We’ve come a long way as an ioby community in the last decade. We’ve opened up offices in Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Memphis; served thousands of neighbors as they organized their communities; and raised nearly $10 million from everyday people like you. We’re so pleased to announce an exciting new chapter as we open our first-ever office in Cincinnati.
As we shared in our Phase 0 process, we’ve spent quite a bit of time learning from and being in community with Cincinnatians. “Cincinnati’s civic infrastructure is strong and getting stronger,” our colleague David, Director of City Partnerships, shared after wrapping up his time in Cincinnati to learn from our neighbors there. “There’s a large and growing community of people and organizations who are hard at work, delivering timely and powerful resources to neighborhood leaders, artists, and placemakers.” All across the seven hills, neighbors are full of creative ideas to make positive change. We’re so excited to join Cincinnati’s vibrant civic community and be a part of the good works that neighbors are getting done!
In the coming months, we’ll have more to share with you as we roll out new events and programs in Cincinnati (all online, for now). But right now, we wanted to introduce you to Leslie Rich—our very first City Action Strategist in the Queen City. Read on to get to know her better. We can’t wait to start working with you, Cincinnati.
Meet Leslie, our new Cincinnati Action Strategist
While Leslie may be new to team ioby, she’s been a lifelong Cincinnatian and changemaker. Her grandfather worked at a Fisher auto parts factory just outside the city, and she still lives just five miles away from where she was raised. “I didn’t think I’d live here as an adult, but it was grassroots community organizing that got me to stay. That rooted me back here,” Leslie says. Plus, she says, the city is a sight to see. “It’s also so walkable and beautiful!”
There is much to love about her hometown. “We have such a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit,” she says. Of course there are the big-name corporations that got started here, like the multinational Procter & Gamble. But, she says, the best indicator of Cincinnati’s spirit comes from its neighborhoods and the vibrant arts and small business communities that have emerged from the city’s optimism and deep care for one another. That spirit has helped keep the city strong, despite its challenges.
Like many other midwestern cities, Cincinnati was once a manufacturing powerhouse that was hit hard by industrial flight, including by the Fisher auto parts factory where Leslie’s grandfather once worked. And much like the rest of the nation, Cincinnati continues to reel from decades of inequity. But where they can, neighbors have picked up the pieces and sought to forge a community that’s stronger still.
“You know, you can choose to operate out of scarcity and say, ‘We don’t have enough and we have to hold onto what we have,'” Leslie says. “Or, we can say we have an abundance and there’s so much we can tap into! And we can operate out of love and relationship instead of fear. Cincinnati chooses to operate out of love. You feel that all over the city.”
That ethos is familiar to Leslie. Her path through organizing her community is likely a familiar one to people who have started their own community project on ioby.
“About a decade ago, a small group of neighbors and I wanted to put a mural up in our neighborhood and we kept running into nos,” she says. “The application for the mural project said that we needed the backing of a ‘community group or organization of committed citizens,’ so we turned to our Community Council—kind of like our formal neighborhood association—but they kept saying no. They were worried about the impact on property value, and the ‘type of people’ it would invite, which is a pretty blatant dog whistle. Then we thought, ‘Wait a minute, we’re a group of committed citizens. We can do this!” So they took it into their own hands, and started their own community group called Westwood Works.
“Within the group each of us we knew someone to help: the local union who could lend us scaffolding, we found a space who could host a fundraising event for us, we connected with our local historical society to brainstorm ideas for the mural, someone knew the person who could give us permission to paint a wall, and we made it happen,” she says. “We got permission from the community by going out and asking people for it and invited them to contribute.”
After months of work, everyone was all smiles at the unveiling. “We were so proud and excited, and thought we would pat ourselves on the back and be done,” Leslie says. “But at the dedication, a ton of neighbors came out who had never felt connected before and felt excluded by previous neighborhood leadership like we were, and they had lots of ideas.” So they got the group back together again and started to meet monthly. They put on art shows, block parties, music nights, and people turned out that had never shown up before. So much so that the city started to notice, and started to come to their meetings, too.
“In our meetings, we talked about the fact that there was so much disinvestment that we had no bars or coffee shops; just two predatory lending places. For us to gather and meet with the city, we had to go to a neighboring city to find space. That’s how bad it was.” As people became engaged and connected, they were able to access new resources and co-create a strong neighborhood network. “Westwood Works gave out mini grants for all kinds of community projects to give ideas a boost, but we also gave people confidence and strong social backing. You can’t underestimate the power of that.” And their work paid off—when they started, a whopping 75% of storefronts were vacant. They’ve since nearly halved that, filling empty stores with new local businesses.
The city followed their lead and finally redid one of the neighborhood’s aging parks following the model that Westwood Works introduced. “We’re really intentional about change, and that means that sometimes things move slower, but it also means that it’s democratic,” Leslie says. “Change has to happen with our neighborhood, rather than to it. It took two years for our local town hall and park to be redone, but it was worth it. No one would have used the first version of the park, but now it’s teeming with kids. That’s because we sat down and asked kids what they wanted, and they had the best ideas! And they’re one of the primary users, so why wouldn’t we ask them? That’s the model we use—trust the community.”
“That’s what makes me so excited about ioby,” she adds. “I mean, whenever change happens it’s because someone—anyone—in the neighborhood takes a chance and says something needs to happen. ioby is that extra layer of support that lets people take a chance and not be afraid of failure, because they have supporters. ioby helps make up the ‘group of committed citizens’ that you need to make things happen. We’re not always the ones painting the walls, but we are the connectors. That’s the skill set that I bring; we connect people and help build those relationships to fill in missing links.”
“Ultimately, people have to be invited into trust and into community, consistently,” Leslie says. “That’s what’s so beautiful to me about ioby; it’s an invitation.”
Visit ioby.org/Cincinnati to learn more about Leslie’s work in Cincinnati and to get plugged in to our movement for positive civic change in the Queen City. ioby Cincinnati is made possible thanks to generous support from The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation.