On Oct. 14 Sarah Fenske of St. Louis Public Radio (90.7 KWMU), the St. Louis flagship NPR station, interviewed Washington University Professor Betsy Sinclair about MAGNIFY, the civic action platform she co-founded in 2018. In “St. Louis on the Air” Fenske quizzed Sinclair as to why MAGNIFY has taken off recently. Listen here to learn why and how MAGNIFY seeks to plant the seeds of hope in a turbulent political era. Here are some highlights of what Professor Sinclair had to say:
Why has MAGNIFY taken off? You have 4,000 users. That’s lot for a fledgling start up.
MAGNIFY exploded with the pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic has been paired with a loneliness pandemic. Suddenly people couldn’t be physically present to be part of the myriad of organizations that support their lives. They were looking for other ways to be engaged. MAGNIFY provides an antidote to loneliness by giving individuals a way not only to connect with others but also to take meaningful actions.
The silver lining in the pandemic: it has never been easier to participate on line. That 7 PM evening City Council meeting that was hard to attend is now virtual. MAGNIFY offers numerous on-line opportunities to become “micro volunteers.” Those are supporters who can rarely participate at in-person events but can provide on going digital support.
For example, six weeks ago the University of Texas at Austin used MAGNIFY to start an on-line “Democracy Squad .” It offers students a variety of non-partisan projects that enable them to engage in positive ways in the upcoming elections. The UT Austin “Democracy Squad” now has 1,000 members who have already completed over 750 actions.
What do you mean by “little ‘D’ democracy?
When we talk about democracy, we’re usually talking about elections, but it encompasses a lot more. In the U.S. we have a longstanding, embedded tradition of civic engagement. “Little ‘D’ democracy” refers to the myriad of ways we connect to build neighborhoods, communities, and local governments. Part of a democracy is writing to your local City Council, donating to a local food bank, taking care of your neighbors, building communities. All these things taken together make great governance. When people raise their voices at the local level, representative democracy works.
What MAGNIFY projects have succeeded in the St. Louis area?
My favorite is one of the very first. A group of parents realized that a favorite ash tree in DeMun Park was slated for demolition as part of a park remodel. The parents sent letters, emails, and called their local alderwoman. Government listened, and the tree was saved.
Doesn’t it take a lot of voices to bring about change?
Political science research suggests that it only takes 22 constituents to get a response from local governments at the level of state legislatures or below. It doesn’t take a lot of voices at the local level to bring about change. For it to work, however, sincerity matters. Those contacts with representatives have to be genuine, not scripted.
The other thing that matters: it has to be easy for individuals to participate.
How does MAGNIFY differ from other social media platforms?
MAGNIFY focuses not just on connection but also action. It provides both a vehicle to identify a community concern and a clear path to results. It supports many different types of organizations – schools, non-profits, advocacy groups – by providing safe and secure sites that allow them to keep control of their data. MAGNIFY is rooted in organizational support.
What do you mean when you say MAGNIFY is a Civic Fitbit?
We award points to everyone who participates. Little actions count. If you can come and get credit, if you can come and take an action, it’s good for your wellness. It helps you connect to other people….and it gives you a little bit of hope.
The world exists in a large way with a more positive spin that we get from the national political coverage. To get things started, sometimes you just need to start the conversation.