Championing Radical Neighborliness with Michael Wood-Lewis (Episode #151)
Does your neighborhood or community feel like one where everyone has each other’s back, or do you barely know anyone enough to say “hello?” Our guest today, Michael Wood-Lewis, is the co-founder of Front Porch Forum, a platform where 2/3rds of households in Vermont are choosing to come together with their neighbors. Whether it’s finding lost pets, locating free building materials, volunteering to rebuild after disasters, or discovering a reliable plumber, the strength and bonds that are forming are a model for the future. Here’s inspiration and possibility at its best.
About Our Guest:
Michael Wood-Lewis has been devoted to community and neighborhood building for decades. His story and the outcome of his efforts is fascinating and about as inspiring as it gets when we pause to consider the division and isolation that so often marks our online lives.
In this episode of the Conspiracy of Goodness Podcast, you’ll come away feeling like you’ve glimpsed a version of the future that could be waiting for all of us. The concept is one just waiting to spring up, in communities all over the world.
The story starts with Michael and his wife, Valerie, looking at their own neighborhood and wondering if it could have more of a sense of familiarity and connection. They wanted the kind of relationships that would inspire things like block parties, neighbors helping neighbors and the strength of interconnectedness. So in 2000, they co-founded Front Porch Forum, a platform that has revolutionized how neighbors connect in Vermont.
In fact, the platform is such an empowering, positive force that Front Porch Forum now covers every town in the state.
After 23 years of championing “radical neighborliness”, Michael is here to share some of his insights, and I’m certain you’ll find plenty of inspiration for your own neighborhood and social circles.
But most of all, you will find peace-of-mind.
This is a story of good intention, perseverance, and most certainly a sign of the enormous wave of goodness and progress that I’m always saying is well underway in the world.
In this episode, you’ll learn
Platforms like this can and do play a fruitful and positive role in everyday life and this one has played a crucial role during tough times, such as the statewide flooding in 2011 and 2023. By focusing on local connections and strengthening bonds with neighbors, Front Porch Forum weaves people together, making it possible to tackle challenges (small and large) with more joy and way less fear.
I believe that Front Porch Forum is a model for the kind of helpful role the internet could play in our lives… as more and more of us consciously turn away from the grip of negativity there and instead, look for a sense of local connection and the benefits of neighborliness.
Front Porch Forum is not just a system; it’s a mindset and a gift we give to each other.
00:00 Intro & Welcome
03:54 Front Porch Forum
- There are more than 230,000 members of Front Porch Forum.
- When they first moved to their current home, Michael and his wife tried to connect with neighbors but were out of the community loop so they decided to create an email group to help neighbors connect.
- Front Porch Forum started before social media.
- Front Porch Forum’s mission is to help neighbors connect and build community.
- Front Porch Forum members report an increase in their happiness
13:27 Social Capital
- All the communities in the state of Vermont are served by Front Porch Forum.
- Members of Front Porch Forum benefit from being able to get help from their neighbors.
- Community members have expressed that they benefit from the ability to give back to their neighbors and their communities.
16:30 The Circular Economy
- Front Porch Forum generates revenue by selling ad space to local businesses.
- Front Porch Forum was very helpful for Michael and his wife when their four kids were still young.
- Dr. Lynda sees Front Porch Forum as the ultimate example of repurposing and recycling.
22:45 Trust, Reciprocity, and Neighborliness
- It seems like the goal of big tech and social media is to erode trust.
- Humans have historically been friendly, neighborly, and supportive of their neighbors.
- Neighborliness starts by building trust in simple ways such as lending and borrowing items and pitching in on joint projects.
- Michael’s upbringing made him think it was ok to help but not to ask for help.
- Michael’s attitude to accepting help changed when his son had a traumatic injury at birth and developed cerebral palsy.
- Dr. Lynda had a baby that weighed 1 pound 23 weeks into her pregnancy and neighbors showed up for her family in amazing ways.
- The most valuable postings on Front Porch Forum are those where people are vulnerable and need to ask for help.
29:15 Beautifully Vulnerable Success Stories
- Ten neighbors showed up for a family that had a kitchen fire and gave them a place to stay, meals, helped with the clean up, and held their hands through the insurance process.
- GoFundMe campaigns are amplified on Front Porch Forum.
- Front Porch Forum has been around through several natural disasters.
- Neighborhoods that use Front Porch Forum show higher levels of resiliency.
33:06 Shared Struggles Build Bonds
- No one wishes for a crisis, but when a crisis happens people tend to prioritize humanity.
- There’s something clarifying about a crisis.
- People tend to go back to their human conflicts once the crisis is over.
35:28 Everything’s Local
- Small local businesses thrive when neighborliness improves.
- The level of exposure and reach of micro businesses increased when Front Porch Forum was implemented.
- As many benefits as companies like Amazon bring to us, there are a lot of downsides.
37:46 Front Porch Forum Film
- An independent film maker from Toronto made a documentary film about the impact of Front Porch Forum on Vermont.
40:30 Social Contracts
- A key part of developing neighborliness is creating and respecting social contracts within the community.
- A synonym for neighborliness is respect.
- There are many social science studies that show the benefits of fostering community.
- Front Porch Forum has its fair share of conflict and people have their disagreements, but the sense of community tends to supersede the conflicts.
46:31 What’s Next for Front Porch Forum
- The next steps are to go deeper into the communities they currently operate in.
- Front Porch Forum is ‘social mission’ first.
- Each small town will have their own centralized hub for sharing information and communicating.
50:33 What Do You Wish People Knew?
- Take the concept of connecting with neighbors seriously.
- Take investing in your community relationships as a top priority.
- Everything’s better when you know your neighbors, you’re connected, and you work together occasionally on common interests.