AWESOME PROJECT: Help Gowanus take on toxic sludge, climate change, unethical developers, and Brooklyn gentrification

Architect David Briggs first got interested in the Gowanus Canal because it happened – in all its stinky, historical glory – to be on his jogging route. The infamous federal Superfund site is hard to miss. During the last century, it was an unregulated dumping ground for industrial wastes ranging from slaughterhouse blood to tanning chemicals to chemical fertilizer byproducts.

Oh, and sewage.

 

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The stagnant waters of the canal – which run straight up between Park Slope and Carroll Gardens – are an eerie purple-black/oil-slick color, and the sludge at the bottom has been compared to black mayonnaise. Don’t be fooled by the sparkly new Whole Foods on the canal’s banks; the thing’s still so toxic that the EPA has committed to cleaning up the site over the course of the next decade.

“I would run from Carroll Gardens across the canal to Prospect Park, “remembers Briggs, “and it was just this remarkable, stinky, fetid waterway. I became fascinated by it. Old industry fascinates me. It’s the history of our country. I saw an opportunity, a fascination, an attraction, a repellant. It’s an incredible urban design opportunity.” The state of the canal both pissed him off and thrilled him – a tried and true recipe for  ACTION!

 

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[Bridging Gowanus meeting with Councilmember Brad Lander]

 

Diving into the Gowanus

So Briggs, founder of Loci Architecture, did what so many of our smart ioby leaders do when their curiosity is piqued – he just dove in (not literally! Do NOT dive into the Gowanus Canal!). He started going to Gowanus community meetings around 2001, and joined the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club (which is what it sounds like). By 2009, he was so invested in the high-potential section of Brooklyn that he co-founded Gowanus by Design, an organization he hopes will help the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood guide itself to a more sustainable and equitable kind of development than other parts of Brooklyn have seen in recent years. “Urban regeneration,” Briggs calls it.

Briggs wants to make sure, in other words, that Gowanus doesn’t become another Soho: a neighborhood whose rich and diverse history is buried under fancy, faceless, expensive retail spaces. And yes, it could happen. “I think once the rezoning goes through,” says Briggs of the city’s plans to change Gowanus building laws next year, “there’s going to be an enormous amount of construction – barring any economic collapse or environmental catastrophe. It’ll be a very different place.”

 

An atlas for today, for tomorrow

That’s why Briggs and his team are building (and raising money for) what they call the Gowanus Atlas: a digital archive of the neighborhood that will assimilate infrastructure, land use, flood zones, demographics, and Superfund cleanup data into one big picture, to be updated in real time, painting a realistic picture of how things actually look today, and how they’re likely to look tomorrow. And not just to investors in the area, but to residents, and small business owners, and folks on the ground who will have to manage cleanup the next time the Gowanus floods, as it did (the neighborhood is in a flood zone A) during Hurricane Sandy.

 

 

“The third stage of building the Atlas,” explains Briggs, “will be to start developing predictive models of what Gowanus is. Maybe every few years, you revisit those predictions, update the models based on what’s happened, and fine-tune it. It’s an urban ecosystem, and as ecosystems change and become more diverse and divergent, they are healthier. We want to create a healthy urban ecosystem, and we think the Atlas is a vehicle for doing that. It’s something that could be used not just at the Gowanus Canal but anywhere, as a community planning tool that gives residents and local businesses a stake and a say in the future.”

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[Property damage in the Gowanus flood zone after Hurricane Sandy]

 

And yes, we CAN do a better job of preparing for sea level rise

Rezoning and gentrification aside, our battered mother nature may have a thing or two to say about where Gowanus is headed. Most cities typically reevaluate building code every 20-30 years. That’s not going to cut it, though, in our climate-changing world. “You look at the numbers about how much sea level rise there’s going to be,” Briggs says. “Worst case, a lot of Gowanus is going to be flooded. Should buildings be there? That’s an open question. That’s why I think we need to keep monitoring the situation, keep updating the models, keep predicting what the future might be based on new data. There’s a lot of data, and we should use it. Gowanus should be an asset, not a liability. Right now it just seems like it’s a liability. And so if the cleanup is really successful, and the right infrastructure is put in, and the right zoning is done, and there’s intelligent development that occurs, the Gowanus Canal could be a remarkable, beautiful place that maintains its diversity.”

 

Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.

Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Have a great idea, but feel like you need a blueprint to get you started? Or a recipe to follow? We’ve got you covered. Check out some of our very best recipes for change, here.

The Rainmakers: Lee Forbes-Belue of Trinity Playground Revitalization

While the average budget for ioby projects is around $4,000, many are larger scale. If you have your sights set high, your budget—and fundraising skills—will have to rise to the challenge.

Crowdfunding large amounts of money on ioby is totally doable, but it takes some extra planning. In our Rainmakers series, we’re sharing stories and tips from Leaders who have successfully raised $10,000 or more for their ioby campaign. Learn how they did it, and how you can do it, too!

 

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Memphis-based graphic artist Lee Forbes-Belue led an ioby campaign to revitalize a beloved neighborhood playground. “Trinity Playground was part of a preschool that closed,” she explains. “Without them, there was really no one to take care of the playground, even though a lot of neighbors used it. It fell into disrepair: there was lots of broken equipment and it needed an overall upgrade. So we raised the money to do that.”

Below, Lee explains how she and her fundraising crew crowdfunded over $14K to restore this neighborhood favorite to its former glory for the next generation of Memphis families.

 

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Q: Who was on your fundraising team?

We were made up of a few parents, the pastor from the church on the lot where the playground is located, and the principal of the new Montessori school that opened up when the old preschool closed. It was a very good mix; it gave us lots of different connections.

Two of the moms in the group were especially well-connected in the community, and one had worked on ioby campaigns before, so that was really helpful. As simple as the process is, it can be intimidating, so we appreciated all her knowledge. Another woman was a grant writer, or something similar, for a living. She kept us on task and super organized, delegating tasks and keeping everyone accountable. That’s something I’d be terrible at!, but she killed it.

 

Q: Were you already comfortable with asking for money?

I didn’t have much experience with it, and I was not comfortable. But I do use social media, so what really worked for me was writing a very personal, heartfelt Facebook post about what the playground meant to me, and what I knew it meant to other parents, and that really resonated with people. I talked about how this wasn’t just a place where kids played—it was also where parents talked to each other and had little therapy sessions together!

Writing that was one of the few fundraising tasks I felt I could do well. I did also make a banner with a QR code leading to the ioby campaign page that we put up in the playground. But I knew I wasn’t going to call people and ask them for money; I wasn’t going to ask my family to donate. So I put up this post and tagged several friends who I knew would relate and it wound up being very effective. [See the text of Lee’s Facebook post here.]

 

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Q: How did you plan your fundraising?

Someone still had info on file about the person who had helped build the original playground 10 or 12 years before, so we contacted him and explained our situation. We told him about the equipment we wanted and he helped us figure out how much everything would cost, the price of delivery, what we could do ourselves versus what we’d need to hire someone to do, etc. That was how we figured out our budget.

Then we just started asking. I have to say I got some crazy support. Friends of mine in San Francisco gave us $250 just ’cause they’re awesome—I never would have imagined it! Another friend gave me a significant amount because I had supported his projects in the past; it was a reciprocal thing. He doesn’t even have kids.

Remember that support comes in many forms. Not everyone can give $250, but maybe they can give $25. In our case, some folks said they couldn’t give anything, but they appreciated the idea and wanted to come help us with the physical work. People will respond differently.

Also, we didn’t ask for money at year-end, which is when everyone gets hit up. We ran our campaign in the springtime, which I think helped.

 

Q: How did storytelling factor in?

Our only big storytelling push was the Facebook posts—another woman on our team wrote one, too. I think we were already somewhere around the $8K mark when when did those, and they helped push us to our goal. We must just have really generous neighbors and friends who were moved by reading these personal stories!

We did share the posts around widely; as widely as we could. The fact that so many people responded by donating showed us that the playground really does mean a lot to people—even those whose kids had moved away or who had outgrown it.

 

Q: What methods did you use to ask people?

I sent several personal emails to friends with a link to the campaign, as well as to some older church members who I have a relationship with and who I thought could afford to donate, and they did. Even though their kids are now older, they used to have a relationship with the playground, and apparently that endured. Interestingly, I don’t think anybody told me “no.” They either gave something or just didn’t reply.

One of our members sent all of us in the fundraising group an email with things to note and do: a schedule with month by month project tasks, a budget breakdown, etc. I don’t think anyone had a call roster, but we stayed pretty organized, thanks to her.

 

Q: Did fundraising help with community buy-in?

I definitely thought about the project as community building. It brought together parents whose kids go to the playground now, parents whose kids used to go, families who knew the preschool that closed, people from the new school that opened up, church members… I think it helped that we could appeal to people who were familiar with the past of the place and had memories there as well as people who could envision using it in the future.

 

Q: Any other advice?

Figure out a way to make a personal connection. Write out your personal story. Even if you’re fundraising for something like a new community garden that doesn’t exist yet, there is a way to connect with people about the space and make your point resonate with them. You can focus on yourself and what you love about it, or focus on how you can see other people enjoying it—you just have to forge a point of connection, some common ground. We did it both ways: we remembered what it was like for us, and we also described how we imagined it being for the next generation of kids.

 

Q & A with Ifeoma Ebo: Community-led design for safety

Is there a place in your neighborhood that feels unsafe? Maybe an empty lot, a corner obscured by overgrown plants, or a dark passageway between buildings? Have you ever wondered what could make your public spaces feel safer, but don’t particularly relish ideas   like flood lighting, razor wire, or increased police presence? What can   you and your neighbors do to make your community feel safer without such tactics?

Good news: There are actually lots of things you can do! Fun, creative, neighborly things that rely on the principles of good design to discourage crime and encourage community. Here to tell you about them is Ifeoma Ebo, Senior Design Advisor in the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

 

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Q: Could you give us a brief intro to your work?

I work on the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety, an initiative that addresses crime prevention and public safety by empowering people, improving places, and strengthening networks. I focus on the “places” aspect: working with residents to identify “hot spots” in different communities and come up with ways to make them “cooler.” Right now, we’re installing cameras, more secure doors, and permanent lighting upgrades in New York City Housing Authority campuses around the city. Long-term, we’re looking to align our strategies with local initiatives—whatever neighbors are already doing in their area to make it safer—and incorporate these approaches into future city   projects. Working this way strengthens engagement between local communities and the government.

 

Q: What makes a public space feel safe?

Sometimes it’s just the presence of other people. Knowing that other eyes will be watching a space limits the ability of criminals to do as they please. Visibility is also big: can you be fully aware of your surroundings, or there are high bushes or tall walls blocking your view? Or it is it dark when there could be improved lighting? There’s also the concept of social cohesion: spaces being used to encourage social interaction. If your basketball court is in disrepair and no one can use it to play basketball, it may attract other kinds of activity. But if you fix it up so people can play, they will, and that will discourage undesired activities. In general, the maintenance of public spaces can improve perceptions of safety: a park that’s free of trash with a fresh mural in it looks a lot more inviting than a park strewn with litter and a peeling old mural in it.

 

Q: How can design enhance safety   without more police presence or intimidating tactics like tower lights and barbed wire?

There’s really not a one-size-fits-all solution; it’s about what   the particular community wants. Residents can come up with the best solutions for their public spaces, since they’re the most aware of their own challenges. Tower lights are a double-edged sword: they have been shown to reduce crime, but they produce a lot of noise and light pollution, and even air pollution. Sometimes lighting can be orchestrated in a more pleasing way and foster the same safety benefits, like a projection of dancing lights on the ground, or lights that create games for children. But if a certain neighborhood needs more in the way of crime prevention than dancing lights, that won’t work there. So there’s a give and take, and different measures work better in different communities.

At the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice we use the term “neighborhood activation” to address public safety in public spaces because we’re not just talking about cameras, lights, and security infrastructure. Sure, we want to put in better lighting, but we also want to fix the basketball court and put benches there so people can watch. We want to change the use of the space—activate it—so that residents can build stronger social networks and become empowered to keep watch over their own community.

 

Q: What can neighbors do to help make spaces safer and more welcoming?

Start by identifying the underutilized spaces near you: an alley, a dead end street, a pathway between buildings. Then think about how you could make them more useful. Keep in mind that many spaces—too many—are only designed to be used during the day. With proper lighting, a basketball court or adult fitness equipment can just as easily be used at night as during the day. Think about how to achieve maximum use.  

Also consider what can be done in the short term that will work for your neighbors, then rally support for it. Sometimes community garden plots are great; sometimes a playground or fitness equipment is better. It depends on what your particular neighbors would appreciate and use. Remember that “public interest” isn’t five people who are interested—you need to get the whole neighborhood on board! Take small steps at first to gauge people’s interest and get them rallying around the idea, then build up more of a project plan from there. One good small step is just getting people together to clean up the area in question: organize a day where you go as a group to pick up the trash, clear out the old tires; whatever needs doing.

Mobilizing like this is the first step in making community-led changes part of the greater system. Recently, the Brownsville Community Justice Center in Brooklyn identified three dead end streets in their neighborhood that were facing challenges to public safety. They worked with youth to paint murals in them, installed seating and umbrellas, and put in a request with the Department of Transportation [DOT] to make one a pedestrian plaza. So the community has done the initial legwork, and now the DOT can step in to formalize it, put trees there, maintain it… It can become a part of public infrastructure and a model for more of the city’s capital projects in the future.

Remember, too, that if you turn a vacant lot into a thriving community garden or a teen center it can go a long way towards informing a future vision for the community made by  public agencies. Encouraging community stewardship empowers residents to transform their neighborhood incrementally. That’s what creates lasting vibrancy in a community.

The Rainmakers: John Bailey of Saint Paul Tool Library

While the average budget for ioby projects is around $4,000, many are larger scale. If you have your sights set high, your budget—and fundraising skills—will have to rise to the challenge.

Crowdfunding large amounts of money on ioby is totally doable, but it takes some extra planning. In our Rainmakers series, we’re sharing stories and tips from Leaders who have successfully raised $10,000 or more for their ioby campaign. Learn how they did it, and how you can do it, too!

 

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The Saint Paul Tool Library gives neighbor-members low-cost access to over a thousand home improvement tools, as well as skill-building classes and workshops. Last summer, its mastermind, John Bailey, shared the story of the library with ioby readers in this Awesome Project post.

We recently spoke with John again to ask exactly how he and his team raised over $13,000 on ioby to open the library’s doors (to great fanfare) this past March.

 

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Q: Who was on your fundraising team?

Smart people will tell you that you need a fundraising committee—and they’re right! But we were a really small group: just six or eight committed people; the library’s “advisory committee.” None of us really had a history in fundraising, so we just kind of went for it. I picked up a little know-how in my years with nonprofits, but I would have loved for someone on the team to have more experience. What are you gonna do? We did the best we could with what we had, and it’s not a hard science. It’s really just hustling and connecting.

We did know enough to use this advice we got from others: make personal appeals. Send an email out, sure, but then you have to follow it up with a personal ask, or it won’t be successful.

We were a random group with different skillsets. A full-time commercial airline pilot; some people in the “maker” world; others motivated by sustainability or do-gooding community stuff. The idea of a tool library appeals to people in different ways: they like the social justice angle, or the environmental stewardship angle, or the “I’m just a crazy tool-head and want to be around tools all the time” angle. It was great to have a mix of people; it added tremendous value. Think of it as concentric circles, expanding your network outward.

 

Q: Were you already comfortable with asking for money?

I’m pretty comfortable doing it, but our ace in the hole with this project was that everybody likes the idea! No one says, “A tool library is something I would never use.” It’s not contentious like a bike lane might be. So there’s a very clean segue between the idea and the motivation to give. If you like the project, great—then you’ve got to donate money to make it happen.

But for many people, asking for money is not a comfortable thing, so we tried to promote accountability on our team. We’d make a plan to make calls, then ask if people made them. We didn’t tap anyone’s phones to check!, but we would follow up with them. We’re all busy, and this is all volunteer work, and things do drop to the bottom of the to-do list. So you all have to stay accountable.

And use your whole network. Some people you know will want to support a community project; some will just want to support you. You can get money either way, but again, it will never happen with emails alone. It has to be a more personal ask.

 

Q: How did you plan your fundraising?

We got an early contribution of $5,000 for general support and a $5,000 challenge grant from the Knight Foundation; the challenge money is part of the $13,822 we raised on ioby. We were lucky to get those.

We also had a big leg up via the Northeast Minneapolis Tool Library (NEMTL), who we partnered with from the start. We just looked at their first-year budget and plugged our own numbers in to estimate our costs.

Since most all our donors were from our own personal networks, we didn’t put together a donor database. We didn’t even have personal goals for our team like, “I’m going to raise X amount this month.” It was just: “You know what you gotta do. Just call your people every week.” We also emphasized the basic math. If you have the time to go out and get lots of $10 donations, great. But if you know one person who might give $400, then spend your serious time and effort on them. Not to sound elitist, but usually a big check is better than a small check.

Also, we worked with a videographer who’s done a lot of crowdfunding work. He knew the terrain, so he suggested things like the different levels of giving, when to send out appeals, etc. There’s a bit of an art to it, and he was able to walk us through it. And because he earned a percentage of the money we raised, there was a built-in incentive for him to do a good job!

 

Q: How did storytelling factor in?

Having the video was great for storytelling. Great for us, I should say, but as videos have become more accessible, the bar for “good” has become higher. Anybody can do it now, but that doesn’t mean it always looks good! We did well to hire a professional.

The main thing we wanted the video to do was have other members of the community tell our story for us. We got a handful of very personal narratives responding to the question: “What would a tool library mean for you?” We got people of different ethnicities and genders; entrepreneurs to homeowners to an organization that serves formerly incarcerated men… We showed that the idea is not just a white middle class environmental thing. We made four or five 30-second videos early on and released them week by week during the campaign. They got really good reactions from our donors. We didn’t have the time or money to have a website—but that’s where ioby came in. The ioby campaign page was like our business card.

 

Q: What methods did you use to ask people?

On social media, we were basically on Facebook and Twitter; more on the former. Nothing more complicated than that. Facebook has become more “pay to play;” I think it’s at least  $5 to boost one of your posts. But that $5 can mean the difference between 50 people and all your connections seeing it. Making that small investment dramatically increased our donations.

We also did a crowdfunding launch at a brewery in town, which was great for getting press, and we made a fair amount of money there. You’re almost by definition going to get supporters at an event like that. It’s good to get people to give when they’re excited in the moment, rather than give them time to think about it when they get home. We had iPads circulating around and encouraged people to just do it then, when they were surrounded by it—and enjoying a beer.

On our team, we stressed making phone calls over reaching out to people in person. In total, I think we had 85 or 90 donors, but they weren’t all personally known to us. We promoted the heck out of this campaign, so it definitely got out in the ether. The total number of people was more surprising to me than the amount any one donor gave, though a couple of people did give more than we predicted.

 

Q: Did fundraising help with community buy-in?

For sure. We always sold this as a community endeavor, a community project. Much more a transformational than a transactional thing. One of the easy ways to think about it is: We want to do this, so we need to pay for it. There was nothing hidden about the costs: we were very upfront and it was easy for everyone to understand where the money was going.

I do believe that if you’re serious about the stuff you’re trying to do, you’ll raise the money to do it. You can’t say: “I don’t like raising money, I just like to do the stuff.” That doesn’t make sense to me. You want to do the stuff, you have to raise the money!

 

Q: Any other advice?

If you have the opportunity to go for a challenge grant, don’t roll your eyes! Initially my thought was, “Come on, I just want the money! I don’t want to have to go through this challenge thing…” But people dig the idea of their money being doubled. So take advantage of that and play it up.

If you’re able to do a good, pithy video, invest in it. Make sure it’s not too long, though—that’s just wasted money and time. People won’t watch it and it won’t help you. And don’t have it just be you talking into the camera! And if you can’t do something good, don’t do anything at all. Not having a video is not the end of the world, either.

People like being asked. Our perception of fundraising can be: “I was cooking dinner and Greenpeace called me and I burned my food! It’s so annoying!” Or you get asked for money for something random at the grocery store and don’t know what to say. But when we’re asked by someone we know, it’s flattering. It’s saying: “I’ve thought about you and I know you would care about this.” It implicitly suggests, “I hold you in high regard.”

A Solution for Massive Federal Funding Cuts: Think Hyper-Local

[This op-ed was originally published in Planetizen.]

As concern grows over the potential loss of community development and planning funds at the federal level, Indigo Bishop writes to remind us that communities have the networks and resources to make it through periods of scarcity.

[The “A Bridge that Bridges” project used art to forge connections between Downtown Cleveland and the Cedar-Central neighborhood.]

The Trump Administration’s pledge to drastically cut federal funds for programs like HUD’s Community Development Block Grants, which provide the backbone for urban development projects from community health initiatives to streetscape improvements, has residents and community leaders of urban neighborhoods understandably on edge.

The thinking goes that without block grants and other forms of federal funding, historically disinvested and vulnerable communities will lose whatever gains they’ve made in the past decade, sliding into despair and disarray.

There is no mistaking the challenges ahead. And while it’s unconscionable that the people in power would take from those who need to give to those who have, there is a way forward for our nation’s marginalized communities: counterintuitively, it involves forgetting the Feds altogether to make local changes ourselves.

The truth is, many communities have never had the luxury of dependable funding or support from any level of government or the philanthropic sector—in fact, public policies and practices like redlining and racist policing have obstructed opportunity for generations. Instead, communities have learned to rely on neighbors, friends, and family members—growing an informal network of support and pooling resources in the face of scarcity. It’s important to remember that we’ve been helping each other for a long time.

As an Action Strategist with community crowdfunding organization ioby (or “In Our Backyards”), I see examples of this every day in the community leaders I work with in historically underserved neighborhoods across Cleveland. These community leaders find something that needs doing, and with a little coaching, help with strategic planning, and connections to an online fundraising mechanism and willing volunteers, they’re able to execute on small, meaningful improvements right in their backyards.

All sweat equity and labor of love, no federal funding necessary.

There are inspired projects led by inspiring people all around us: “A Bridge that Bridges” is helping to bridge divides, both historical and physical, between Downtown Cleveland, a historically white neighborhood, and Cedar-Central, a historically black neighborhood. By bringing neighbors together to beautify the bridge that links the two—and have difficult, important conversations about race and equality—the project literally links different communities through art.

 

[Artistic flourishes abound on the “A Bridge that Bridges” project.]

In the Woodland neighborhood, a grandmother and school crossing guard named Miss Lucille is taking the lead on fixing a deadly intersection for pedestrians, working with collaborators from elementary schoolers to architects.

Led by a young designer named Allison Lukacsy-Love, health-minded neighbors across the city have started a program called “Bus Stop Moves” to address two challenges: inactivity and long wait times at transit stops. Working in collaboration with the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, they’re revamping bus stops into mini-gyms around the city.

 

[Active transportation at the Bus Stop Moves event.]

[The Bus Stop Moves event included lessons in eating healthy, too.]

As small in scale as projects like these might seem, they should give us hope in the face of a seemingly unstoppable force of chopping and cutting and shutting down. We may not be able to replace the billions on the line, but over the course of decades, we’ve learned to be nimble, pool our resources, and do a lot with a little. Our networks of mutual support are stronger than we think, and our resolve is unshakable.

We’re prepared to think creatively, support each other, and share what we have. This sense of community and creative problem solving will be key in the coming years.

 

Indigo Bishop, ioby’s Cleveland Action Strategist, is a certified social justice mediator and a graduate of Case Western Reserve University, where she studied sociology, anthropology, and social work. She has traveled to Kenya, Ecuador and the Netherlands to study nonprofit organizations, community development, and social policy.

Awesome Project: Barrier Free – a new Memphis public art installation

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Martin Niemoller

 

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These lines will be inscribed on a sign announcing a new art installation – Barrier Free – under production now in Memphis and slated to travel the country from the end of this month through July 2018. It’s a work that speaks to our collective human vulnerability, in a time of turmoil, and to our need to see past walls and reach to protect one another.

As the artist, Yancy Villa-Calvo, writes on her ioby campaign page (about a month left to help fundraise), the piece is about “the systematic attempts to divide individuals, families and communities.” Picture a long, winding wall covered in portraits of immigrants, refugees, Jews, LGBT individuals, Muslims, African Americans, Caucasians, Asians and all who represent Memphis’ diverse social tapestry. Then picture, nearby, life-size mirrored cutout silhouettes of various family units – a father playing with a child, or a parent pushing a child in a wheelchair, for example – each tableau with one critical person, usually the caregiver, dissolved to an outline. Gone missing. This, Villa-Calvo means to say, is what walls do to us.

 

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An artist ready to speak out

Villa-Calvo hasn’t always been a full-time artist. Born in Mexico City and brought to the US for college, the mother of three for many years put her MBA to use in the business world, pushing herself to her limits, and pursuing her love of visual art on the side. Five years ago, though, she suffered two paralysis – a complication of a terrible head injury she’d had as a teen – and was brought face-to-face with life’s biggest questions. “My husband was very supportive,” Villa-Calvo remembers, “and he said hey, this is from stress – what is the next thing you’re going to do in your life? I’ll support you one hundred percent.”

Yancy Villa-Calvo & Mauricio Calvo

She dove into a new career in painting, which led to deeper community engagement. “I was always a volunteer here and there,” she explains, “but as you grow older, you realize how much you have to give back. So I started engaging more and more and more. I just see that the more you are connected, and the more you try to give, then things work out. I believe that more young people should engage more, because the more you help, the more worth you feel.”

In the wake of the 2016 election, Villa-Calvo realized she was ready to speak out a little louder. She’d always volunteered with Latino Memphis, a wonderful local nonprofit, and approached them with her idea. “I decided to use my art to help somehow, and to use the power of art to get more communities to engage with what’s happening, come together, talk about this, have empathy, and then create an opportunity for people to help. A lot of people are coming together and they want to help, but they don’t know how.” Barrier Free was born.

 

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A reflection of stories untold

“It’s very direct,” Villa-Calvo says of the installation’s message, which will include a fence where visitors may post messages, hopes, fears. “Whoever is standing in front of it is going to see themselves in the family silhouette, and then the caregiver is gone, so it definitely gets to you, as if ‘this can be me or my family, if I don’t do something’. I’m touching topics that are not comfortable to everybody.”

That potential for discomfort is something that her family has had to work through. “I’m a permanent resident,” Villa-Calvo explains. “I’m not a citizen yet. We’re still waiting for the interview. When I was becoming more active and vocal through my art and Latino Memphis, my daughter sat down with my husband and me, and she said ‘I’m afraid that something will happen to you, and we’ll be separated’.” Villa-Calvo’s voice breaks as she tells this part.

“We said that we have to do this,” she continues. “We have to do it because it’s our duty. We have been privileged to live this life, and we have so much responsibility to the ones who cannot speak out. She understands. As an artist, I’m exposing myself. There are so many stories that are not going to be shared, because these families are afraid of being targeted or exposed.”

Here’s to speaking up for one another. To courage, and to art. Here’s to a barrier-free world.

 

Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.

Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Have a great idea, but feel like you need a blueprint to get you started? Or a recipe to follow? We’ve got you covered. Check out some of our very best recipes for change, here.

The Rainmakers: Aylene McCallum on how to crowdfund for a larger-budget project

While the average budget for ioby projects is around $4,000, many are larger scale. If you have your sights set high, your budget—and fundraising skills—will have to rise to the challenge.

Crowdfunding large amounts of money on ioby is totally doable, but it takes some extra planning. In our Rainmakers series, we’re sharing stories and tips from Leaders who have successfully raised $10,000 or more for their ioby campaign. Learn how they did it, and how you can do it, too!

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A few months back, Aylene McCallum, Director of Downtown Environment for the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP), walked us through the steps she took to bring the city’s Arapahoe Street Protected Bike Lane project from vision to reality. Her initial budget of $155,000 was partially covered by  grants from the Gates Family Foundation and Downtown Denver Business Improvement District, but that still left her with $35,000 of crowdfunding to do.

We spoke to Aylene again, to get into the nitty-gritty of the fundraising strategies she employed and lessons she learned from her years (yes, years!) of working to improve quality of life in downtown Denver.

 

Q: Who was on your fundraising team?

Our team was made up of 20-ish diverse volunteers who really wanted to fundraise and contribute to creating a more bike-friendly downtown. We had business leaders, transportation people, real estate developers, foundation employees, community organizers, architects, political advisers… But they all believed in our shared goal.

It’s okay—and can even be ideal—to have a large steering committee like this. It helps you tap into more networks, spread the word, and build support more widely. You want people with different types of connections. If you have five best friends on your committee, they’ll probably all know the same people!

That said, don’t pick random people just for diversity’s sake. Make sure everyone you invite understands the importance of the project and is personally passionate about it: those who are are genuine will make a better effort to fundraise. This requires careful cultivation, so don’t rush it, if at all possible. You also need to take the time to prep everyone about what’s entailed and what’s expected. But you don’t want to draw these processes out forever, either! It’s all a balance.

It doesn’t matter how much money the individuals on your fundraising team have themselves. It matters if they have the guts to make the ask, it matters who they’re connected to, and it matters how committed they are to the cause.

In the end, probably the most important thing is that you have a very strong, committed, inspiring leader to whip them into shape! This probably should not be you, since you’ll have so much else to do, but you should absolutely support this person.

 

Q: Were you already comfortable with asking for money?

I had been raising sponsorship money for DDP events for a while before this, so I was very comfortable asking people to donate directly. What I really welcomed ioby’s help with was teaching my fundraising team how to ask for money. I credit ioby for counseling me through that effort and giving me great ideas about how to engage the committee.

One lesson I learned is that you should communicate constantly with your team. Don’t doubt that they’re making the asks, and trust them that they’ll deliver, but do help them stay accountable and organized, and keep the momentum up by staying in close touch. I set lots of goals for my committee so they could understand what success looked like for their effort. “If everyone on the team brings in five people who can give $250, we’ll make our goals…” Really mapping it all out helps keep energy up through the whole campaign.

When you see a superstar team member doing great, throw them some love; shout them out to the rest of the committee. “Hey everyone, I saw Mike brought in $1,000 today—great work!” It shows them all that asking does work, that success is being achieved, and that they’re making it happen.

 

Q: How did you plan your fundraising?

We just asked all our potential funders: “What’s a reasonable amount of money we could expect to raise from your organization?” And we asked our partners: “How much do we need to bring in to make progress on this project?”

There was a lot of back and forth, especially on the partner side. You just have to get comfortable with the numbers being fluid, stay confident, keep employing the same good techniques, and you’ll get there. Keep all your resources in mind, always have a plan B, and be thinking two steps ahead: “Who’s our Hail Mary if we get desperate? How could we reduce our costs if we needed to and still make something good happen?”

This is another area where the more people you bring into the process, the better—on both the funding and the partner side. The breadth of your network is critically important to your success—in fundraising and for your project in general. More people equals more opportunities.

 

Q: How did storytelling factor in?

I am not a communications person! I kind of get it, but I’m not in the marketing department. I really had to learn along the way. One thing I realized is that we had two different stories here with two different life cycles: the fundraising phase and then the larger picture of the whole project. The fundraising story was about why bike lanes are good for cities. The larger story was more about the private and public sectors coming together and stretching what each of them normally does.

I don’t think we got a lot of donations because of our story being in the national or local media; our fundraising success really came from the individual work of our task force members. The media does a good job of raising awareness, but it usually isn’t until someone asks you personally to donate that you get serious about giving. So you really can’t count on the media to bring in your money; you have to plan personal asks.

 

Q: What methods did you use to ask people?

We used a combination of what seemed most appropriate and most effective. If you think the person you want to ask is good with email, write to them. If you’re going to see them, ask in person.

Plan your asks in waves. It’s hard to ask hundreds of people consistently for the duration of your campaign; you’ll lose your stamina. We put a bunch of asks out in an initial wave and then sat back to watch and assess, and we used what we learned from that wave to plan for a second. We thought of some new people to ask—and asked some of the same people again—with improved tactics. You can even try doing a third wave to check up on anyone who said they wanted to give but didn’t yet. In every case, there can be a fine line between nudging and bugging—that’s where the personal relationships can really help out.

We had one committee member who was a very prominent business person in the community. One day he said, Come to my office and we’ll make some calls. I sat with him for an hour and he called friend after friend to ask them to give. We got so many donors! That was a very productive hour of our time, and I remember being surprised that he was willing to do it.

The lesson there: don’t doubt how much people want to help you. You never know who’s going to step up, and what connections they have.

 

Q: Did fundraising help with community buy-in?

Any fundraising campaign is a great opportunity to build community. Build that aspect into your strategies. Think about how you’ll be able to tap into community energy—not just money—in the future to accomplish other goals. Don’t think of your campaign as “one and done.”

Build time into your work plan for assessing and responding to whatever happens right after your crowdfunding campaign; don’t jump into another project right afterward. You want to be able to leverage the success you achieved here in your next project, not let it go cold. Don’t be so busy doing the next thing that you can’t fully capitalize on your project’s success.

 

Q: Any other advice?

Send lots of thank-you notes. Lots of them!

 

Why you should consider crowdfunding your neighborhood project (instead of writing a grant)

[This post originally appeared on strongtowns.org.]

Whether you’re planning to paint a mural, build a community garden, or create a pop-up bike lane, when it comes to neighborhood improvement, you’re dedicated to making the biggest possible impact. You might work for an established 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, or maybe you’re just part of a small group of neighbors with a good idea. In any case, as you think about how to turn your idea to reality, the question of “how we pay for it” has probably popped up. Competition for small grants can be fierce, and their uncertainty, long turnaround time, and reporting requirements can be a burden on grassroots groups. This is why more and more neighborhood changemakers are turning to civic crowdfunding as an alternative, or even a supplement, to grants.

 

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At ioby,  we work with community groups and neighbors around the country to plan, fund, and implement positive change on a local level. We’ve helped raise more than $3 million in small donations for projects that make neighborhoods healthier, more vibrant and more full of opportunity. And every day we coach community leaders — from established nonprofits to community-minded individuals — on how to raise the money they need, while building their networks, strengthening their neighborhoods, and growing their capacity as leaders. We think when it’s done well, crowdfunding can build a neighborhood’s civic strength in a way that traditional philanthropy can’t. Here are some of the reasons why:

1.  “Making the ask” within your community will help you grow a list of supporters.

Nobody, and we mean nobody, wakes up every day excited to ask for money. However, making the ask is a muscle worth building up, and we promise it gets easier the more you do it. What better way to diversify your revenue streams than by asking for a small amount from a lot of people? By being out and visible in your community, and making it clear that you want to work with your neighbors to improve the place you all care about, you’ll gain allies and supporters who will make a difference beyond your immediate project. You’ll collect names and email addresses, and next time your project or organization has a milestone or needs a coalition of support, you’ll have a head start!

2.    Talking about your project within your community can bring valuable information.

Another good reason to seek funding locally: it’s built-in community engagement. You’ll find yourself telling the story of your project over and over again, and you’ll no doubt get some useful feedback. Is Saturday morning actually a bad time for a pop-up event? Did one of your neighbors try planting trees a few years back and learn something useful about city permits? By letting your neighbors participate when the idea is still in its early stages, you’re not only crowdsourcing the funding of your project, you’re refining your idea and perfecting your project so you can best serve your community.

 

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3.   Crowdfunding allows more space for experimentation.

Time for some real talk about traditional philanthropy: if you’ve ever written one, you know that even the smallest grants can come with lengthy applications and onerous reporting requirements. Even more challenging, you’re often asked to predict or quantify your impact in certain ways to prove that the project was a success using the funder’s own metrics. In reality, many neighborhood-scale projects are experiments, and can be huge, and productive, learning experiences for the people organizing them. Small organizations should be trusted to experiment, pilot, tweak and perfect projects and programs. Crowdfunding can bring more freedom from the fear of failure that be a barrier to grassroots groups trying new things.

4.   Success has many parents.

Imagine a vacant lot transformed into a bustling and vibrant community garden. That’s a positive change, right? Now imagine every single person on the block walking by the garden and thinking, “I helped build that.” Those neighbors are built-in advocates, caretakers, and protectors of that new space. They’re probably more likely to hang out there, to volunteer, and to talk with each other about other challenges in the neighborhood. To use a social science term, this is “social resiliency,” and it can help build the foundation for a community to stay intact in the face of challenges. In short, you may be building more than just a garden.

 

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5.   You’re not an established org…

It can be tough for fledgling groups to get grants. With no paid staff, little track record of success, and little administrative capacity, even a small amount can be a heavy lift. If this sounds familiar, you may be part of what ioby calls the “deep roots,” new or informal groups that are all-volunteer and don’t have 501(c)3 status. Crowdfunding from within your community can be a great first step towards incorporation and growth, if that’s your goal. Just as important, a trajectory of growth is not always the right choice for fledgling groups like yours. Maybe you want to stay small and just focus on doing one project extremely well. Sometimes that’s the right move, and crowdfunding can allow you that flexibility.

6.   …Or you are!

About one-third of the projects supported by ioby come from established medium-to-large budget 501(c)3s who regularly raise money in a variety of ways. Certain programs might be supported by grants, corporate sponsorships, individual giving or membership programs. Still, a crowdfunding campaign can do things that none of these funding streams can: it can invigorate a donor base by creating a sense of urgency and visible progress; it can allow you to take risks on innovative programming; it can allow you to respond to a crisis or immediate funding need; and it can help you engage your donors to make the ask for you using social media and other tactics. Crowdfunding should be part of your nonprofit fundraising toolbox, no matter what your operating budget is.

And remember, “crowd” is the most important part of crowdfunding. You won’t have to go it alone! Our staff is dedicated to taking the time with you to find out about your funding needs and help you build a fundraising plan that works with your community, your timeframe, and your needs. It’s our mission to support neighbors in making positive change within our communities, and we’re here to help you succeed.

Start a project

Awesome Project: Georgia’s first agrihood breaks ground!

Deliciously fresh, hyper-local produce is in Danny Glover’s DNA. Founder and principal developer of ONE-South Community Development Corporation and 2016 National HBCU Outreach Director for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Glover grew up in Macon, Georgia, where – until about the 90s – many families, like his, kept vibrant, productive gardens.

 

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[Danny D. Glover, 29,  Project Lead + Executive Director-ONE~South Community Development Corp.; 3rd Generation Southside Resident]

“My grandmother had a garden,” Glover says. “Her neighbors and friends had gardens. I was a gofer between houses, you know, delivering plants and vegetables. So if my grandmother was cooking collard greens and she wanted hot peppers to go with them, she would send me to the neighbors two houses down to get some. And in exchange, the neighbor might want tomatoes. Most of our produce came from the garden, from my uncle and cousins. There was always a relative dropping off fresh strawberries or watermelon. It was just a day in the life. This was how we lived.”

Today though, Macon suffers from disinvestment, and it’s in a food desert. It’s nearly impossible to find fresh, healthy food in the area. Even the fruit truck that Glover remembers from his youth has disappeared. The problem is that the community is aging – and emptying – dramatically. Young professionals are leaving home in search of greater opportunity, and they’re not coming back. Grandparents are passing, leaving behind poorly maintained homes that neither their kids nor grandkids want. You can walk past vacant lots and see  exactly where gardens used to be.

 

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[Neighbors including 96-year-old Edward Oliver, center, at the groundbreaking on April 22.]

 

Putting fresh food back at the center of things

That’s why Glover’s come back home to Macon, to remind people how things used to be, and to help the community give itself a fresh start. Literally. He’s conceived of and broken ground on Georgia’s first agrihood, for which he and his team are now raising money with ioby. What’s an agrihood, you ask? The term was coined in Detroit in 2014; it’s an urban neighborhood designed with large-scale community agriculture at  its heart. In this case, twelve disused  parcels of land in Southside Macon are being transformed – with the support of the county commissioner, the mayor, and the district water and soil conservation chairman – into 5 acres of urban farmland. The first 2.5-3 acres alone should, according to Glover’s early estimates, feed 2,500 people YEAR-ROUND.  Collards, cabbage, corn, carrots, okra, fruit trees, all strung together by wheelchair-accessible paths.

“You know how you have neighborhood maps that show you different buildings, stores, things like that?” asks Glover. “Well ideally, we want to create a garden and vegetable and fruit map for the Gateway Heights.” In other words, a map that allows you to set out for your morning walk  or afternoon bike ride, and choose your route based on which produce you happen to need for dinner that night. That’s not to mention plans for a connected farm-to-table restaurant, a commercial kitchen space to be used for demonstrations, a gym, and lots of walkable affordable housing in the agrihood. Does this sounds pretty much like heaven to you? 

 

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[At the groundbreaking with neighbors, April 22, 2017]

“We’ll be the first agrihood in Georgia, and I believe we’ll be the first one in any state where agriculture is the main export,” explains Glover. “In Georgia we have pecans, peaches… but we’re not growing those within city limits. I think it’s going to reignite the spirit that already existed in this neighborhood. Farming and gardening are not new to this community. This neighborhood has a tradition of urban farming, long before it was the cool thing to do. Let’s not wait for county government. Let’s not wait for a university or someone else to come and save our community. We can do it ourselves. We have the tools. We have the assets. Let’s come together and grow a neighborhood.”

 

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[Breaking ground on the garden with neighbors, April 22, 2017]

Glover himself is most excited for the turnips and rutabaga, but he already knows what the biggest hit will be. “People are excited about the collards, the tomatoes, the okra, and the variety of peppers,” he says. “But mainly the collards. We’re a really really big collard greens community. We love our greens.” We’ll raise our forks to that.

To learn more about Gateway Heights, and about community agriculture, visit the project’s Facebook page, here. And if you’d like to vote with your dollars for a sustainable food future, you can donate to the ioby campaign here.

Feeling inspired? Want to take action in YOUR neighborhood? If you have awesome ideas about how to make your town greener, safer, and more fun, let us help! Tell us your awesome idea right here. We’d love to help you get started today.

Pssst…. In OTHER ioby news: Have a great idea, but feel like you need a blueprint to get you started? Or a recipe to follow? We’ve got you covered. Check out some of our very best recipes for change, here.

NYC high schooler’s community garden will give her neighbors a breath of fresh air

With the New York State Health Foundation (NYSHealth), ioby is excited to present  the second year of the Healthy Neighborhoods Challenge! Just like last year, the 2017 Challenge is supporting residents across New York state who are taking an active role in creating a culture of health where they live. To read more about how the Healthy Neighborhoods Challenge came to be, check out this blog post from last summer.

Donations to the all of this year’s participating campaigns (including the one we’re profiling below) will be matched dollar-for-dollar  by NYSHealth through  May 25. That means your gift will go twice as far to improve public health outcomes across New York!

“There’s kind of a stigma around living or being near NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] buildings,” says Veronica Vasquez, a NYCHA resident and leader of the Healthy Neighborhoods Challenge campaign Blooming Streets – NYCHA Community Garden. “When you look at them, they’re just brick and bars. I want to give us something to be proud of as we look in our back yard. Some beauty and some colors!”

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[Veronica with her mom, Liz]

Veronica is a junior at East Side Community School in Manhattan’s East Village. Together with her mom Liz, she’s leading her first ioby project this year. Their plan is to work with their neighbors to build a community garden on the grounds of their apartment building that will, in Veronica’s words, “embrace and pull together this community. Make it a real neighborhood.” The 17-year-old pictures lots of flowers in the garden’s beds—”probably some of my mom’s favorites, tulips”—as well as fragrant and relaxing herbs like chamomile and lavender.

Several motivations have led Veronica to step up and lead this initiative for her community. For one, she’d like to feel closer to her neighbors. “I’ve lived here my whole life, but I rarely get to see or talk to a lot of the other people who live here,” she says. “I want to give us a space where we can work together. There’s something so special about taking part in the growth of something, and all watching it grow together.”

Veronica and Liz have spoken to many of their neighbors about the garden, as well a local church group and people at Veronica’s school, and have gotten overwhelmingly positive responses. “I especially wanted to know how people my age would feel about it,” Veronica says. “They either donated, or said, ‘I want to put my hands in this dirt with you.’ It was amazing, that kind of support.”

 

[The NYCHA housing where Veronica and Liz live]

Another motivator was the mother-daughter team’s abiding love of the natural world, and frustration with their limited options for living a greener life. “We love the environment and try to save it any way we can,” Veronica explains, “but at NYCHA we don’t have recycling pickup, or any green space. The city doesn’t provide composting bins or energy-efficient light bulbs. It’s sad because I learn all about sustainable living in school and come home with all these amazing ideas, but then I have no outlet for them.”

Lastly, when planning this project, Veronica had health on her mind (pun intended). “I think everyone needs green space to be healthy—mentally and physically,” she says. “In NYC, we live at such a fast pace that it’s really easy to forget to sit down and enjoy, or just take a stroll for the sake of it. If I can bring those abilities to my neighbors, bring them the peace of mind they offer, it would be amazing.”

Veronica recently interned at the Lowline Lab, a prototype for a future green space in a former trolley terminal beneath the city’s streets. She loved working with the plants in the underground park and learning how to care for them. She also found out about the Healthy Neighborhoods Challenge there (through her supervisor), and about NYCHA’s Resident Green Committee Program (through one of its coordinators, an invited speaker). Now, with their support, Veronica and her mom are working on selecting a plot of land to propose for the garden; then they’ll apply to NYCHA for a permit to start building it up.

 

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[The Lowline Lab, where  Veronica recently interned. Via the Lowline]

While they’re taking the lead on getting the garden started, Veronica and Liz want their neighbors to bring any and all ideas—and skills, and materials—to the table. “We’ve never done anything like this before,” she says, “so if people have things like seeds, gloves, or building materials they can donate, or if they can lend a hand with expertise or want to volunteer, we want them! If not, they can just spread the word and tell others about it. Whatever people can do to let us all live a little healthier.”

In the future, Veronica would love to see the garden grow into a full-on community farm that produces food for NYC homeless shelters. In the shorter term, she’s just excited to get started.

“I think about this all the time!” she says. “I think I’ll know I did really great, I’ll know I’ve achieved my dream, if someone comes up to me and says, ‘This is the place I go when I’m stressed out, and I just need a little bit of earth.’ I would say that’s it; job well done.”