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Portals Project: Add More Community Voices

When Rashanah Baldwin told the teens in her digital media class that they could write for the Englewood Portal, at first they didn’t believe her.

The Pilsen Portal is one of several websites developed through LISC Chicago's Smart Communities program that allows residents and businesses to post stories, videos and photos about newsworthy events.

“They told me, ‘We have to get permission from someone to be a writer, to write about Englewood.’ I said, ‘No you don’t. You just have to do it.’ And they got pretty excited,” says Baldwin, the portal manager for Teamwork Englewood.

Baldwin’s course is part of a new initiative to bring more neighborhood voices and ideas to the network of community portals that LISC Chicago helped launch in seven neighborhoods: Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park, Near North, Pilsen and Far South.

Created as part of the Smart Communities program, the portals are places to learn more about the neighborhood—with “hyperlocal” articles, events, a directory of community institutions, photos, videos and more.

“We’re locally based and writing about what’s going on in Pilsen, what residents want to know,” says Luiz Magaña of The Resurrection Project, manager of the Pilsen Portal.

Local content

From the start, the portals were designed to get most of their content from residents, business owners, nonprofits, schools and other community stakeholders. The sites have a “Share news, events, listings” button at the top of every page that anyone can click to submit an item. Once the portal manager checks it to be sure it’s ready, it goes live.

That model has worked well. More than 800 different people contributed one or more items to a portal last year, and the mix of stories has included everything from how to help a local school raise money for a new playground on the Chicago Lawn Portal to a series of Q&As with local residents on CoNNect, the Near North portal. Readership numbers have been increasing, sometimes in leaps and bounds. The Pilsen Portal routinely attracts 9,000 visits a month.

In meetings last year, however, portal managers acknowledged that they could use a wider variety of submissions and a broader set of contributors. “I think people can be intimidated about writing,” Baldwin says.

Rashanah Baldwin, here with colleague Demond Drummer, is teaching a new generation of residents how to post stories on the Englewood Portal.

Gordon Walek

Their response goes beyond the basic trainings that portal managers have done from the start, which focused on the technical details of posting a story. With this new model, portal managers are training residents on what it takes to write a good story—and being a coach as they try.

With support from the McCormick Foundation’s Why News Matters program, LISC and the portal managers have created a curriculum framed around “news literacy.” It starts with analysis of what the mainstream media writes about the community—and why—and how a reporter approaches a story. The second half of the program gives advice and encouragement to write for the portal. (Curriculum materials are here and here. Corresponding Prezi presentations are here and here.)

New perspectives

The curriculum is designed for use in different contexts. Baldwin’s weekly class, for example, is using the materials for a few sessions of a nine-week afterschool class for teens, in a partnership between the Residents Association of Greater Englewood and the Innercity Muslim Action Network in Chicago Lawn. Trainers used the lessons in last year’s Digital Youth Summer Jobs programs in Englewood and Auburn Gresham.

Libby Juliá-Vázquez, manager for the Humboldt Park Portal and communications director for Bikerdike Redevelopment Corporation, will once again use the curriculum during her guest lectures this spring with a class of urban planning students at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

And in Pilsen, Magaña is combining a Spanish version of the curriculum with two Smart Communities tech training courses in a program for 11 residents who are looking for work. That’s part of a weekly course started in January in collaboration with the local Poder Learning Center.

The Resurrection Project's Luiz Magaña manages the Pilsen Portal, the oldest and most widely visited of the portals established by LISC Chicago.

Gordon Walek

“This is a group with little formal education, and so we’ve started with computer basics. We’re building relationships—nobody’s dropped out of this session, everybody’s getting to know one another. Then by the end of the class, we’ll work on empowering them to write about the community,” he says.

Reaching out

Launched five years ago, the Pilsen Portal is the firstborn of the community portal family, and it has built a steady flow of content (more than 250 news stories and 300 calendar items in 2013) and a steadily increasing readership (107,000 visits last year).

But Magaña says his team is keeping a close eye on how to improve local coverage. A partnership this year with the Chicago Latino Writers Initiative is bringing in submissions that are more fully reported than a typical portal article, for example, like a news story on a family dealing with the drive-by shooting death of their father.

And in March, the portal ran a series of interviews for Woman’s History Month, including community activist Alica Rocha and teacher and community organizer Hilda Franco. “We want to add more stories that are based on the people of Pilsen,” Magaña says.

Building a wider set of stories is also the aim for Juliá-Vázquez. “Quite often we get new people writing for us, but they tend to be from local organizations telling their story,” she says. “That’s great, but we also would like to get more people in the community engaged with the portal and writing about what is important to them.”

So, in addition to the annual UIC class, Juliá-Vázquez offers a 90-minute workshop, “Blogging for Beginners: The Art of Storytelling,” that incorporates parts of the news literacy training into a larger discussion of being a writer.

Residents and business people throughout the city have identified community portals as effective and useful ways to share information with local audiences.

Gordon Walek

Twenty local residents signed up for the first class in February, a mix of people looking for guidance and momentum to publish online. “Some people want to be writers and get better at it, some wanted to promote themselves or say something about the community,” she says. Two more sessions are scheduled this spring, at different times of day to maximize involvement.

Not every participant in Juliá-Vázquez’s workshop, or in any of the courses that use the LISC Why News Matters curriculum, will become a portal contributor. That’s to be expected.

But thanks to input from portal managers as the curriculum was being written, the lessons stress building an ongoing relationship with potential writers. The idea is to go beyond having just an open door, to actively inviting people in and making them feel welcome and valued.

“For the people who might write for the portal, follow-up is a big part of it,” Juliá-Vázquez says. “Once you get people in the room and give them some tips, that gives them more confidence. Then it’s so important to keep in touch with them, help them formulate the idea and not give up on it.” 

Posted in Civic Tech, Englewood, Humboldt Park, Pilsen


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