For Ellen Roberds, creative placemaking begins at home and online

ioby is the online “crowd-resourcing” platform that has been used to fund more than 280 projects nationwide with more than $700,000 since its launch in 2009. The successful Hampline funding in Memphis is one such success story; ioby collected over $75,000 to create a dedicated, protected bike lane in Binghampton.

The site has become a phenomenon of today’s virtual village, existing in cyberspace at the click or swipe of our fingertip. In Memphis, though, there is now a face to go with those pixels. Ellen Roberds is the only ioby “creative placemaker” in the country, working to inform the public and see that projects find enough traction to become success stories of their own.

The year-long, grant-funded position is in partnership with the Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team, Livable Memphis and ioby. Roberds will seek out those with ideas and help to get those ideas clarified and onto the ioby website. Many may be in disadvantaged areas of the city, and those without the critical wi-fi or technological savvy to bring the idea to the public. The projects targeted will be limited to those of $3,000 or below.

“This is not a Hampline project,” Roberds says. “We’re looking for very small projects.”

This isn’t to say those with the grand ideas aren’t welcome, but ioby and Roberds preach baby steps. “Let’s say they want to turn a lot into a playground, but they don’t have the capacity at this point to raise $60,000, so you just kind of start with something small,” she says. “Why don’t we raise $100 and buy some soccer balls and some soccer goals, and a lawnmower to mow the lot and have a place to play outside of the street?”

Past performance shows that if you do well with a small project, that more money can be raised with ioby the second time around. The Hyde Foundation is one potential funder that might be looking at that performance, Roberds says.

“They’re also saying, ‘If you prove to us with this small project that you can do that successfully and learn how to fundraise, then we will look at you differently for the big ask.’ So it can be a real building block for organizations, but then it’s also accessible to individuals.”

Current projects include the Carnes School Learning Garden to transform a vacant lot into a teachable garden; the Vollintine Evergreen Community Association is raising money for 15 iPads to use as learning tools in its Youth Initiative’s afterschool program; and the Evergreen Rain Garden on unmaintained property to provide benefits of residential surface management techniques, including beautification, native plant propagation and species diversity.

ioby, of course, is the acronym opposite of NIMBY – Not In My Backyard. For Roberds, Memphis is her backyard. She was born and raised here, going off to the University of Tennessee-Knoxville for a degree in Environmental Science before Vanderbilt University for a Master’s of Divinity. The ordained Presbyterian minister has worked in the church and worked with the homeless, and enjoys getting into the mix of whatever needs to be done to better her city.

She’s married to Jarad Bingham, minister with Shady Grove Presbyterian Church in East Memphis, and the couple have three children – Abram, 9; Obed, 6; and Bella, 4.

Her family is a big part of the reason she wanted to become part of the solution. That solution, she’s sure, can begin to be funded and grown through ioby.

“It’s my town and in the past five or six years there’s just this energy in the town and there’s been movement in areas that I really care about – schools and walkability and bikeability and art and gardening – and I just wanted to be a part of that. How do I get that, how do I do that in my city, how do I help be a part of that change and that energy?”

Read more articles by Richard J. Alley.

A freelance writer since 2008, Richard’s work has appeared in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Magazine, Oxford American, The Memphis Flyer, River Times Magazine, Rhodes Magazine, The Commercial Appeal, and MBQ magazine among others, and in syndication through the Associated Press and Scripps Howard News Service. He is the editor of Development News for High Ground. Contact Richard.
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