The Powerful Work is Local

By ioby Co-Founder Erin Barnes

Over the last ten years, I’ve had the privilege of leading ioby’s growth hand-in-hand with my co-founder Brandon Whitney, our Board of Directors and our incredible staff. During this time we’ve served as a platform, a resource, a convener, and a community for more than 15,000 resident leaders across the country. And we’ve shared in their struggles and their victories. We’ve been with them in solidarity as kids learned how to ride bikes, as vegetables grew, as roofs got repaired, as students got new backpacks in September, as libraries went mobile, as hammers and drills were shared, as crosswalks were painted, as murals went up, as tampons were given away, as community histories were spotlighted, and as statues came down. More than 1,500 projects have been implemented, and with every single one, we have always known, “This is important.”

Obama Fellows

[The inaugural Obama Fellows class. Image courtesy of The Obama Foundation.]

It’s easy to belittle local work as “cute,” but people who only see the bicycles, carrots, and backpacks are missing the much bigger picture. When we do this local work, we have the opportunity to look our neighbors in the eye and create solutions and stronger communities. Every conversation we have with our neighbors to decide that we should grow callaloo here and tulips there, or that the problem with libraries isn’t the kids, it’s that the books should come to the neighborhoods, or that maybe more people would ride bikes to work if they weren’t so frightened of the cars, or that maybe we could have more inclusive parks if we change the things we can do in them. The deliberation, the determination, of working together—that’s democracy. Every one of us has a chance to practice this in our neighborhood every day.

The Obama Foundation’s recognition of this work is important. When I met the inaugural class of Obama Fellows in Chicago last month, I understood my place in making change by understanding our place collectively. The 20 of us, who had come together from Mali to Minnesota, realized the thing we had in common is that we are all leaders of movements. The 20 of us in this class, and the next 20 each year after us, are tasked to be stones hurling ourselves into the sea of change, making ripples with our splashes. Only together can we grow into what the Obama Foundation calls the “wave of civic innovation.” I see every ioby Leader as a critical pebble in the sea of change. Each of us make ripples, and together we make waves.

Barack Obama

[Image courtesy of The Obama Foundation.]

While in Chicago, we had an intimate discussion with President Obama about our work in our communities. I told the President about the work that ioby Leaders do, and I asked him if he could share, from his experience as the most powerful elected official in the world, why local, community-based work is important. He stressed that while taking a risk and making change is hard, it’s still important to take that risk.

He stressed  how you have to go out and work in your communities because that’s where you will learn about America and about the American people, and that your work will have more power and impact at a local level. That will allow you to change lives locally.

He reinforced for me what everyone in our ioby community has known for years: The powerful work is local.

This is exactly what ioby Leaders do every day. We work in small groups in communities to get timely, visible change around which to build momentum. ioby Leaders are the ignition for change that we need  to overcome apathy and reinvigorate civil society in America. For me, this was the greatest lesson.