Erin Barnes

Ioby = ‘in our back­yard” = an online plat­form for local envi­ron­men­tal projects.
How did you get ioby start­ed?

I’m one of three co-founders, along with Bran­don Whit­ney and Cassie Fly­nn. We all met in forestry school at Yale, and we all hap­pened to move to New York after­wards and felt like we need­ed a way to get peo­ple involved in the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly. We felt like peo­ple most­ly find out that there are huge com­pli­cat­ed envi­ron­men­tal issues glob­al­ly — that seem near­ly impos­si­ble to solve — and that the effects of the­se issues seem far away. So, we want­ed to con­nect peo­ple to the envi­ron­men­tal world in a way that was local, tan­gi­ble, fix­able, and that would con­nect them to oth­er peo­ple who actu­al­ly lived in their neigh­bor­hood, as a way of strength­en­ing the whole move­ment of peo­ple who care about envi­ron­men­tal issues by bring­ing them closer togeth­er. We looked at exam­ples of social plat­forms like Kiva and DonorsChoose. We met with the founders of those sites and a few oth­er advi­sors in the envi­ron­men­tal field, and we devel­oped the idea for ioby based on those exam­ples.

Very cool. Did you all know that you were com­ing to New York? Did you decide “Hey let’s get this start­ed in New York” – how did this city come into play?

I think we all want­ed to start here because we were all liv­ing here at the time. We had come out of doing a lot of trop­i­cal research far away and want­ed to actu­al­ly sort of live the old phrase of think­ing glob­al­ly and act­ing local­ly, and actu­al­ly just do it. And we had some expe­ri­ence doing urban forestry in the past and want­ed to give it a shot here in New York. We all fell deeply in love with the city and decid­ed this is the per­fect place to try this out. We already knew that in New York there were thou­sands of peo­ple who were tak­ing care of the green infra­struc­ture of the city, and that their work was going large­ly unno­ticed unless you hap­pened to walk past one of those pock­et parks and see one of the vol­un­teers tak­ing care of it. So we want­ed to not only give peo­ple a way to con­nect to some­thing that was mean­ing­ful, but also spot­light the fan­tas­tic work of envi­ron­men­tal activists on the ground.

You said there were lots of peo­ple doing work here – I wish I saw more of it. How do I fig­ure out what I care about? How can I know that I can improve my envi­ron­ment and my own hap­pi­ness by improv­ing my envi­ron­ment if I’m just sort of locked in this con­crete jun­gle, if my eyes aren’t real­ly open?

The first thing you can do is take a look around. What is the block where you live look like? What does the block where you work look like? And what’s the route that you take in your com­mute, that you reg­u­lar­ly take? Is there one hor­rid eye­sore that you walk past every­day that you wish just could be trans­formed into some­thing dif­fer­ent? Is there always one place where you see every jerk in town pil­ing up their trash in an over­flow­ing trash bin on the cor­ner? Is there just one lit­tle unloved sec­tion of a pock­et park or near a water­front that you always jog by and just wish was a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent? I think you should just start by look­ing around. Every­body has iden­ti­fied places that they see every­day, where they know that some­thing could be dif­fer­ent. See what you can actu­al­ly change by talk­ing to a friend, or a co-work­er, or one of your neigh­bors, to find out if they also want to change it. Because the like­li­hood is they do.

So, for instance in South­east Williams­burg, on the way to my walk — there’s an emp­ty lot that is just ugly – it is extreme­ly trashed, it is just an unused piece of space, can I do some­thing about that? Can I use your site to do some­thing about it?

Yeah total­ly. I think first you should talk to a cou­ple of neigh­bors, so you’re not the only per­son try­ing to take this on. And see if they also want to do some­thing. And you guys should fig­ure out what you think the lot should be instead. And then you should fig­ure out what you need to try to make it hap­pen. You’re prob­a­bly going to need to find out who owns the lot, and you can do that by using Oasis online, which is just like a GIS map­ping tool. Use Oasis, find out who the own­er is, and try to con­tact the own­er. If that doesn’t work you can con­tact anoth­er group that had a project done on ioby a while ago called 596 Acres. They did a recent inven­to­ry of all vacant lots in Brook­lyn, and they have some tools to help you talk to the own­er. A large per­cent­age of vacant lots in Brook­lyn are owned by the city agen­cy HPD [the Depart­ment of Hous­ing, Preser­va­tion and Devel­op­ment], and a bunch of lots have recent­ly been giv­ing access to com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers to change them into farms and com­mu­ni­ty spaces, so you could do that too. Then, you fig­ure out how much mon­ey you need, and you raise the mon­ey, from the peo­ple who live in your neigh­bor­hood and your friends and your net­work and oth­er peo­ple who come to ioby because they care about ran­dom envi­ron­men­tal things and they want to see farms take over trashy lots. Then you can make it hap­pen. I might advise that you wait until the end of March to do a vol­un­teer work­day, but, yeah!

I chipped in on a project, putting a tree in Have­mey­er. I thought that you could just, like, grow a tree, just like throw a seed in and it’s good to go, but I was recent­ly told that a large per­cent­age of New York City trees don’t work, that you need a ded­i­cat­ed group of peo­ple who are will­ing to water it. How dif­fi­cult is it to grow a tree in New York City?

You’re absolute­ly right. I don’t know if I can com­pare it to oth­er things for dif­fi­cul­ty lev­el, but yeah, peo­ple do need to care for it. That tree needs a stew­ard. All good envi­ron­men­tal projects — and all good ideas — need more than just mon­ey, right? You give ten bucks to help out that tree on Have­mey­er and then you should go down to the block and fig­ure out who else is down there tak­ing care of it, water­ing it, and mak­ing sure that it’s doing okay. Because any of the­se kinds of projects all depend on the peo­ple who live in the neigh­bor­hood, not only to sup­port the project with mon­ey, but to sup­port it with love and atten­tion.

I’m shy. Can you help me con­nect with the­se peo­ple, besides like, step­ping on their doorstep and knock­ing on their doors? Can ioby help me with that?

You can write to ioby project lead­ers through the site, if you’re not too shy that you can’t email. You can also write to some­one where they’ve post­ed that they want to vol­un­teer, to come help them out. You can sort of build a slow, shy rela­tion­ship that way. You can also just throw mon­ey their way and you can fol­low them online. You could say that you’re sup­port­ing a project and share that to your friends, on Face­book or what­ev­er. And then you don’t have to do any scary face-to-face inter­ac­tion with any­body.

But, Face­book or Twit­ter – sure I’m gonna re-tweet some sen­tence about a cause that I’m a fan of. And then I might even get some false sense of accom­plish­ment, like I’ve actu­al­ly done some­thing. Do you think that in some way, social net­work­ing like that takes away from actu­al work that we should be proud of?

I do think there’s an ‘e-slack­tivism’ thing where we think we can click our guilt away. You can’t just rely on that. If you’re going to be a good neigh­bor, you do have to talk to the peo­ple who live in your neigh­bor­hood, and you have to meet peo­ple face to face. You have to get involved. Ioby calls itself a crowd-resourcing plat­form, because we do believe that good ideas need a lot more than just mon­ey. It’s about fund­ing, and vol­un­teer sup­port, and shar­ing ideas and good advice. And, if you have some spe­cial skill that you can con­tribute to any sort of project in your neigh­bor­hood — whether they need help build­ing their Word­Press blog or if you’re a real­ly good pho­tog­ra­pher – then there’s things that you can lend to the­se projects that don’t nec­es­sary come in the form of shov­el­ing dirt or build­ing a chick­en coop. You can lend your work that way. Ioby does want peo­ple to move beyond the click, and real­ly actu­al­ly get involved.

Are there any projects ongo­ing now that espe­cial­ly strike your inter­est? Or that you’re fol­low­ing in par­tic­u­lar?

Yeah there’s a cou­ple that are super inter­est­ing actu­al­ly. A project came in that is hands down the great­est pho­to we’ve ever got­ten. It’s the New Leaf Work­ers’ Coop­er­a­tive project. It is a Green Ser­vice Work­ers Coop­er­a­tive that they’re start­ing. But the pho­to on the project pro­file page says to me that the­se peo­ple are a total­ly dif­fer­ent ball game. It’s real­ly hilar­i­ous actu­al­ly. I can send it over to you but it’s on our home­page right now. And you know, that’s super inter­est­ing – that’s a dif­fer­ent mod­el than what we usu­al­ly see, because it’s a work­er co-op. And I’m very inter­est­ed in all of the projects that are on HPD prop­er­ty in Brook­lyn right now. There are about six of them that are under­way, and they have real­ly, real­ly ded­i­cat­ed vol­un­teers that are absolute­ly killing it out there. And they’re break­ing ground in vacant lots in the dead of win­ter – I mean this is just like unheard of, which I think is real­ly great. And there are a cou­ple oth­ers that are super inter­est­ing, like Velo City, which is a start-up made up of three wom­en who are urban plan­ners, who decid­ed that they want to teach urban plan­ning class­es by bicy­cle. So they have a pro­gram called Bik­ex­plo­rations, and so they get a bunch of teams on bikes and ride around through cer­tain neigh­bor­hoods and teach them all the con­cepts of urban plan­ning by bike. Every­thing that they’re doing is incred­i­bly inspir­ing.

Do they have projects through ioby? Or have you guys worked togeth­er?

Yeah, they fund­ed a project for their Sound­view Bike­splo­rations last sum­mer in the Bronx. And I think they have anoth­er one planned for this sum­mer in a dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hood. The first one was on the Low­er East Side – Chi­na­town. Last sum­mer was in the Bronx, and I don’t know which neigh­bor­hood they’re going to next. And then there’s a total­ly ridicu­lous project by this guy named Leif, who is installing inter­net-con­nect­ed sen­sors in the New York City sew­er sys­tem. So that peo­ple can receive a text mes­sage when they shouldn’t flush their toi­let dur­ing a com­bined sew­er over­flow event [dur­ing heavy rains]. I mean it’s just like com­plete­ly ridicu­lous, but also inspir­ing. So there’s a bunch of them.

How do you feel about tying togeth­er com­mu­ni­ties that already exist and may­be have sim­i­lar goals. For exam­ple, do you reach out to church groups in Queens or, I don’t know, a men’s choir in Chelsea? Do you do any sort of out­reach like that – where you try to bring groups togeth­er?

You mean to con­nect the two groups togeth­er like that?

Yes – to con­nect them with ioby and sort of, syn­er­gize, break in your plat­form to them so that they can take con­trol of their envi­ron­ment.

Yeah — our core fun­da­men­tal belief at ioby is that the peo­ple who live in the neigh­bor­hood know what’s best for the neigh­bor­hood. So, we won’t real­ly do much instruc­tion on how a project should look or how it should come out. But we reach out to all dif­fer­ent types of groups – I think it’s some­thing like 40% of our projects take place on the prop­er­ty of some reli­gious insti­tu­tion.

Inter­est­ing.

And, I can’t remem­ber exact­ly how many at this moment, but we’ve had a real­ly sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of projects come through that focus on a lot of res­i­den­tial build­ings for peo­ple who either were for­mer­ly home­less because they have some sort of drug addic­tion prob­lem or some type of men­tal ill­ness. There’s a new move­ment among this type of res­i­den­tial build­ing to use gar­den­ing as a ther­a­peu­tic device, so now we have a lot of real­ly inter­est­ing projects that come from groups that we had nev­er heard of before, who are using gar­den­ing and farm­ing as a ther­a­peu­tic tool. We’re talk­ing to a group of peo­ple that we real­ly nev­er would have met oth­er­wise. Not because we didn’t want to but because we didn’t know that that’s what they were doing. A lot of our projects may­be look sim­i­lar when you’re brows­ing through them, because they all have pic­tures of peo­ple doing green stuff, but they can come from total­ly dif­fer­ent places.
A ques­tion about how ioby works: you ask for two dol­lars to help keep things run­ning – gen­er­al­ly, you don’t have to give me exact per­cent­ages – but what kind of, how does the com­mu­ni­ty receive that?

To the request for gra­tu­ity?

Yes.

Most peo­ple opt in. I think that the peo­ple who know us know that we’re meet­ing a real need and deliv­er­ing ser­vices to peo­ple who do envi­ron­men­tal work at the hyper hyper local lev­el. And most peo­ple opt in and help us out, which is great. We couldn’t do our work with­out it, so, it’s fan­tas­tic.

What’s in the future? Where do you see this going? What do you need to take it to the next lev­el?

Ioby has been for the last two years a New York City pilot. This is the year when we’re look­ing to grow out­side of the city. So, lit­tle by lit­tle we’ll be try­ing to fig­ure out what that looks like. We’ll be mak­ing some announce­ments pret­ty soon. [Stay tuned!] 

About Erin Bar­nes:

Pri­or to co-found­ing ioby​.org, Erin Bar­nes was the envi­ron­men­tal edi­tor at Men’s Jour­nal mag­a­zine and wrote for oth­er pub­li­ca­tions such as New York and Plen­ty. From 2003–2005, she worked as a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er and pub­lic infor­ma­tion offi­cer at the Save Our Wild Salmon Coali­tion in Port­land, Ore­gon. While com­plet­ing her Mas­ter of Envi­ron­men­tal Man­age­ment in water sci­ence, eco­nom­ics, and pol­i­cy at the Yale School of Forestry & Envi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies, she was a U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion For­eign Lan­guage and Area Stud­ies schol­ar in Por­tugue­se. She did field research on socio-eco­nom­ic val­ues of water in Goye­na, Nicaragua, and the Boli­vian and Brazil­ian Ama­zon. Her report “Mar­ket Val­ues of the Com­mer­cial Fish­ery on the Madeira River: Cal­cu­lat­ing the Costs of the San­to Antônio and Jirau Dams to Fish­er­men in Rondô­nia, Brasil and Pan­do-Beni, Bolivia” was pub­lished in the Trop­i­cal Resources Insti­tute Jour­nal in 2007. She has also worked as a writer on cli­mate change and oth­er press­ing envi­ron­men­tal issues for high-lev­el U.S. elect­ed offi­cials and oth­ers. She cur­rent­ly serves on the Board of Direc­tors for the Man­hat­tan Land Trust that man­ages urban com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens to pre­serve, improve, and pro­mote com­mu­ni­ty man­aged open spaces for the ben­e­fit of all. She has lived in Prospect Heights, Brook­lyn, since 2008.

Top pho­to of Erin Bar­nes and cov­er pho­to of Com­post for Brook­lyn: Mau­reen Dren­nan