Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

The Civic Commons shows impact in Northeast Ohio

March 8, 2012, 11:27 a.m., Posted by Knight Foundation

Knight funds The Civic Commons to build on existing citizen engagement efforts to provide new ways for citizens to learn about local issues. Here, Dan Moulthrop from The Civic Commons, writes about its impact.

Sam Bell is an auto mechanic in an inner ring suburb of Cleveland. He calls himself an "eco-conscious" auto mechanic, and what that means, practically, is that he recycles everything he can at his garage (The Lusty Wrench), and he rides his bike to work every day. It also means that he takes a very active interest in his community. As the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district began public engagement on their proposed strategic plan, he grew worried that the district's commitment to sustainability was little more than "lip service." He had tried to raise this at public meetings but to no avail. So, in late December, he turned to The Civic Commons and invited the community to join in a conversation about his ideas.

At first, no one seemed to be paying attention.  Since then, though, a few hundred people have accessed the conversation and almost 30 have participated in some fashion. The real success, though, lies in the fact that as a result of his efforts online and in the community, Sam recently got a meeting with the district superintendent. Here's what he posted on the Commons about that meeting:

"We wound up spending nearly an hour together, instead of the 20 minutes I had asked for.  I think neither of us was unhappy about having spent so long....I invited him to call the Cambridge MA Supt of Schools, whom he turns out to know through involvement in a committee on which they both serve, to ask about their experience.  He is willing to do so, and has asked me to furnish him information from other school systems which have managers of sustainability in place."

The lesson here, is that one person - with the right tools - can make a difference. Of course, it also helps that if you bring your car to Sam, chances are he’ll bend your ear for about 20 minutes about why you should join his conversation at the Commons.

This is just one example of the impact The Civic Commons is having on Northeast Ohio, and with some 2,000 registered users and more than 63,000 visits last year, it's being replicated every day. Government institutions, local nonprofits, citizen advocacy groups, traditional media and individual community members like Sam Bell are harnessing the Civic Commons to engage with their communities about every issue of importance, from fracking and shale gas development to transportation and land use planning, and from the future of Cleveland's Flats neighborhood to the reasons Akronites are concerned about the rise in incivility in their communities.

The Civic Commons team is also actively helping to facilitate a growing regional network of public officials interested in local government efficiency and collaboration; we helped a local citizen group conduct an online candidates' forum for a local office that hadn't seen a competitive race in more than fifty years. We've helped a local metropolitan planning organization find out which projects the community thought should get funded.  

In the coming months, we'll be announcing some exciting partnerships that will leverage Knight's investment in our online engagement environment and extend it to communities across the nation. For now, though, there's a lot to celebrate in Northeast Ohio.  And we’ve just released this award-winning (not really) video to introduce people to the Commons and how it works.