Excerpts from NPi's
On August 6th, 2009, Joseph Porcelli, Co-Founder and Chief Neighbor of Neighbors for Neighbors, participated in NPi’s community dialogue, “Building Community Online and Offline” at City Year. Additional speakers included Doris Sommer from Cultural Agents and Dave McLaughlin from Boston World Partnerships. NPi community dialogues bring together local leaders to discuss lessons learned, current projects, and potential collaborations. Click here for pictures and video from the event. Below are some excerpts from the conversation.
About Neighbors for Neighbors
I like [Dave McLauglin’s] Red Sox Nation metaphor. Really what Neighbors for Neighbors is about is creating Neighbor Nation. Ultimately in a couple years what we’re looking to do is facilitate something called the Neighbor Movement. And what’s so important about that is that it’s kind of like what [Dave McLaughlin] and [Doris Sommer] were talking about. There’s all this intelligence and ability that lies out there in our communities. The medium that we’re playing with in our space is really the neighborhood. One of our core values is that we believe that the solutions to problems, the innovative things people can do with and for each other, lay in our communities themselves, where we live. And so proposing that, over the past five years we’ve been evolving and building what we now call a new civic infrastructure. We’re leveraging social media to serve as that infrastructure so that people’s ideas and visions become transformed into actions. And their actions become programs, activities, you name it for the community in which they live.
What that all really looks like is right now we’ve built social networks for every neighborhood in the city of Boston. You each have a flyer on your chairs. If you go to NeighborsforNeighbors.org, you will see a link to every neighborhood in the city of Boston. You can join your neighborhood network. On that network you’ll find very similar functionality that you would find or expect to find on a social network. You can add a blog post about something you’re thinking about or discuss something in the forums or add an event about something happening in the community. You can upload a video of something that you’ve done or that you thought was important, and all of the information is specific to where you live. If you go on Facebook and try to find something to do in your neighborhood on Friday, it’s almost impossible. There’s really no geographic based system… We essentially started off by doing neighborhood socials where people would meet each other in the neighborhood, have a beer, and get to know their neighbor. And then based on feedback we got from the community, we started doing organizing expos which we would do at the Milky Way at JP.
Each neighborhood would get like a 3×3 section of the table and they’d start things. A group that started and made a big difference, for example, is JP Trees. This began when two people wanted to start planting trees because they thought that would be good. They showed up and about 30 people joined them and they planted 400 trees. And I believe it eventually influenced the mayor to commit to planting 100,000 trees in the city just because these two neighbors had this idea and were able to propose that to the community and have the tool at the time which was that event. Then they used Yahoo I think to communicate and it happened.
What we’ve done now is operationalize that entire process, help it happen online, so you don’t have to wait for an event. You can add to the blog and say, guys, I’ve got this idea. What are you guys doing on Tuesdays? Do you want to go run around the arboretum and play flag football? Whatever it is. But people will say, yeah, let’s do it. So they create the group, join the group, post an event on the network and then go run around and play flag football in the arboretum. Then all of a sudden they discover they all really care about that other thing, too… The deeper connections happen because people have found each other based on their common interests.
In response to: How have you found online tools to enhance or strengthen your communities? How have you found them to limit your community building efforts?
A friend of mine brought something to my attention. His name’s Steve Nutter. He lives in Mission Hill. He’s actually going to be our Mission Hill point person… He said why are we using these tools? Why do we have to connect the social networker to all these things? And my response was because we really don’t know how to interact with each other anymore… Social media is great tool. We know it works. It has some challenges, but we’re using it because we’re afraid to say good morning, hey neighbor, my name’s Joseph. I’ve really been thinking about it, and I started blogging about it to start a city-wide conversation.
There’s a couple things that come to mind. 1) I think there’s an agreement that it’s not OK to talk. 2) We feel like we need permission to do things, organize around shared interests… I think we have to challenge that. So by continuing to interact online, I think it’s a great opportunity to learn things about each other, but we also need to ask that same question, [what else can we do besides use these social media tools]?
In response to: How are you partnering with other organizations, both those that are using social media and those that are not?
It’s one of our biggest challenges. Not everybody is online and not everybody who is online is using our networks. In JP we have the largest adoption. The network’s been live for about a year and a half. We have about 1,230 something people. 20 or 30 people are joining a week. And these flyers you see here—by the way there’s no funding. I’m bootstrapping it right now. So we figured out we could spend $160 and create 5,000 of these things and get them out in the neighborhoods. We did them in Spanish as well. We’re trying to break down as many barriers as we can, but we’re really using the networks as a tool to drive people to events. When we do our messaging, we say, don’t forget to tell people who aren’t online to come. Here are some flyers that you can download and put up in your neighborhood or in your building. So we don’t have the resources to offer Wifi to everybody and give everybody a PDA in the city and train them how to use it, but we’re leveraging the resources we have and using the network to help share information.
How Neighbors for Neighbors publicizes events
We originally built our community by hosting neighborhood socials… When we flyer for events, it’s super aggressive. For one event in JP we do 6,000 flyers. We do houses. We tape them on each door. We don’t put flyers on cars because that just creates a lot of litter, but do the T stops. I get four people to come with me and we stand—has anyone ever tried to walk past in me in JP coming home? You can’t do it! I’m like “Hey neighbors! Welcome home! How are you doing?!” We make a ruckus and make people feel uncomfortable and then they’re like, he’s kind of fun, I’ll take one. So you really have to shake people up and make them smile to get them the flyer. And then after seeing you do that for five years, you know they’re going to take one. That’s my strategy. [Laughter]
The other thing, too, is social media’s really powerful, right? The last time I looked at our Google analytics, most of our traffic was direct, then it came from Facebook, then it came from Universal Hub, then from some other places. So I post on lots of different networks and try to post things that are interesting, that I think will be of interest to others, and share them.
In response to the question: given that all of your organizations invite people to become actively involved, do you ever impose constraints on their participation?
I’ll talk about a specific instance on our JP network that wasn’t what we were hoping we would see, but we did. Unfortunately, I didn’t jump in soon enough. I apparently needed to learn that lesson. Someone wrote a post on the website and the title of the post was Delinquents in Front of Fiore’s. Fiore’s is a bakery [in Jamaica Plain] and across the street there’s a tennis court and some benches. And it’s kind of shaded, a nice cool place to play chess, hang out for some people who happen to be homeless to congregate… So [discussion over the post] went back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The tone of the conversation basically went to these street people, those thieves, these low-lifes. At that point I realized that it was really out of control. I should have moderated immediately and said the title of the post isn’t working for our values, how we engage each other.
So I just jumped in and offered some guidelines, and the first thing that I did to moderate—I said all people, individuals, and groups, must be referred to as people, individuals, and groups. If you don’t like the behavior, you can talk about the behavior, but you can in no way demean or say anything that’s rude to define an individual. But as I was reading through the threads, there were like 30 comments in this particular discussion and there were some assumptions: 1) that all these folks were thieves, that they were delinquents 2) that they were homeless… People had assumptions about each other, expectations, agreements, all of the same things.
There happened to be a woman named Kat who owns Petal and Leaf, which is the little flower shop down the street. Someone unfortunately said some very rude and aggressive things about Kat on the website. As soon as that happened, that’s what prompted me to shut the conversation down. I went and had a conversation with Kat, and it turns out the person had said that she’s fueling the situation by providing food, shelter, and employment to these thieves, low-lifes, etc. Kat’s side of the story was very different. She’d befriended these individuals being someone who is very compassionate, she wanted to get to know them, and she let them store their blankets and belongings when it rained so that they wouldn’t get wet—so they’d have something dry and warm to sleep in. She’d gotten to know one individual who had been working very hard to turn their life around and gotten sober… That’s a very different side of the story. The facts really weren’t out there as part of the conversation.
I think that’s really important—what we perceive to happen and the story that we make up about what we perceive and what really happens are sometimes three very different things. It’s really important as we’re interacting with one another to try to understand that. [About encouraging participation]—part of where we’re coming from is everyone in the community is a leader and is no more or less than anyone else. It’s up to them how much they want to or don’t want to participate and contribute. Really, the way I see things, the more they contribute content, the more they contribute to the community.
On letting the organizational model change and evolve
When we first started Neighbors for Neighbors, it was a crime watch organization. I didn’t even know what it was yet. I just knew that two of my neighbors were violently assaulted. We did research and found out people were being assaulted all the time and no one was telling each other or calling 911. So we had a meeting and a bunch of people came and someone said we should do a neighborhood social. And we did, and 90 people came and we all thought it was cool. So we kept doing those for a while and then the numbers started dwindling… And then someone said we should do an organizing meeting where we actually create things… All right, that sounded good. Then we started doing that for a while. The last big event we did, we had about 370 people show up. There was a line out the door in the cold. This was just for people to meet their neighbors and do stuff. I guess the point is you have to continue to listen and be willing to let go and then innovate, but innovate based on the leadership of the community you’re serving.
Advice he would pass on to others
Thanks again to my friend Steve Nutter… We were talking about what you do versus who you are. And I’m going to propose that it doesn’t matter what you do, and what really matters is who you are, and how you generate yourself. How you generate yourself is—let’s assume after you’ve had your coffee and you step outside and you go for a walk and begin passing your neighbors. Are you that person who looks at the ground, or are you that person that says good morning? Are you that person who gets up from your seat on the T and gives it to someone? I think these are the biggest things that matter and people will sense that from you. You’ll smile more. That makes the biggest difference. When I’m not being true to my values—actually, I’ll share a story.
In 2007 I wore a name tag every day for a year. [Laughter] That’s awesome! If you want to create community, do that. I wanted to see what would happen, and to my surprise people actually started joining me. For a day, an hour, a month. Some people would join me for half the time or the whole time. But we wound up with 90,000 people wearing a name tag for a day under that project. And we did name tag with the Boston Police Department. They were passing out name tags. I don’t even know how I pulled that off. I have no idea! But the coolest thing we did with it, and I think how it applies to this conversation—my friend Phoebe, who was I think at the time still a high school student—she invited me to come to a name tag workshop at her high school. I was trying to think of something cool to do, and it was actually one of her ideas we ended up going with. We wrote our first name down and then we used one word that we felt the world needed most as our last name. So I chose Love, she chose Courage, somebody chose Acceptance, somebody chose Forgiveness. We went through the whole gamut, and we actually had everyone in the school re-introduce themselves to one other… And it was really interesting because the people who knew each other the longest found out they knew each other the least.
Where they could use help
Someone asked what do we need. I need neighborhood organizers. Mattapan, Fenway, Back Bay, South Boston, South End. We’re going to put calls out there. Imagine if I was like hey guys, come over, there’s this great party at my house! And then you get there and there’s no one there. You’re not going to come back, right? We need to get folks in to keep people in the network. For example, in Dorchester where Bill [Walczak] lives there’s Chad Baker who’s actually a City Year alum. He’s done a great job of reaching out to community stakeholders, adding some content. We go to events and take lots of pictures, add lots of video. Everybody’s hooked on Facebook. I don’t expect people to be hooked on Neighbors for Neighbors. I hope they are, but that’s one thing we need—neighborhood organizers. And in terms of what we’re going to do, I hope to be able to provide the service of actually generating great content for [organizations like] Boston World Partnerships so it does give a real flavor of the neighborhoods.
On being sustainable and generating revenue
I think in terms of long-term sustainability and feasibility for us… we think there are pockets of funds available in some way. We’re not totally clear what they are. It’s kind of hard to wrap our heads around—what this is and how to sell it. But sitting here next to Dave McLaughlin tonight, it makes me think that Boston World Partnerships if for businesses whereas Neighbors for Neighbors is for residents… I’m actually going to write a blog post about that tomorrow.
Fortunately, for our organization our operational costs are minimal. The projection for us to do this for a year is $84,000. Right now, as of yesterday, we have 1,703 people in the network, so let’s say it’s grown by 10 or 20. So in a year’s time if we have 2 or 3,000 in our networks—that’s just in Boston—and we do an appeal to the community—can you give a buck, can you give five bucks to support us? And that’s probably all we’re going to need to ask for. If we have a good contribution, we can raise most of the money we need. Also, we’ve begun talking to Philadelphia and they’re interested in our model. They may want to contract us to do Neighbors for Neighbors there.
How to get involved:
To speak with Joseph Porcelli about becoming a neighborhood organizer, find more information, or make a donation, please visit www.neighborsforneighbors.org.
Image by Ari Klickstein.