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Main Spotlight: Getting to Know Erin Barnes, Main Street America President and CEO

November 15, 2023 | Main Spotlight: Getting to Know Erin Barnes, Main Street America President and CEO | 
Two months ago, Erin Barnes joined Main Street America as our new President and CEO. In a letter to the network, she shared her passion for her Main Street, Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, and invited the network to share videos of their communities.
Last month, she attended the Coordinators Meeting in Denver, Colorado, and met many new faces, but there are still a lot of Main Streeters who aren’t acquainted with our new leader. To help us get to know Erin better, we sat down with her to dive deeper into some of the themes she mentioned in her letter, explore her plans for the Movement, and learn more about her passions and interests. 

You mentioned in your letter to the network last month that you started your career as a community organizer. From your experience, what are the key qualities an organizer needs to effectively bring communities together?

I started my career as a community organizer working with fishermen in the Pacific Northwest. I loved this job. I loved working with fishermen, and I loved learning how to be in community in this job. I think the most important lesson that I took away from this experience was that all people have their own motivations and visions and desires for their communities, and a good organizer listens and helps them find a way to bring those ideas to life. This was the fundamental philosophy that I brought to my work at ioby. Allowing for complexity and allowing people to see each other face-to-face, as people, is an effective way of bringing people together.

How do you define success of community-led economic development work?

The success of community-led economic development work is whether the community actually gets to lead. Often, large development projects struggle to authentically engage community members. An organization that participates on behalf of the community is not the same thing! Involving the community in meaningful ways means going slow, building trust, and centering community vision.

We just entered year two of implementing Main Street's new Strategic Plan and a lot of exciting work is underway. What are you prioritizing in your role as our leader to support this work? 

Main Street America’s Strategic Plan is excellent, and I’m so impressed with all the work that everyone in our community, our network, our staff, and our board did to put this together. My priorities are the priorities of the strategic plan, and that’s why I have them taped onto my desk. I think the six long-term objectives fully encapsulate what Main Street America needs to do to be the most impactful organization we can be over the next 5 to 10 years, and these are precisely what my priorities are in my role as CEO.

The next Main Street Now Conference will be in Birmingham, Alabama, next May. How are you hoping to build off the success of the 2023 conference in Boston? 

I’m very sorry that I wasn’t with everybody together in Boston, but I wasn’t sorry that I was busy spending time with my newborn at that time. I heard that Boston was fantastic; I saw some videos, I saw some photos, and it sounded like it was a lot of fun. This is an incredible network of passionate leaders, some of the most innovative hard-working and dedicated leaders I’ve ever met, and frankly I just want to make sure that the Main Street Now Conference in Birmingham serves the network. 

I’ve heard from folks about what types of professional development opportunities they are looking for, and I am hearing that there is a desire for information specifically for rural towns and information specifically for big cities. The second thing is that I’m hearing that there’s a desire for more professional development for coordinators. I imagine that would also be really useful for Main Street managers. Keep the feedback coming! I want to learn from this network.

What has surprised you most about the Main Street Movement since you joined? What are you excited to learn more about?

What has surprised me the most about the Main Street Movement since I joined is that people have referred to it as much more than a profession. It’s amazing to see this level of dedication and enthusiasm for this work, and I know I’m going to learn a lot from everybody. I think I’m most excited to learn more about what it’s like to be a Main Street manager on a day-to-day basis. I know it’s not easy, it’s so many different types of jobs at once: it’s a management job, it’s an economic development job, it’s a persuasion job, it’s a visionary job, and often it can feel very isolating. So, I’m really interested in learning more from the Main Street managers about ways that Main Street America can support them.

If you had to pick only one aspect of what makes Main Streets so awesome, which would you choose and why?

If I had to pick one aspect of Main Streets, it’s the randomness of interactions that happen. I think this is what Jane Jacobs called "the ballet." For example, I was recently in Atlanta visiting friends and I found myself in the Little Five Points neighborhood. We came across the shop Stuff We Wanna Say, which I recognized from one of the welcome videos that was sent to me after my letter to the network. It was so wonderful to meet the owner Patrice Hull and enjoy the Main Street magic. These kinds of moments and interactions are why our communities are so special. 

As another example, when I went to go vote, I ended up meeting one of my neighbors who is pretty famous in my neighborhood because she constructs a bandstand every Halloween. This is a really big deal in our neighborhood, and I never knew who was behind it. I just happened to introduce myself while we waited in line and quickly learned that she was the face behind the bandstand. And I was like, “Wow I didn’t know I was going to meet a celebrity tonight!” I love running into my neighbors and seeing people on the way home from the farmers market and picking up their kids from school, and all of those little interactions. 

If you were to open your dream Main Street small business, what would it be?   

I’m always impressed that in my neighborhood, the bodegas seem to have every single thing that you could possibly need. You know, they have bananas, ice cream, toothpaste, headache medicine, and sponges. They know every single thing that a person needs in that two-minute walk from home. So maybe I would just be a regular bodega owner. I think I’d learn a lot about what people really need on a day-to-day basis.

What are your favorite things to do outside of work? Any hobbies or special interests you want to share? 

My favorite thing to do in my free time is to wander around new cities and towns without any purpose. It’s better if I do this by myself, because then the other people with me don’t get frustrated when I just stop dead in my tracks because the sun is setting at this perfect angle, lighting up the side of a building, and I’m just overcome with beauty, and I have to stop for a little while.  It is truly magnificent to see the ways that over time, little by little, communities have created a built environment that actually serves them. Over hundreds and hundreds of years, we just keep carving away at this incredible sculpture and this incredible place that holds us and shapes us as much as we shape it. 
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18 days ago

Thanks, Erin, for visiting Little 5 Points. It looks like you were treated well. Patrice from Stuff We Wanna Say is the best and she is also on the Little 5 Points Business Association's board. She is one of the many L5P business owners who really care about our neighborhood and go the extra mile.

Email when you come back and let us show you around. We have many small businesses that have been here for 50+ years. Hope to see you back soon!

Kelly Stocks, President, Little 5 Points Business Association,