Through an innovative public-private education collaborative, a small but diverse group of people has begun meeting to discuss ways to improve and enhance Santa Barbara’s Westside neighborhood.

As a result of a unique new partnership with Noozhawk, that effort has just expanded into an online public-engagement initiative called Let’s Talk Westside.

The overall project is called THRIVE Westside and it’s an undertaking by Harding University Partnership School, McKinley School, La Cumbre Junior High School, San Marcos High School, the Santa Barbara Unified School District, the James S. Bower Foundation, Just Communities, One Nation Foundation, the Orfalea Foundations and the Santa Barbara Foundation.

The goal is to create a network of resources and information that can provide Westside children a successful future “from cradle to career” as well as to come up with ideas to create a better community, said Jarrod Schwartz, executive director of the nonprofit Just Communities.

Through the THRIVE project, residents and stakeholders of the Westside can attend meetings where they are able to discuss with others their ideas and thoughts about assets and strengths of the community. The dialogues will also be used to identify concrete improvement strategies and initiatives to better inform the overall goals of THRIVE Westside and help enhance the Westside neighborhoods and schools.

THRIVE was created to give residents the opportunity to “turn their thoughts into actions,” Schwartz said.

Just Communities, he said, hopes to engage the Santa Barbara community through a collaborative project. Instead of “working (for) the community, we want to work with the community,” he added.

Through their efforts, Schwartz hopes to have approximately 150 Westside residents come together to develop a vision for the community they want.

Although meetings give residents the opportunity to sit down to discuss their ideas in person, Just Communities also wanted to give residents who couldn’t attend an opportunity to have their ideas included and their voices heard.

Schwartz approached Noozhawk about developing a public-engagement platform on the Internet and publisher Bill Macfadyen leaped at the chance.

“Ever since our Santa Barbara Challenge, Noozhawk’s public-engagement project exploring the city of Santa Barbara’s budget, we’ve been looking for another chance to use these Web tools on a community initiative,” Macfadyen said. “THRIVE Westside is an ideal opportunity.”

Macfadyen turned to a frequent Noozhawk collaboration partner, the Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy in Malibu, and asked executive director Pete Peterson for some platform referrals. That led him to MindMixer, a virtual town hall service based in Omaha, Neb.

“MindMixer is a community engagement platform that makes it fun and easy for community residents to share practical and creative ideas that will help move the community forward,” said Nathan Preheim, a MindMixer co-founder and its chief operations officer.

Traditional methods of community meetings are limiting, Preheim explained. They offer set times and dates to meet, and if you cannot attend your opinion and thoughts will not be presented.

“MindMixer took the basic rules of the town hall meeting, people coming together to solve community challenges, and wrapped that in an easy to use Web interface,” he said. “Now people can participate in these same conversations anytime, anywhere.”

The result is Let’s Talk Westside, a Noozhawk Web site through which registered users can earn points by participating in the online discussion, making suggestions and commenting on and supporting other users’ ideas. Next week, a series of rewards will be added to entice further participation.

At the end of the project, in mid-January, those who have amassed the most points will be asked to join the in-person meetings as representatives of the online community.

“We’re excited about Let’s Talk Westside, and are eager to learn how different or how similar our online discussions are to the in-person results,” Macfadyen said.

Click here to sign up for Let’s Talk Westside.

The in-person meetings have been ongoing, but residents are still invited to get involved and be a part of the discussions. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, La Cumbre Junior High, 2255 Modoc Road, is hosting an open discussion for THRIVE Westside.

Additionally, meetings are scheduled from 5 to 7:30 p.m. for each Wednesday in December, beginning Dec. 7. The meetings are open to anyone involved in the Westside community.

THRIVE Westside has also been fundraising to help turn the project’s ideas into action. So far, $10,000 has been raised through an outside nonprofit organization to serve as a budget for the residents to work with, Schwartz said.

Lead sponsors of Let’s Talk Westside are MarBorg Industries, Wells Fargo, Southern California Gas Co. and Paul Cashman of State Farm Insurance.

Additional Let’s Talk Westside sponsors include the Academy of Koei-Kan Karate-Do, Business First Bank, El Zarape Mexican Food, Griffith & Thornburgh LLP, Meridian Group, Paper Moon Printing,, Presidio Sports, Santa Barbara Community Housing Corp., Santa Barbara Home Improvement Center and the South Coast Community Youth Cultural Center.

» of Noozhawk’s Let’s Talk Westside online public-engagement project.

» Click here for more information on Just Communities’ THRIVE Westside project.

» Click here for more information about THRIVE Santa Barbara County.

Noozhawk intern Alexa Shapiro can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.