ioby was founded in 2008 in order to make it easier for local leaders to gain the funding, knowledge, and resources needed to make positive change on a local level. For the past ten years we've worked alongside more than 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?

This year, we'll be checking in with leaders nationwide, past and present, and rolling these stories out. Thanks for reading!


[Attaching messages that remember loved ones, that honor the sacrifice of immigrants and other community members, and that offer solidarity with vulnerable neighbors on the Barrier Free installation.]

6. Barrier Free

Memphis, TN, 2017-Present

Though Yancy Villa-Calvo had put her MBA to work in the business sector for many years, her true passion lay in the world of arts. There was something about the world of paint and canvas that drew her, about its potential to harness humanity and bring people together. That power of art, and of her own art, felt especially potent in her chosen home of Memphis, where she’s lived with her husband and three children for many years. Compared to her childhood mega-city home of Mexico City, Memphis felt like a small town; a place where she could build a tight knit community, and where she felt like she could make an impact with her art.

After pursuing art as a side project for many years, she stumbled upon an opening and decided to take the plunge. “I have three paralyses, including Bell’s palsy,” Yancy says. “And that kind of took me off my stressful life for a couple months, and that’s when I decided to make a radical change. My husband was very supportive, he was actually the one saying, ‘Hey, you've always loved art, you've always wanted to do this. Why don't you quit, do whatever you have to do to go into art.’ So it was a little bit scary, but having his support I decided to make the move, and I started working in art about six years ago.”

Then came the 2016 elections. She was shocked at the hatred that oozed out of the political world. “My family is Mexican, and they’re not rapists or criminals or drug dealers. And I said, “Okay, no, this is not right,” Yancy said. “I teach my kids that the most basic principle is respect, and when somebody is not being respectful and is starting to dehumanize a person, that is very dangerous. So the same thing applies here.” Out of that shock came a moment to go even further with her art, and deepen the impact she could make with it.

“First of all, I'm a painter. So this was totally out of my comfort zone... But with the attacks, direct attacks, I said we cannot just stay comfortable we have to get out of our comfort zone and work towards… really I would say to fight this because this is not right,” Yancy said. She decided that rather than creating painted works, which might live in a museum, a living sculpture had the potential to touch more people and spark empathy in a different way. The sculpture could travel and be in people’s worlds rather than confined to a gallery space. Out of that idea came Barrier Free: A Socially Engaged Art Installation.



Responding quickly, through art

Her idea for the sculpture centers on a fence, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the wall that certain politicians have called for along the southern border. But Yancy’s fence is more of an “un-fence;” it’s lined with photographs of Memphians of all kinds that remind us that when we talk about immigration–or any other contentious issue–we’re talking about people. In front of the fence is a mirrored sculpture of individuals and groups of people, inviting viewers to literally see themselves in their neighbors’ faces.

“I really wanted to make this about the community,” Yancy recalled. “So I decided to do an open call through Facebook and email...And I said I’m trying to feature everybody who lives here, individuals and families, not only families that have been separated but individuals who are also under attack...The only request was that if your immigration status was in jeopardy, please do not come because I do not want to expose you or your family,” Yancy said. The need to protect vulnerable people spoke to the urgency of her art project. Amidst a hostile political climate, she needed to create the sculpture and spark empathy now

“I needed to fabricate the art, and I needed to do it fast. I couldn't wait to apply for a grant because those take months. And I did not have, as an artist, I did not have the means to do that and it was going to be very costly,” Yancy said. So, like many other neighbor-leaders who had a time-sensitive need for resources, she turned to ioby. Leaning on her community–particularly those involved with the nonprofits that she’d volunteered and served with over the years–she crowdfunded the resources she needed. Which isn’t to say it was easy. “I hate to ask for money. Hate, hate, hate, hate. I hate it… I mean I don’t mind raising money for somebody else or another cause, but for me I hate to ask for money,” she said. But she knew she needed the funding and needed it quick, so she leaned into crowdfunding. 

“So I said okay let me see if anybody wants to do that, I mean the worst thing they can say is no,” she recalled. “I really feel that when you are sincere about your goal, and when you're trying to talk about an issue that is about the people and it is about uniting, people are very motivated to give.”

As she worked with ioby to make her asks, and as she planned the installation, she thought carefully about her community. “I was very intentional about making sure that I represented that diversity and inclusion from the beginning, from the fabrication, from the way I consulted artists, the way I approached the community,” Yancy said. “I think that's why it was successful. I know there are many, many other crowdfund campaigns that are more successful than mine, but it was my first, so for me it was awesome, the response that we got.” In the end, she raised nearly $14,000, enough to build the arts installation and even fund “know your rights” trainings for the community later on.

With the money in hand, she moved on towards fabricating the installation.

Yancy remembers the nerve wracking moment she sent her first email calling for community members to photograph for the Barrier Free’s fence, and the moment of doubt she felt about the project. “I didn’t know if there was going to be even one person showing up,” she said. But show up they did. In fact, by the end of the project she had enough participants for a 160 ft. long sculpture, four times as many as she needed, and had to trim down the fence’s length to fit her budget. “It was an amazing response, and all kinds of people, it was so beautiful, Yancy said. “All types of backgrounds, religions, economic status, and to my surprise there was a lot of undocumented families. And I of course did not ask, ‘What is your immigration status?’ But they were direct and they said, ‘Look I know that you asked if you are undocumented do not come, but we feel like we have to be here and we have to just show up.’ So it was really powerful.”

A living sculpture

The next part of involving community in creating the art piece came when she first installed the sculpture in a Memphis park. She invited viewers to write small messages of hope, solidarity, love. Many reflected on their own families’ journeys to the United States, and the powerful fabric of communities that the nation is. It was a warming reminder of the deep wells of hope and care that people have for our neighbors, even amidst profound challenges. 

Thousands more messages have been festooned to the fence since that first installation, as it’s travelled across the country to public parks, conferences, museums, and even to Memphis’ City Hall, carrying with it a message of empathy and a call for community. It’s a powerful message, and one that’s reverberated through the thousands who have viewed the installation.

[Visitors with the mirrored sillouhettes in the installation. Barrier Free invites interaction and active participation with the art piece, encouraging viewers to literally see themselves in others.]

Back in Memphis, Yancy’s recalls a moment that a police officer approached Yancy after viewing the piece at City Hall. In a heated political climate, and on the heels of a proposal in the Tennessee State Legislature that would require police officers to cooperate with I.C.E., Yancy was initially wary of the interaction. But the officer thanked her for the installation. His police partner had passed away the year before, and he saw a note on the fence that his partner had written. He recalled his partner fondly for always challenging the department about inclusion, about justice, and was touched to see that their note was on the art piece–a reminder to continue to be challenged.

That’s exactly the kind of reaction that Yancy was hoping for.

“I feel like art is a very good way to engage people in a non-confrontational level, and that you can provoke thought. I feel that it's a very powerful tool to bring more people in and to talk about issues that are hard to talk about in a positive way.” The crux of Barrier Free isn’t to tell people what to think, but rather to make a call for empathy and to push people to turn that empathy into action. “I started with Barrier Free, and that was in response to the political campaign of the current president. But I was always thinking about how we can build bridges and not barriers, and how we can counter the negative rhetoric about not only immigrants but all of the other groups that are being threatened. Anything from refugees, immigrants, LQBT community and women rights, disabilities, you name it.”

A year or so on, Barrier Free continues to travel the country–and the city of Memphis–bringing with it a powerful message to bring justice. Along the way it’s sparked tears, but also joy. It may not have on its own tore down it’s parallel wall along the southern border, but it’s made a radical call for empathy and care for community, drawing everyday people closer together.

“I'm more in awe all the time,” Yancy says. “And not for extraordinary stories, but these are such ordinary stories. When you have the time to listen the other story, then magic happens. You become more humanized, and respond in a selfless way, and you are more engaged on the other communities. I don't know. There are so many positive things and consequences from just taking the time to listen to somebody.”


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