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.
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?
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!]
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