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Face to Face with the Fellows: Erin Barnes

Fellowship Program

May 15, 2019
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“Everyone should have the same opportunity to realize that small actions do make a big difference.”
- Erin Barnes, 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow
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Small Starts, Big Results

Erin Barnes

When Erin Barnes wrote a letter to her mayor asking them to get the cars barreling by her neighborhood playground to slow down, she didnʻt know what to expect. After all, she was a fifth-grader. But weeks later, she saw the traffic signs go up. It was a small win, but it set her on a journey that led her to help found the neighbor-driven organization, ioby Opens in a new tab (In Our BackYards).

ioby focuses on changing the way decisions are made for local communities. By working with residents who have good ideas to make their neighborhoods even better, ioby helps them plan, fund, and bring their ideas to life. Whether it’s raising money to make an intersection safer or buy paint for a public art project, one of ioby’s principles Opens in a new tab is “small is big,” a reminder that in lots of small steps towards progress taken collectively, big changes occur.

Q: To start, maybe you could tell us where you grew up and what you learned from your own neighborhood?

A: I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, right outside of Washington, DC, and I went to a private school. Everyone in my family and friend network worked for the government, and I was surrounded by the idea that all people should be part of a healthy, functioning democracy working for change.

I’ve learned so much from my neighborhood. I remember one day when I was 10 or 11 years old, an African American couple knocked at our front door—we always knew it was someone we didn’t know when anyone came to the front door, because everyone we did know would come around to the side door. My parents weren’t home and I knew I wasn’t going to know them, but I opened the door to greet them anyways.

They explained that they were there to get signatures to change the law in the neighborhood that prevented African Americans from buying property. I remember feeling really helpless and like there was nothing I could do. I was also embarrassed and thought that surely my parents weren’t a part of this on purpose. At the same time, I felt like they should have known.

What I learned later is that I grew up in a neighborhood with a racially-restricted covenant designed to allow white families to build wealth at the exclusion of black families. When I think back on that encounter now, I can’t imagine how awful and humiliating it must have been for adults who just wanted a home to explain to some kid how the entire world and systems had been structured against them, making it tough for them to simply own property. It really made me wake up to the inequalities and injustices in this country.

Q: That must have been a powerful realization for you, especially at such a young age. Is there anything else you think impacted your path to co-founding ioby?

A: Yes, I do. When I was in fifth grade, I had an assignment where I was supposed to write a letter to an elected official. In my neighborhood, there was a park that we called “The Pit” and my friends and I would go there all the time. It was literally a hole in the ground. It had one slide that got way too hot in the summertime and it had one shade structure that had a huge bee’s nest in it. It wasn’t a nice park, but it was our park. The only real downside was that cars would whip around the corner way too fast.

I decided to write a letter to the mayor asking him to make sure cars wouldn’t drive so fast by the park. He wrote back and thanked me for the letter and within three months a “Children at Play” sign was installed. I got tons of positive feedback from my teacher, from my parents, and even from my classmates.

The whole process made me realize that I can change the way that my neighborhood functions. I can change the way it looks, I can change the way people behave in the neighborhood. Everyone should have the same opportunity to realize that small actions do make a big difference in shaping the way our neighborhoods and our democracy functions, and that a healthy democracy really depends on all of us doing that work. That’s in part what motivated me to co-found ioby.

“We all have to participate in taking care of civic spaces and in processes to help make decisions in our communities.”
- Erin Barnes, Obama Foundation Fellow
Erin Barnes, 2018 Obama Foundation Fellow, applauds during a program.

Q: You mentioned that after you wrote to your mayor, you realized that you can implement change in your neighborhood. How does ioby help people realize that they can also create change?

A: My experience of writing a letter to an elected official and having something change as a result of it couldn’t be further from most people’s first interaction with government. Most people’s interaction with government is about taxes or going to the DMV or a boring community meeting, or something worse, like a family member getting in some kind of trouble with the law. I think it takes a long time for people to realize that change can actually happen and we all can be agents of change if we work with our neighbors and build power. It’s hard work, and I’m coming from a position of immense privilege so my experience is going to be super different from everybody else’s.

At ioby specifically, it’s interesting to watch the nearly 20,000 people we’ve trained bring thousands of projects to life. Seeing people’s opinions about what’s possible in their neighborhoods shift dramatically after going through the experience of coming up with an idea, developing it, asking their neighbors to help fund it and then actually implementing it is astounding. We try to change the way people think about their own interactions with their neighbors and their government.

Q: What was it like starting ioby?

A: At the heart of it, ioby helps and inspires people to start things. The world is not designed for people to make positive change. If somebody has a good idea of how to improve their neighborhood, their block, their kid’s school, whatever it is, there’s nothing in place to help them achieve that change and there’s nothing designed to give positive feedback and encourage people to keep doing it. There’s so much bureaucracy involved in this kind of work, and it took us years to get everything in order to do business as a nonprofit organization.

ioby never would have been this successful if it weren’t for my co-founders. We also have an incredible board of directors, and our staff is so incredible, hard-working and dedicated. But really, it’s all the people — the ioby Leaders, donors and volunteers working for change in their neighborhoods — who took a risk to try something new with us, they are really the people who made ioby what it is today. If anything, this process was a reminder that the idea of one charismatic leader who comes in and changes everything just isn’t true. No one is ever going to change things on their own.

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Q: What were some of the first projects ioby helped community members create?

A: One of our first projects and my favorite project is from  Rosedale Queens Opens in a new tab . It’s a project started by Fred Kress and Barbara Gersen. Barbara refuses to tell people her real age. She and Fred take care of this special triangular park that’s on the way to John F. Kennedy Airport. It has a small veteran’s memorial in it, and since it’s on a major highway, a lot of people tend to litter and trash ends up in the memorial. Fred and Barbara felt that if you’re going to make a memorial to veterans, they deserve the respect to not have garbage in it.

After 9/11, many people planted daffodil bulbs in New York City parks so that they all bloom around the same time. It’s meant to be a symbol of rebirth, so it was important to Fred and Barbara to put daffodils in that area, too. They raised around $130 for plastic gloves, plastic bags, some daffodil bulbs, and a couple of spades. It’s a project that made me feel amazed and good about the work that we’re doing at ioby.

Q: That’s terrific. Are there any other projects you can tell me about?

A: There’s a project where two neighborhoods actually teamed up on a project in Cleveland, Ohio. Back in the 1950s, nearly every major US city got a highway that tended to cut directly through black neighborhoods, which would displace thousands of people into different parts of town. In the case of these two Cleveland neighborhoods, the major highway had divided one neighborhood into two.

One neighborhood was much closer to the Cleveland Clinic and the universities and has benefited from a lot of the new amenities and developments. People are able to build wealth and the streets are lined with flowers. On the other side of the highway, however, that neighborhood hasn’t experienced the same kind of development and hasn’t progressed well at all.

In this particular instance, two individuals from each of the neighborhoods came together and organized their own  Make Art Talk Race Opens in a new tab  conversation for their communities—one that was experiencing new wealth and one that wasn’t. They talked about the history of how racism-fueled practices and policies led to the highway destroying that neighborhood altogether several years ago and how other parts of redlining and gentrification caused the larger and larger split between the two communities. Then they started talking about what the neighbors could do to talk about it.

Several people paint a low, cement wall in bright colors along a street.

They decided that they wanted to paint the story of how racism impacted these two neighborhoods on the bridge that connected the two neighborhoods over the highway. They called it  “A Bridge that Bridges,” Opens in a new tab  and they got people from both sides of the neighborhood to come out and paint the story. There’s so much symbolism in taking one step at a time and making the road by walking it together. It was a really beautiful project.

Q: That paints a vivid picture—no pun intended—of what you and your team are doing at ioby. What do you think attracts people to learn how to create tangible, local change?

A: There’s a metaphor that lots of people use about the government as if it’s a vending machine—you put your taxes in and you get your stuff out. In that metaphor, a protest is when the candy bar gets stuck and you try to shake the vending machine to get it out. But that’s not what democracy is. We all have to participate in taking care of civic spaces and in processes to help make decisions in our communities. And so many of the people and communities we work with want to do their part.

Q: And to close, how has the Obama Foundation Fellowship impacted your work?

A: I think one of the things I’m most excited about has been discovering new ways to support pathways to deeper civic leadership. ioby works with hundreds of people every year who are great civic leaders for their communities. The Obama Foundation Fellowship has given me a chance to learn from other Fellows, and to hear insights from the amazing advisors that we have access to, and also to hear directly from President Obama himself about the importance of local leadership. It’s been meaningful to bring those learnings back to ioby as we continue to grow.

You can learn more about Erin, ioby, and meet the rest of our inaugural class of Fellows here.

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