Playground opened in 2003.

Wood-Lewis and D'Avirro took different approaches to civic needs, but the method was the same. They identified a lack in the community and came up with an answer. Researchers and public servants alike agree that making a real change requires true collaboration: brainstorming sessions with neighbors, evaluating resources, and devising an action plan to maintain the desired service. Still, even a committed, enthusiastic group may need some extra help.

"There needs to be some kind of institutional partner to ensure some longevity," says Ellen Tveit, communications coordinator at the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, which promotes and supports civic engagement. Partnering with an organization in your community can also help you break through logistical and legal processes that may, at first, seem daunting, like applying for a grant or some other type of funding. D'Avirro needed a grant for the Crocker Amazon project and was able to secure two. "You have to constantly network, be politically savvy, and identify the movers and shakers in your community," she says. "You have to do your homework" and find organizations that will support your efforts.

Tveit suggests teaming up with a nonprofit organization like hers. "It's difficult if it's only a group of parents or neighbors," she says. "We have the capacity to do grant writing, and organizations can provide some stability."

Brick by brick. City parks and recreation departments can help you find funding or design a custom service project, like installing benches and basketball hoops or creating a memorial garden. D'Avirro and her group teamed up with San Francisco's nonprofit Neighborhood Parks Council, a park advocacy partner of the city. The council helped to organize group meetings to discuss what kind of playground to build and the types of materials to use--and to secure a city "challenge grant" that would match the amount of money D'Avirro's group raised. To bring in funds, they sold the right to put the name of a loved one on a memorial brick for around $50, with the bricks then used for the playground's walkway.

Rich Dolesh, chief of public policy for the National Recreation and Park Association, says people like D'Avirro are "critical for the mission of serving the public and keeping the services going" as park systems face dramatic budget cuts. In San Francisco, 20 percent of the city's park operating budget was cut in the last year, according to Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the Recreation and Park Department. The city is short about 200 gardeners and 80 custodians, and roughly 50 other workers were laid off. "The government can't do it alone anymore," Ginsburg says. "Community public service is more important than ever." The San Francisco community also supported the parks by voting in 2008 for the Clean and Safe Neighborhood Parks Bond, which helps finance various renovations. The fund, independent of the park department's operating budget, helps people like D'Avirro turn their service ideas into reality.

Inspired by the playground success, D'Avirro took a look at the five long concrete benches around it and said, "Man, I wish those were pretty." So she and friends Linda Litehiser and Grace D'Anca, who together call themselves Team Linda, went to the Neighborhood Parks Council again with an idea to cover the benches in murals made from colorful bits of tile, then helped write a grant proposal to pay for it.

Applying for and receiving grants can be tricky. In D'Avirro's case, the team had to demonstrate that the mural project would provide a significant service to the community and that the benches would bring more people to the park. The group pledged to work with the local Precita Eyes Mural Arts Association and the city art commission, hold community meetings to design the bench murals, and enlist neighborhood volunteers to help place the tiny tiles onto the benches.

They succeeded. After eight months of neighbors working together on weekends, Crocker Amazon Park had five benches that each told a story--the creation of man, for example--and a place for neighborhood families to spend time.

Levine says there tends to be more grant money available for groups providing a "concrete service," like starting a program to serve hot lunches at local schools, with which your PTA chapter can help, or to provide transportation services. In St. Paul, Minn., a group of parents and neighborhood leaders saw a need for a new bus system.

Meanwhile, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and the Neighborhood Learning Community, comprising several local organizations, schools, and libraries, were looking for a way to ferry children to extracurricular activities at community centers, parks, libraries, and events organized by groups like the Boys & Girls Club and Girl Scouts. The different groups had the same idea: "What if transportation wasn't a problem?" says Tveit.

Together, they designed a plan for the West Side Circulator. The Center for Democracy and Citizenship secured a grant and the bus started operation in 2003, serving 17 youth organizations at no cost to the riders. Spurred by the clear and immediate difference the West Side Circulator had made in the community, the St. Paul mayor's office took the idea to the other side of town. The East Side Circulator began operating on the same principles in 2007.

Making a difference on your street, in your school, or even in your local government doesn't mean you have to quit your day job. D'Avirro and many of the parents involved with St. Paul's West Side Circulator held down jobs unrelated to the services they were organizing. The biggest hurdle these groups faced wasn't about finding the time. It was getting others to jump on board with their ideas. "There's always going to be a bit of cynicism," says D'Avirro. "Like, 'We've seen this before. It's not going to happen,' or, 'Why should I do this if I already pay taxes?'"

But after people see the impact a group of ordinary citizens can have, others begin to extend their hands. Back in Burlington, for example, a man logged on to Front Porch Forum and reported, to 500 neighbors, a pothole "so big they said they could lose a child in it," says Wood-Lewis. "And the next day, the asphalt truck is out there."

As the neighborhood Web forum caught on, users began to wonder about the people behind the postings. "Instead of living among familiar strangers, people are seeing these posts and now you know somebody," says Wood-Lewis. "It's a fundamental, grass-roots, meaningful change."

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