A 19th-century political thinker once called America a "nation of joiners" -- a fledgling democracy held together by its people's civic and community engagement.
What happens today when many Americans, engrossed in the Internet and individual pursuits, seem to shrink from neighborhood connections and local civic life? That question nagged Harvard students Peter Davis and Max Novendstern.
Worried that their generation is witness to a "mass disengagement from local community," the college roommates launched a series of community websites to revitalize civic involvement. They've selected 11 small cities and towns across the country, including Burnsville and Golden Valley. The Burnsville site, www.Burnsville.ourcommonplace.com, came online in October.
The pair launched the first community site out of their dorm room for Davis' hometown of Falls Church, Va., a little more than a year ago.
"We care a lot about democracy in general," explained 22-year-old Davis, quoting political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville and a slew of studies illustrating a decline in civic engagement. "Small towns and the people right around you are where the rubber hits the road in the governing of ourselves. We are as much affected by local decisions as by the decisions made by Obama and Congress."
The difference between Ourcommonplace.com and other social media websites: Its designers hope their project rouses community members to move away from their computers and participate in civic and community activities. The founders call their website a bulletin board and liken it to "infrastructure" for communities.
"Facebook wants you to spend eight hours a day on Facebook. We want you to spend one minute on Commonplace, see a community event and attend it," Davis said.
The site is free to users and doesn't feature advertisers. Grants and private investors are financing the project. Users must provide their full name, Burnsville address and e-mail. Davis said there's room on the site for "vibrant" debate and discussion including a "city problem-solving and ideas" discussion group, but said site moderators will delete posts they consider offensive or threatening. That's already happened at least once on the Burnsville site, followed by a post from a site moderator asking users to refrain "from attacking or insulting our neighbors and our town."
"We've had over 20,000 posts," said Davis, referring to all 11 community websites. "Only two or three have been deemed problematic."
Ourcommonplace.com is now based in Boston, but they've sent three community organizers to Burnsville to knock on doors and promote the site at local events. There are now about 400 Burnsville users. The organizers are often found working out of JoJo's Rise and Wine.
The site features online bulletin boards for events and community news, neighborhood organizing and group activities. Community organizer Julia Campbell said it's a place to post everything from lost pet notices to book club meetings to charity events.
"The purpose is to reconnect local communities," Campbell said.
The site is red, white and blue. That's no accident.
"We want to reclaim the flag. People think [ the flag] is about war and used car salesmen," Davis said. "We think America is more fundamentally about neighbors helping neighbors and people working together to direct their common destiny."
Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz met Novendstern at the U.S. Conference of Mayors at Harvard University and helped bring the site to Burnsville. The city does not fund the site, but the mayor and City Council member Dan Gustafson are active posters.
"I am always looking at more ways and tools to engage the community. This was a platform that I thought would be great for Burnsville," Kautz explained. "It's open and transparent and people can't be anonymous when they converse. This is about respectful civic engagement."
Shannon Prather is a Roseville freelance writer.