ioby was founded in 2008 to make it easier for local leaders to get the funding, knowledge, and resources needed to make positive change on a local level. For the past ten years we've worked alongside over 1,600 passionate, committed community leaders and have watched as small projects have turned into larger initiatives, and collaborations have become movements.

We want to take a look back at the past ten years, and tell some of our favorite stories of positive neighborhood change. We want to know: what kind of things can start with a conversation, a neighborhood meeting, a few dollars raised?

For the next ten months, we'll be checking in with leaders nationwide, past and present, and rolling these stories out. Thanks for reading!

[Jackson Koeppel, Executive Director of Solardarity, and Juan Shannon, former board member and current member of Soulardarity, in front of Soulardarity's first 'smart' solar street light.]

7. Soulardarity

Highland Park, MI, 2014-Present

Highland Park is missing about 993 street lights--or about two thirds of the city's street lights. That's seven less lights that are missing since Soulardarity installed it's solar power street lights, but still an awful lot of street lights. When dusk falls over this city of 11,000, whole swaths plunge into darkness, with streets lit only by the headlights of passing cars. A recent poll found that nearly every person surveyed in the city was concerned by the lack of public lighting. This isn’t how it always was.

"I was born and raised here,” says Juan Shannon, former board member of Soulardarity, a member-based nonprofit in the city. “I remember a lot of the beauty growing up here when Sears was opened, when the Chrysler plant was still operating. The exodus of Ford happened just prior to me going through middle school...I went to the new high school that they had erected which was right next to where the old Ford plant used to be. By that time they had started changing it over to the strip mall that it is now.”

To outsiders, the city might appear to be a husk of what it once was. But Highland Park remains a proud and resilient community. So when Highland Park’s utility company repossessed 1,000 street lights because of unpaid bills–two thirds of all street lights in the city–residents were outraged, and rightly so. Facing a budget crisis, there was no way the city could fork over the $4 million needed to restore the street lights.

But Jackson Koeppel, Soulardarity’s Executive Director, saw that there was still a way for the community to emerge on the other end of the crisis stronger. “I had the opportunity to go down to West Virginia for the March on Blair Mountain in 2011 which was a march to protect this very historic mountain from being strip mined,” Jackson says. “It left me with a very clear sense of that there's something potentially wrong with how our society works both generally and specifically in relation to energy where it shows up in really brutal and unfair ways.”

He saw that playing out once again. Like many other communities, a privately owned utility company held a monopoly on power distribution in Highland Park. Rather than being controlled by residents, the city’s utility company is controlled by shareholders far away, and the decision to repossess the street lights was made without community consultation. That didn’t sit right with Highland Parkers.

“It felt like an important place to start asking the question of, ‘If not this terrible energy system, what are we going to build?’ The sort of continual process of answering that question has given rise to all the different things Soulardarity does,” Jackson says. So, with an eye towards clean, renewable energy directly in the control of the people who use it, Soulardarity was born.

Energy Democracy

There’s no doubt that street lights a critical piece of public infrastructure, and neighbors know it. A report that Soulardarity commissioned following the repossession found that 71% of Highland Park’s residents feel that they have inadequate lighting on their block. “I think that number is actually a little low,” Juan says of the survey’s results. But city leadership seemed to be stumped about what to do. He added, “A suggestion that came out, that was completely ludacris to me and still is, is a leader said, ‘Just turn your porch light on.’ It’s like you don’t realize until you get your monthly bill, how much your electricity bill would go up just from doing that every single night. To have something like that, blissfully thrown out to an aging community with a lot of people on fixed incomes, it’s heartless and not well thought out.”

Seeing that void, and knowing that whatever solution to the problem would need to ensure that the community would remain in control of that critical piece of infrastructure, Soulardarity zeroed in on energy democracy as a guiding principle.

“The idea of energy democracy is that if you’re going to be impacted by a decision about energy, you actually get a say in that decision,” Jackson says. That stands in sharp contrast to monopoly on energy that Highland Park’s utility provider has, something that Soulardarity thinks tips the scales away from regular people and towards moneyed interests in boardrooms miles away. “The situation that puts us in is one where cities like Highland Park are having their street lights repossessed, and where we’re facing a 19% residential electric rate increase in a city where at least 25% of Highland Park households have had their gas or electricity shut off.”

So Soulardarity decided to explore the idea of a member co-operative, an association of Highland Parkers that would fund, operate, and own a system of solar-powered street lights. The street lights would be emission-free, could function independently of a grid in case of crisis, and they would be owned by Highland Parkers through the member co-op. No one could come in and the lights away without their say so.

In 2014, already having built a pilot solar light, Soulardarity turned to crowdfunding with ioby to crowdfund the money need to finance a feasibility study to explore the possibility of solar powered, and community owned, streetlights. They raised $13,000 for the study through the campaign, and were off to the races.

Retooling, and moving quickly

The study interviewed 635 Highland Parkers, and found expansion to be challenging. “One of the outcomes of the feasibility study is that [the co-operative model] is actually not a good way to organize for energy democracy, and that’s where the municipal proposal, ‘Let There Be Light,’ came in,” Jackson recalled.

To date they've already installed seven solar street lights already, but the municipal proposal would help them scale more effectively and efficiently. Under this new proposal, the association of residents that would own the grid would be local government rather than a co-operative. Residents would have ownership and direct control through local elected representatives. It doesn’t mean co-operatives are moot, in fact Soulardarity is actively seeking a way to start an energy co-operative for residential energy, which they find to be a more appropriate fit for the co-operative model. But the municipal approach for the street lights eases the financing process, leveraging municipal bonding powers and funding streams that can be borne equitably across the city.

So they shifted gears. Juan and other members of Soulardarity presented to city council their feasibility study, showing that municipally owned street lights not only gave residents direct control of a public good, but also are cheaper in the long run. And they had a crowdfunded solar light to prove it.

Smart Street lights, bridging the divide

Not long after their presentation to the council, Soulardarity ran an ioby campaign to build another prototype--a "smart" solar street light, equipped with wifi and signage. This would serve the dual purpose of providing reliable street lights, and help to close the tech divide by offering public wifi. Working with Joe, ioby's Detroit Action Strategist, they put together a strategy to crowdfund. Joe helped them put together a list of folks to ask, and encouraged them to start with a soft-launch to build support and then lean on that momentum to ask more and more folks. 

They raised $11,000 and installed the light at Parker Village, a hub that Juan started at a former elementary school aimed at creating a space for the community to connect with one another and the power of technology. It offered yet another proof of concept, demonstrating that the technology exists and was just waiting to be picked up.

Crowdfunding also helped Soulardarity prove, through their multiple projects, that people were literally and figuratively invested in the idea of energy democracy. “A lot of people that are around us believe in what’s going on, but they didn’t have the large amount of money to just put in. [Crowdfunding] was a way to share in that moment,” Juan says.

It also paved the way for even more, and larger donations. “Being able to show that we had 90 something donors who gave whatever they could, it really helped to demonstrate to others that they’re giving is part of a broader thing. It’s an important step towards getting more major donors to contribute and support too,” Jackson said. “And people can give in other ways too. A lot of folks put money in, you pay membership fees, but there’s also volunteers, folks who help tell the story and move the work forward.”

Growing the vision 

As Soulardarity grows older, they’ve evolved their vision for energy democracy and a just future. “If we’re going to get to become a 100% clean energy that is equitable and inclusive, the small ‘d’ democracy part has to come before the energy part of it,” Jackson says. Even with a $6 million price tag, their estimate to build out a solar street light grid, crowdfunding remains on the table. “Certainly we’re not gonna get all of that from Highland Park citizens, but what we want to create is some sort of way for Highland Parkers to actually be connected in that infrastructure in a direct way.”

If democracy seems like a constant, almost obsessive undertone of Soulardarity’s projects, it’s because it is. At the heart of their mission is returning control of a key piece of public infrastructure back to people who use it--to the neighbors who made Highland Park what it once was, what it is today, and what it could be in the future.

“That’s also a conversation with Parker Village, right Juan? How to make sure that it’s not some outside investor that throws a bunch of capital into it?” Jackson asked Juan.

“My take on what folks call ‘gentrification’” Juan replied, “is not that we don’t want people to move here. In order to have a successful municipality we need people to move here. But what we don’t want to happen is people to come and change the culture of this very, very proud and strong city… With Parker Village, we have an opportunity to address a lot of things that are happening not only around the country, but of course, in our own community.”

“I think we have the seeds of a better world, and I think those seeds are starting to sprout now,” Jackson said. “We’re creating a vision that can not just benefit Highland Park, but create a model for other cities to follow.”

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