A Matter of Trust

The Times Argus

By Steven Pappas

March 2, 2018

We are a trusting bunch here in Vermont. A recent survey of members of Front Porch Forum in Vermont found that 78 percent of survey respondents say their neighbors trust each other. Nationally, surveys suggest only 38 percent of Americans say they trust their neighbors.

Tapping 145,000 FPF members statewide, respondents said they also have more hope for the future of their local communities.

The results speak volumes to Vermonters’ strong sense of community.

The survey, results from which were released earlier this winter, found 85 percent of respondents in Vermont are “optimistic about the community where they live.” The national average is closer to 40 percent.

In addition, 69 percent of respondents in Vermont said they actually know most of their neighbors.

Michael Wood-Lewis, co-founder and CEO of FPF, also noted the survey shows 89 percent of respondents say their neighbors help others, and 79 percent say their neighbors pitch in on community projects.

“Being neighborly is paid forward in Vermont … to everyone’s benefit,” he said.

Locally, Montpelier has 5,670 FPF members. Eighty two percent of survey respondents felt they trusted their neighbors; 90 percent were optimistic about the town’s future; and 71 percent said they knew their neighbors by sight.

In the forum that represents Barre City, Barre Town, Berlin, East Montpelier, Middlesex, Northfield, Roxbury and Worcester, or 9,530 members, 70 percent of respondents said they trusted their neighbors; 80 percent were optimistic about their town’s future; and 74 percent know their neighbors by sight.

And in the forum that represents Calais, Cabot, Marshfield, Plainfield and Woodbury — 4,160 members — 82 percent said they trusted their neighbors; 87 percent were optimistic about their town’s future; and 73 percent said they knew their neighbors by sight.

The survey was commissioned by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Front Porch Forum, and was conducted by Network Impact. More than 15,000 FPF members (out of 132,000 surveyed) responded.

Across Vermont’s 260,000 households, 145,000 FPF members engage with their neighbors using Front Porch Forum. The online community-building service was started in Burlington in 2006.

By design it hosts a statewide network of local forums where neighbors post about lost pets, car break-ins, plumber recommendations, borrowing ladders, free ice skates, cars for sale, school budget debates, among other topics.

All in all, this is heartwarming and encouraging news, especially at a time where people seem to be feeling grim and disconnected. It could suggest that we are too Pollyannaish in our local world view. But it more likely suggests that members of Front Porch Forum, who are not anonymous and make a commitment to be part of the online community, are comforted by the engagement of others. Perhaps at a time when contention is rampant, the sense of community, even online, is enough of a connection for members to feel a level of comfort and trust.

According to Network Impact, “this research provides a jumping off point for digging deeper into how technology can enhance opportunities to build social capital in place.”

Among the lessons from Front Porch Forum: “To support place attachment and increased social capital in communities, offer both online and off line opportunities to participate in and witness small acts of connection and kindness,” Network Impact wrote in its report.

Community building takes various forms, whether that be public suppers, music, theater or meetings and discussion groups. Vermonters have always taken great pride in being good neighbors. Now we can take stock in knowing that being part of the community, even online, has merits that go far beyond chasing down lost dogs or finding a place to stay for a friend. It still means we connect.

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