Making Real, Large Changes in Your Community: A Q&A with Erin Barnes of ioby

Forget NIMBY-ism — call the new trend occurring in urban areas and across the nation IOBY-ism. IOBY stands for “in our backyard,” and it’s the driving idea behind ioby.org, an online platform that connects small, environmentally-minded community projects with donors across the country.

Say you want to clean up a vacant lot on your street and turn it into a community garden, but you don’t necessarily have the resources or the funding to do so. That’s where ioby comes in — you can easily set up a crowd-sourced funding campaign that will connect with you with folks who are eager to support your cause. So far, ioby has successfully funded about 150 projects across the nation, to the tune of over $300,000 donated.

To learn more about ioby, making environmental changes at a neighborhood level, and how you can create DYI activism in your community, we interviewed Erin Barnes, one of ioby’s co-founders.

Open Voices: What was the catalyst for creating ioby.org? Where did you see the need?

Erin Barnes: I’m one of three co-founders, one with Brandon Whitney and Cassie Flynn, and we all knew each other from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. I think that the big thing for us is that we felt like there was all this potential energy that people really wanted to do something to address urgent environmental issues like climate change and the things that people could do actually seemed very, very brief and transactional — they tend to be about buying a certain product or changing a light bulb or switching to a canvas shopping bag rather than deep and meaningful things. And we were worried that that wouldn’t build up. So, we wanted a platform where there was political will was necessary to make real, large changes.

Open Voices: Tell us about a couple of projects that have been funded through ioby.org.

Erin Barnes: There’s this amazing new community garden in Bed-Stuy called 462 Halsey, its address, and it was started by two women, Kristen Bonardi Rapp and Shatia Jackson. Tia grew up on Halsey Street and has worked there for the last 26 years and has just been staring at this vacant trash strewn lot for almost her entire life. Then one day she just decided she’s going to do something about it and transformed the space in under six months into a community garden that’s really thriving now.

And the cool thing about it is that she took action at this area local level and started in her own community and started making the change on her own block, which I think really exemplifies the ioby spirit. But what’s cool about it is the catalyst for her to get involved was that another ioby project had raised money to put posters on the fences of vacant lots. This project was called 596 Acres, the total acreage of vacant lots in Brooklyn, and its goal was to fund-raise $400 to print posters and put them up on all the fences of vacant lots around Brooklyn and use it as a community organizing tool so that when people walk by a vacant lot in their neighborhood all of a sudden there’s one thing that’s different about it and there’s a sign that says there’s land if you want it.

So Tia saw the sign and then decided that she wanted to do something about it. And so, Tia’s story is actually one of about 15 new community gardens and urban farms that have sprung up in Brooklyn in the last 12 months since 596 Acres first got their project funded to put those pictures up around the city, and now 596 Acres has posters up in all five boroughs and working more and more community spaces opening up in these vacant lots.

Open Voices: You started out in New York City but have since gone national. What kind of progress are you seeing nationwide? Are there any other locations where it’s taking off?

Erin Barnes: We have projects in over 25 cities now, and so they’re similar projects, but they’re also a little different. Their projects tend to be a little bit bigger. They’re more focused on things that we don’t have in New York, like wild life. We have two projects that are focused on protecting wild salmon on site, which we would never have had in New York– and there’s a couple others that are really cool. In Tuscaloosa we have a woman who is doing a project to do bamboo recycling products. And then in Tampa a community group who is building a playground with Kaboom is crowd funding $9,000 of that playground that they want to build, which is a really exciting partnership for us because Kaboom is one of these non-profits that we’ve just so long admired their work. They build playgrounds in urban areas, and we just think that everything that they do is incredible. So it’s really exciting for us to be able to have a group crowd funding a Kaboom playground on our space.

Open Voices: We love that your name is ioby — it’s opposite of NIMBY. Do you feel that there’s a shift away from NIMBY-ism a little bit and towards maybe what you guys are advocating for in communities?

Erin Barnes: I definitely think that there’s something happening. I think one is that there is this renewal of DIY activism that’s happening, and I think that part of that could be impacted by the economic situation that the country’s in or just an urge for people to feel like they want to have some meaningful connection to things. So there’s this emerging DIY activism.

I also think there’s really, really strong and changing perceptions that people have about the way that they want to spend their money, and so I think that they’re tuning into that. I think the best example would be the local food movement, but I think that there’s a lot of people who really feel like they want to know where things come from where their money’s going, like what they’re actually supporting with their purchases and the way that they invest.

So the third big trend I think is the way that technologies can power citizen action, and I think that there is something really interesting and real about the way that there’s an online crowd and the way that urban density works as a tool for innovation.

Open Voices: Once a project gets funded, what’s the process from there? Do you help guide projects?

Erin Barnes: One of ioby’s founding principles is that people who live in a community know what’s best for their neighborhood, and so we have a really hands off approach to working with any of the project leaders that bring projects to our site. So we try to be really responsive rather than directive, and so if project leaders that we’re working with ask for help we provide it and if they don’t, we don’t get involved at all. So, I think the main function that I would serve is in building the capacity of the organization to build up a basis of micro donors that live in the neighborhood. Most ioby projects are funded by people who live within two miles of a project site and most micro donors are giving $35 and I think so a big part of our role – and you can go to ioby.org/tours to see how to sign up for our webinars, but we’re providing workshops called fast cash where we teach people the best practices in crowd funding.

But then there’s another piece of it which is that a lot of people want to make change in their neighborhood but aren’t necessarily professional community organizers, and so we have this project called Recipe for Change where we have ioby project leaders share with us the different techniques and the challenges that they faced in their projects and how they overcame them, and we share those things back out to the entire ioby community to sort of buildup that knowledge base.

Open Voices: What tips do you have for folks who might be interested in launching a project on ioby?

Erin Barnes: I’d definitely say that they should sign up for a webinar with us at IOBY.org/tour. The biggest thing that we know really makes a difference is to not go at it alone. When an ioby project gets posted with two or more project leaders, they are funded six times faster than those that only have one project leader. So we just wanted to let you know to view the project with a partner.

And then the other one is just to plan your crowd funding campaign in advance. I think that perhaps the magical lore of the internet has – maybe that bubble has finally burst, but there aren’t magical, imaginary donors out there. The people who support crowd funding projects are generally going to be the people who know and love you the best, just like any other grassroots fundraising. So you have to plan to be able to raise the funds from your base and from the people who are going to be impacted by the project; people who live in the neighborhood or other community members that are going to be directly impacted by your work.

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