When Namira Islam had just finished law school and taken the bar exam four years ago, she paused for breath, and went online to check in with her friends and communities. She had thought about the ways in which she’d felt discriminated against during her life – both as a Bangladeshi immigrant in America, and as a non-Arab in the Muslim community – and found herself drawn to the dialogue on exclusion happening on Twitter.
Samoy Smith grew up in Detroit, with a Jamaica-born mother who wasn’t comfortable letting her venture far from the family’s tight-knit Jamaican community. It wasn’t until a school friend invited Smith to her church’s youth group one weekend, during middle school, that she really saw just how fulfilling it could be to build one’s own diverse “chosen family,” to accept invitations from neighbors and then extend them right back out to the next person.
Love music? Love working with young people? Interested in organizing a music program for youth in your community, but not sure what it could look like?
You’ve come to the right place. Over the years, we’ve worked with many leaders who have started creative initiatives in their communities that get young people involved in music, often in conjunction with something else engaging like the outdoors, visual arts, or technology. They’re all different, but they all have some common threads (such as, we’ll just say it, being awesome).
This spring has brought huge and exciting changes for us here at ioby. First, we brought on five awesome new staff members at our home base in Brooklyn, and seriously ramped up work in Memphis. And now we’re thrilled to announce that (thanks to funding from the Kresge Foundation) we’re laying the groundwork for a brand-new set of partnerships to support neighbor-led projects in Detroit!
But we’re not just rushing in headlong with our New York model, or even our Memphis model; Detroit’s unique set of challenges and opportunities mean that a one-size-fits-all approach would be a big mistake. It’s ioby policy to make sure we’re adding to, not duplicating, the work that’s already being done and that means we spend a lot of time in the getting-to-know-you phase.
“It’s always better to come in informed,” says David Weinberger, our brand new, first-ever City Partnerships Director. “In Memphis, we learned a great deal about the city during our research phase, and we’ve been wildly successful there. It’s really important that we fully understand the civic landscape in Detroit before we try to provide anything of value to any leader in that city. We take a contextual approach to working intentionally inside a city. We don’t want to be an organization that jumps in and jumps out.”
To that end, David’s work as he explores Detroit (and all partner cities to follow) will rest on three important pillars:
- Extensive research on the existing civic landscape, we call this “phase zero” research
- Careful synthesizing of the data and network knowledge collected, and only then:
- Creation of a Detroit-tailored ioby model.
And what does all this phase zero research look like? Let’s just say that David has a semi-permanent hands-free headset-shaped dent in the top of his hair from talking on the phone so much. So far, he’s managed to interview more than 70 Detroit-based community leaders in the two short months since he took on his new role. He’s talking to folks in community-development organizations, churches, business improvement districts, small start-up grassroots organizations, government, philanthropy, you name it.
“It’s a city that’s in constant transition,” says David of Detroit. “It’s an incredibly dynamic place, which makes it harder to get your bearings. So what I’m really interested in doing is learning more about the networks of civic leaders and organizations that exist before we start to stake out our place in the city’s civic landscape.”
We think all the up-front time David’s investing in getting to know Detroit is a bit of a unique approach. “I’d say that our holistic approach to understanding a city and where can add value to citizen leaders is novel on its own,” says David, “but also the way we support citizen leaders is novel. It’s why I wanted to work with ioby, and something I’m excited to see stay consistent, even as we grow.”
Creating a new model for each new city sounds like quite a challenge, right? Naturally, we looked far and wide to find the best person to lead our City Partnerships – and it turned out that he was right under our nose. Formerly ioby’s Leader Success Strategist and Partnership Manager, David has a background in transportation policy and a major thing for cities (his current obsession is Pittsburgh). He grew up in a suburb of New York, and didn’t realize until he moved to the city for college how much he’d wanted a stronger sense of place. “When I moved to New York, I immediately found comfort in my neighbors,” he says, “and I found power in contributing to civic life in my neighborhood. I want to give that to everybody. I love the idea of lowering barriers to getting involved.”
Interested to learn more? Stay tuned – up next in city partnerships news are Pittsburgh, Atlanta, DC, Cleveland, LA, and then – who knows? Oh, the places we’ll go.
Resilience. It’s a word many sectors use to mean many things. Because Anne Marie Healy and Andrew Zolli have already contributed a lengthy assessment of the term and its many uses in their eponymous tome released last July, we won’t repeat it here.
Superstorm Sandy augmented the use of the word, contextualizing it in city response to disasters like Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, even September 11th.
Turning to the smartest people we know, we found a remarkable body of thought that blends resilience definitions from the fields of ecosystem, biological, climate, social, and behavioral sciences. The thrust seems to be an assertion that, with smarter planning focused on resilience, our cities will be better able to return to an earlier state after a disaster, and, when that is not possible, reimagine themselves into a better future (like we’ve seen with Detroit Future City).
However, there is one important point that can’t be addressed even by the most careful city planner, municipal agency, or local government. No amount of planning can build the critical social aspects of resilience without involvement and participation by citizens.
If a city wants civil society to be part of a more resilient urban environment, we feel it must take a close look the social cohesion of its neighborhoods. Myriad indices and analytical tools (like Knight Foundation’s Soul of the Community, Tale of Two Cities) are available to help cities assess social fabric.
But, there are few mechanisms by which city planners or urban designers might affect such social indicators in the same way that they might address infrastructure changes. Cities may try to catalyze citizen participation through programs like matsuri and others shared by Daniel Aldrich at Purdue. But there is a vast conceptual and practical gulf between being able to support neighborhood resilience by, say, increasing community participation at a block party and being able to support infrastructure resilience by, say, increasing the height of a sea wall.
Further research is certainly needed to better understand how the various systems in an urban environment—the complex interconnectedness of built infrastructure, natural systems (including ecology, geology, climate, etc), and social systems (including cultural, economic, governance, etc)—can produce a more resilient city and better prepare cities for disasters in different ways. But decades of work in fields as diverse as neighborhood development and social justice advocacy will make one thing clear: we’re not going to design or plan our way to the social side of resilience.
Building neighborhood resilience requires grassroots effort, patient capital and patience. Opportunities for participation must build on local successes, and local successes must build on more opportunities, over time.
ioby supports citizen-led, neighbor-funded projects that make stronger, more sustainable neighborhoods. The platform provides relevant training and resource sharing to support these projects (and with future developments, we plan to bolster and reinforce this). But more importantly, the platform organizes residents to support local projects with donations and volunteer effort.
In April, the National League of Cities released “Bright Spots in Community Engagement” noting that an important step that separates an attached citizenry from an engaged citizenry is opportunities for participation in shaping the future of one’s own city and the feeling that one’s own actions can make a difference.
Small actions—donating $40 or volunteering on a weekend—are opportunities for participation with a relatively low barrier to entry. In addition, because ioby projects tend to be small scale or short term, a participant is likely to see the positive impact of her own contribution fairly quickly. We believe these small actions and easy opportunities for participation can be a gateway drug for civic engagement. This is why we believe local participation is a key element, if not a backbone, of any definition of resilience that accounts for social systems.
ioby tracks a variety of baseline data and key performance metrics related to the neighborhood impacts of all of the projects that use our platform, including some basic information about the donors and volunteers that support this work. We have clear demand for our services, and a strong and growing base of supporters who want to become more involved across the country. But there remain some very important questions about the effects of this type of work on neighborhood cohesion, and further, about the effects of this scale of work on a city’s ability to respond to emergencies of any kind.
Because of the nature of our work with active and involved citizens, ioby has tremendous potential to contribute meaningful data to these questions. We would like to expand our data collection and tracking to include a variety of possible key indicators of resilience at the neighborhood scale, including the following. But we’re going to need your help making our data useful to others in this emerging field, and we’re going to need support to make it robust. Please join us along the way.
Key Performance Indicators of Neighborhood Resilience
After participating in a neighborhood project, do ioby users (especially donors and volunteers):
- know the names of more of their neighbors?
- recognize more of their neighbors faces?
- participate in more/other local civic opportunities?
- feel more comfortable leading change in their areas?
- feel capable of making change in their neighborhood?
- feel more confident in citizens’ ability to improve the neighborhood?
- feel like they can play an important role in their community?
- feel more able to shape the future of their community?
- feel more responsibility to shape the future of their community?
- feel more comfortable turning to neighbors for help?
- feel the neighborhood was able to band together to respond to a challenge?
We were privileged to have ioby’s own Karja Hansen take part in the inaugural Placemaking Leadership Council, convened by Project for Public Spaces, so that ioby could spend some time in America’s leading current comeback city, Detroit, as an inspiration for ioby’s work in Miami.
The Leadership Council was an incredible 2.5 day working group of 300 “zealous nuts” from all walks of life and profession, who believe that creating place is integral to creating community and value. And we had Detroit as not only our backdrop, but also as our living classroom. Motor City. Paris of The Midwest. Red Town. The D. Whatever you call it, we’re quite taken with it.
Detroit is a city with a surprising amount in common with Miami. Built in different eras, the cities nonetheless share both a structure and, to some degree, a culture. Not a culture of geography or population – though there is more than you would think. There is a culture of perseverance, of stick-to-it-ness, as well as stick-it-to-the-man-ness, for sure. And now, a culture of innovation that has only minimal regard for The Way Things Are and The Way Things Are Done.
Miami is often mistaken with the rest of South Florida as being incredibly sprawled out, which yes–it is around the edges, but not nearly so much as the rest of Florida, or the Southeast Region. And it retains much of its historic neighborhood centers. Nor did Miami’s population bleed out into the suburbs. Detroit’s did, leaving the city empty. Things may not be perfect here, but at least it’s inhabited.
And the car. Yes, the car has left just as much of an indelible mark on Miami as it has on the world famous Motor City. What the automobile has wrought on our community that is the most profound, hard to recognize, and hard to repair. Just as important as the physical structure of the street–pavement, buildings, trees, etc–is the activity on the street, the collisions of people which lead to conversations rather than the collision of cars which leads to critical conditions. It is these conditions from which people recoil in fear, until they are isolated from and anonymous to each other, no longer seeing and treating each other as neighbors, rather as strangers.
Detroit is far from dead, it is absolutely ripe with opportunity. Without an active citizenry opportunity is very hard to take advantage of. It’s uncommon to have the right combination of both opportunity and an active citizenry. But that great combination is what has given rise to such an explosive positive shift in Detroit’s center city and neighborhoods, and it is that same combination that we see in Miami. It is people coming together over a common hope and vision for their neighborhoods and seizing opportunity to effect positive change.
Neighborhoods have always been made by the neighbors: the residents, local businesses, and those who choose to spend time there. In Miami, we’re making neighbors, and hope we can lend a hand in making Miami’s neighborhoods stronger and more sustainable.