Expanding civic engagement in Tallahassee with help from LocalWiki (and an enterprising retiree)

When The Village Square embarked on our hyper-local community engagement project called “Get Local” – funded by Knight Foundation through the Community Foundation of North Florida – we wanted to appeal to people who weren’t the usual ones who show up for local civic events.  With deepening national partisanship increasingly playing out in local politics, hometown civic discussions have become angrier and therefore less attractive to the average nonpartisan citizen.  And we think Tallahassee can hardly afford to lose what they have to offer.

Devoted to growing civil discourse across the partisan divide, The Village Square was founded by local Tallahassee leaders with enduring across-the-aisle friendships.  They shared a frustration that the quality of the civic dialogue had deteriorated to the point that it was hard to have a constructive conversation about hometown decisions.  The Village Square now hosts about 15 forums a year on national, state and local civic topics – usually to a packed house. 

The Village Square concept has always been that the more bonded neighbors can become as neighbors – borrowing sugar, rolling up their sleeves to work side-by-side on projects and the like – the less partisan rancor there is when cities have to make hard decisions together.  (If you too want to try your hand at healing the partisan divide, we highly recommend reading about the science that supports our concept in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.)

While we have clear evidence we’ve successfully broadened the local conversation significantly beyond the usual suspects, our evaluation data has also confirmed that we’re still not adequately reaching the politically disengaged.

So to achieve the goal of attracting the less engaged and deepening their affection for Tallahassee, we looked for a civic project to use as a vehicle that had far broader appeal than the more typical, more direct solutions to civic engagement.  We found exactly what we were looking for in the Knight-funded project

The brainchild of Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov, LocalWiki grew out of the highly successful DavisWiki, where one in seven residents actually edit the wiki. With Knight support, the DavisWiki founders created a simple to use open-source version of DavisWiki called LocalWiki for other communities to use. Today, the LocalWiki software has been installed over 800 times, with major projects in nine countries, in seven languages, and reaching over 380,000 individuals each month.

Our launch of TallahasseeWiki via CampWiki was a series of relaxed writing get-togethers last summer when we rented a cool local coffee shop in the trendy Midtown part of town.  It was covered in a big feature piece – along with an online photo gallery – on the front page of the Tallahassee Democrat’s local section.  CampWiki even had a camp slogan and t-shirts: “all of the adventure, none of the bugs” (a particularly important selling point when you live in Florida).

At CampWiki we met the most unlikely civic heroes – people like retiree Judy Westbrook, who has now written well over 50 (very detailed) pages on everything Tallahassee.  Westbrook has written pages on resources for your animals, veteran services, health resources, farmers’ markets and daycations (six day trips heading different directions out of town) and more.  She’s written up a storm about living in Tallahassee – a city she describes as having been good to her.

WFSU, our local public radio station, did a story on Westbrook designating her “TallahasseeWiki’s No. 1 tourguide.”  She told WFSU’s Thomas Andrew Gustafson, “right now, I’m working on dance groups, because a lot of people are interested in dance. Not just in watching it but there’s groups that will teach you the old-timey dances. My dining room table has got these piles. This one’s wiki, this one’s wiki in the future.”

The bulk of the Village Square’s “Get Local” project still offers constructive civic engagement for the more likely to be engaged citizen like Our Town Local Leadership ForumOur Town Fast Forward, Speed Date Your Local Leaders and Peter Kageyama’s For the Love of Tallahassee – along with a local public policy wiki for egg-headed policy wonks (like us) called We the Wiki

We’re also giving them a pathway to increase engagement online, by specifically linking TallahasseeWiki pages to related public policy issues on We the Wiki (also fully user-editable).  So if you love the theatre enough to write a page on it for TallahasseeWiki, you might find yourself feeling you’ve got a stake in the debate about building a performing arts center.  On We the Wiki, you can add to a pro/con list on an issue, create a fact check page, and even write and publish your own op-ed on a topic.  We see TallahasseeWiki as a way to plant seeds of good citizenship that the Village Square is ready to grow.

Without our cool new hyper-local TallahasseeWiki, we’d miss out on meeting civic treasures like Westbrook. And Tallahassee would miss out on the heart and soul she has to offer her hometown. 

By Liz Joyner, executive director, The Village Square