Public Life Champion: Erin Barnes

Erin Barnes is Director and Co-founder of ioby, a crowdfunding and capacity-building platform that operates in US cities and neighborhoods with a history of disinvestment, including Cleveland, Memphis, New York, Pittsburgh, and Detroit.

Based on the founding principle that “residents know best for their communities,” ioby develops approaches for authentic engagement processes and provides local leaders with tools and training to organize the necessary capital and social networks required for public space projects. In the decade since its inception, ioby has helped community leaders launch nearly 1,500 projects and raise $4.5 million in funding.

A recent recipient of the 2018 Obama Foundation Fellowship, Barnes, who is based in Brooklyn, shared with Gehl Institute what she envisions for the future of ioby and its role in improving public life through community stewardship.

Gehl Institute: Congratulations on being part of the inaugural class of the Obama Foundation Fellowship! What does this fellowship mean to you and what does it entail?

Erin Barnes: Thank you so much! I’m insanely excited to be working with so many inspiring people from different parts of the world. Since it’s an inaugural class, a part of our job is to create the program with the Foundation. This is a two-year program designed to help organizations access different networks and resources. Although we don’t receive any additional funding, it’s a great opportunity to connect the 1,500 ioby leaders we have worked with over the last decade to this bigger vision of the Obama Foundation about civic engagement and civic innovation.

My personal opinion is that civic leadership in the US is very weak. According to the National Committee on Citizenship only around 10% of Americans are civically engaged. The purpose of the Obama Foundation is to build a movement and a new generation of civic leaders across the globe. Translating this energy and momentum from the Foundation around civic leadership means more opportunities to inspire the 90% of Americans that are not currently involved. This requires changing the dynamics between residents and the government. ioby’s interest lies in flexing and building up this civic muscle and practicing civic participation to be part of something bigger.

“Bicycle Stories: What the bicycle means to me, my family, my community, my planet” is a student-produced documentary film and presentation by the students of International High School at Union Square in New York City. Photo: ioby.

Tell us a little about how ioby began and your vision behind it.

My co-founders Brandon, Cassie, and I met during grad school at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Over and over we saw that residents did not get to engage in decision making in a way that took advantage of their knowledge or respected them as full stakeholders. There is often a lot of tokenizing of community groups during engagement processes. On several occasions, they had participating groups that looked diverse but did not truly represent the diverse community needs and user groups. Rather than constantly putting community groups in the position of being responsive to a government-led process, we put residents at the center of leadership. When someone in the community takes up responsibility, our response is always one of encouragement and support as we look at ways to step up and work through existing structural barriers for residents to carry out their projects.

What kind of training in public space management and work plan do you provide local leaders with? Could you give us an example of a particularly challenging or unique project that needed a specific kind of assistance?

We work with groups with different capacities, ranging from urban planners going rogue on weekends to residents who are just tired of the usual process, so our orientation towards this work is to be really respectful of what skills the community members already bring. We only offer project development support or public space management support if it is requested of us. Since funding is the most common need for most projects, we provide training on fundraising methods. For specific areas of expertise, we have an “action core,” which is built to be a way for practitioners and experts ranging from traffic engineers, tactical urbanists, and lawyers to provide pro bono assistance to ioby leaders. This could be an interesting way for the Gehl Institute community and similar organizations and universities to be part of our work. 

How can city agencies better involve local assets and leaders in their decision-making process and benefit from such partnerships?

Being able to engage the whole community is critical to have appropriate conversations between elected officials and activists. When residents are in the position where it is socially acceptable to be complainers and the city is seen as a 311 for complaints, they are going to be understood as the client of the city and not the makers of the city. We want ioby leaders to be makers of the city. That’s the power of building partnerships; it’s about moving from a client-complainer relationship to one that is mutually productive for residents and the city. The partnerships builds community attachment and stewardship because both residents and the city feel responsible for the outcome.

ioby has worked with community leaders on multiple murals throughout Memphis, TN. Photo: ioby.

Many developing countries have their own sets of challenges and priorities, but the topic of public spaces is one that gets very minimal attention and funding. Citizen-led initiatives focusing on environmental justice and quality public life are slowly gaining momentum in many Indian cities, for example, but there is much to be done. If I wanted to set up a platform similar to ioby in my city, Chennai, where could I begin?

I think it really begins with seeing where the community pain points are and to keep iterating from there. ioby is designed to respond to resident needs. In most cases, we knew there was a funding issue and we knew there was a listening problem, so we found ways to overcome them. Are people afraid to engage because they don’t feel like it’s their place? Is there a cultural barrier? Or are people just disinterested? Depending on these factors, we could start by addressing ways to inspire and increase interest. Sometimes finding out if there is a safe government partner willing to try out new things can be a good starting point.

The tactical urbanism projects in Memphis set a great example to other cities and show what good can come when governments let go of decision-making power and give it back to residents. This was possible because Memphis has embraced “pre-vitalization” as a city strategy and we were able to work closely with the city and let the community take charge of the project.

I would also suggest starting with finding out how people already contribute to the community and building off of that. I have heard that there is a strong culture of giving circles in India. If such a culture already exists in the community, use that as a key part of the process.

Although crowdfunding is a powerful tool, it has its own limitations compared to the redistribution of resources from the city. To what degree does it require people taking up tasks that the city should really be undertaking?

It’s important to look at what the government and its agencies are not really designed to do. The government can be good at funding capital for projects but often falls short on maintenance. In a lot of cities that ioby works with, there are almost no maintenance budgets for public spaces, and this burden is shifted to community groups. The government is also not really designed to be leaning into risk, so it’s going to avoid risks when it can. This attitude creates tensions between the city and communities who are tired of waiting or not being heard. And this is where organizations like ioby and community groups can be useful as they can step up, take risks, test out ideas and projects when the government doesn’t really have the structural or staff support necessary to carry out a meaningful engagement process.

The crowdfunding aspect also shows the extent of support that a project gets from a community that is willing to actively be a part of the process. Firefly Trail, a 39-mile rails-to-trails project in Georgia started by a small group of dedicated individuals, is a great case study on why community-approved and funded projects can be easily fast-tracked by the government. ioby worked with the leaders for about two years on an amazing public fundraising campaign that ended up raising $62,300 to fund one mile of the trail. Two weeks later the state voted on the transportation bill TSPLOST, allocating $16 million to fund the rest of the trail. Since the public campaign had already engaged the community in the decision-making process, it was very easy for the city and state to go ahead and pass the bill. This was a clear sign of the overwhelming extent of goodwill and support from the 300 people in Georgia who donated to make this project a reality.

When you think about social justice or a welcoming public life for all, what do you envision? How has your work with community partners shaped this vision over the years?

I really like the framework of public life that Gehl Institute has created. I do believe that it is a part of our life and is something that Americans don’t pay a lot of attention to. What really drives me is the way that individuals who we have worked with in different communities have their own perspectives of themselves as civic leaders completely changed after being part of the project. There is a real sense of ownership and collective responsibility for the outcomes of their neighborhoods. People have gone from saying “I am an artist” to “I am a leader.”

I believe that when people see themselves inside a framework of “public life” — instead of between the tension of work-home — the whole conversation shifts. It goes back to what I said earlier about most people not being accustomed to thinking about themselves as participating citizens. But by shifting the narrative to “public life” instead of “city-hall-versus-neighborhood,” we are really talking about that space between official government work and personal relationship where people step outside of their roles. I think that’s the beauty of the partnerships I have seen emerge out of ioby leaders in the last 10 years and that’s what I’m excited about.

Children participating in the Growing Our School Garden event in Newark, NJ. Photo: ioby.

This is the second edition of our Public Life Champions series. Read our interview with Philadelphia’s Alex Peay here.