Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Re-defining "Sustainability"

Over the last few weeks, I've been thinking a lot about what "sustainability" means. At The Institute of Cultural Affairs-USA (ICA), we're talking about which community initiatives identified during Phase I of the Accelerate 77 program should be included in a database of sustainability initiatives--and why. At the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the Sustainability Strategic Thinking Process I am working on is attempting to figure out how sustainability relates to all the different units across campus, from facilities to health to procurement to interdisciplinary programs to community projects to the arts and more.

At the level of case studies--local examples of sustainable initiatives--the work I have been involved in to date has largely emphasized specific projects that integrate different aspects of the 3 E's of sustainable development: environment, economy, and equity. For example: 
  • The Energy Action Network helped social service agencies register low income families for energy efficiency housing retrofits--to save energy (environment), increase home comfort (equity), and save money (economy), as demonstrated by this story visual from the Roseland community report on engaging communities in climate action
  • Our research in Austin revealed that some of the popular community gardens are valued not only for providing healthy food (environment, equity), but also for a number of other equity-related benefits including "...creating a personal oasis, memorializing community leaders and friends, improving the image of the community, building connections between neighbors, and offering positive growth experiences for youth."
  • UIC's dental lab implemented a innovative measures to save energy and water (environment) as well as money (economy) and improve patient comfort and working conditions for staff (equity).
This focus on the project level naturally leads to recommendations and innovations that strengthen the links between the 3 E's. So in the Roseland community report, which identified "Crime & Safety" as a key community concern, we recommended that the City of Chicago design its climate action programs to address additional concerns such as crime and safety by, for example, considering retrofit measures such as energy-efficient windows that include safety features or working with violence prevention programs to promote the text feature on bus tracker, which helps people know exactly when a bus will arrive so they do not have to spend much time waiting for it on a dangerous corner. Similarly, Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles can be used to design spaces that simultaneously enhance the natural environment and increase safety.

Recently, though, I've been feeling that this initiative- or project-level focus is too limited--and results in privileging the environmental component of sustainability rather than balancing the 3 E's. Initiatives are generally considered sustainability initiatives if they include any work related to the natural environment--for example, water, energy, or nature-related programs would almost always be categorized as "sustainability"--while programs that focus first and foremost on economy or equity are generally not seen as sustainability initiatives unless they also address something seen as green. So, an English as a Second Language program would likely only be categorized as a sustainability initiative if, for example, its curriculum focused on an environmental issue such as energy and climate change--such as the Chinese American Service League's wonderful energy awareness curriculum, created in partnership with the Pui Tak Center.

At this point in my thinking, then, I'm starting to focus more on two broader levels:
  1. Community
  2. Values & Systems
Community-Level Sustainability
What organizations and structures need to be in place for a community as a whole to be sustainable? For example, every community needs organizations that help people meet their basic needs, or else the community as a whole is not sustainable. Which would be an argument for including social service organizations in a list of a community's sustainability assets. In addition, every community needs organizations that are focused on conserving natural resources. And every community needs economic drivers. If we can identify these different components, and then analyze individual initiatives, organizations, and people in terms of the larger whole, then we can have a more comprehensive and inclusive definition of sustainability. 

In this picture, for example, Roseland's Youth Voices Against Violence center would be seen as contributing to sustainability--even if it's not doing anything that's "green" per se:
"One resident who was spending time at the Youth Voices Against Violence center with her three elementary-school aged children identified safety as a major concern and shared that the center was the only place where she felt that her children were safe and could engage in recreational activities.
She noted that during the school year, they come straight to the center after school and remain there to receive homework help until they return home."

Values & Systems
At the same time, sustainability does not encompass everything: every company that provides jobs, every restaurant that provides food, etc. This is where Values & Systems-level analysis comes in. What are the values that promote sustainability? I have been intrigued lately by "big ideas" in sustainability, such as "Intergenerational Thinking (Considering the impact of each action on the seventh generation ahead), "Bioregional Thought and Practice (Conscientious attempts to live, work, and play in relation to naturally, rather than politically, defined areas...along with commitment to a citizenship of place" (Sustainability "Big Ideas") and "Diversity: systems/places function because of variety," "Equity/Fairness: resources need to be shared to meet the needs of living things across places and generations" (Sustainable Schools Project), etc. 

These values and systems provide frames through which we can analyze individual initiatives, and the relationships among them, in more complex ways than just looking at how they, in and of themselves, link the 3 E's. For example, they might help us think about what types of economic drivers will lead to sustainability (e.g. Big Box stores, local entrepreneurial ventures, perhaps some combination). Additionally, the big picture, holistic, systems nature of these frameworks force us to think about relationships among initiatives to consider how they work in concert with each other, to mutually reinforce each others' strengths and ensure maximum efficacy. To demonstrate, I will conclude with two final examples: 
  • The Austin research identified Channing’s Childcare Academy as an important social entrepreneur because while it is its own business, it hosts and supports the Austin Childcare Provider’s Network, even though the other members of the network could be seen as business competition. The report explains that the owners sense that there is enough business to go around on the one hand, and on the other it is an essential service for the kids and a job opportunity for Austin residents that is worth supporting and improving community-wide. A wonderful example of big picture, system-wide--sustainable--thinking.

  • One of the true accomplishments of the Energy Action Network was the collaboration and camaraderie that it nurtured among network members. All members were CEDA (Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County) intake sites: they provided services to residents in their communities and were paid set amounts for each application they completed (for utility assistance, weatherization, etc). As a result, when EAN began, the members saw themselves as competitors. After a year of working together, though, they started seeing themselves as collaborators: calling each other for help, referring clients to each other's offices when, for example, one of them was closing early for a holiday, etc. This was the result of our efforts to help the members get to know and appreciate each other and see themselves and each other as agents of creativity and change. At an event that I hosted and facilitated at The Field Museum, we had a group discussion in the Marae House (below), historically used by the Maori of New Zealand for community building and conflict resolution. After the discussion, one of the members came up to me and said something along the lines of, "I want you to know--we did not used to like each other. And now, we are working together. And you did this; all of you did this."

Please share your thoughts:
What would it mean to define sustainability as collaboration, in addition to weatherization? 
How can these big ideas steer us in more innovative--and impactful--directions?
What are your favorite "big ideas" about sustainability?
What are your favorite examples of "big idea" initiatives?

Signing off,

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Forging City-Community Partnerships for Climate Action: Moving from Communication to Engagement

As promised, here's my report on the ICLEI-Canada conference, written as a guest blog post for Climate Access. Read the report here or check it out on the Climate Access website.  

Either way--please share your thoughts:
What do you think are the best ways for local government to work with communities on sustainability issues?
With the new Emanuel administration, there are different priorities. How does the new approach compare to the old? 
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of giving the keynote presentation at ICLEI-Canada’s Livable Cities Forum, held in Hamilton, Canada. ICLEI is a global organization that helps its members—local governments—advance their sustainability work through tools, training, and networking. My talk, titled “What Do Daycare and Soul Food Have to Do with Climate Change? Forging City-Community Partnerships for Climate Action,” set the stage for the conference theme, which focused on how local governments can engage non-traditional stakeholders in climate work. 

Drawing on my experience in Chicago engaging culturally and socioeconomically diverse communities in climate action, it emphasized the importance of empowering communities to take joint ownership of climate action. I concluded with a countdown of the Top 10 Strategies for doing this:

10.  Work through trusted and umbrella organizations
9.    Establish a Climate Action Leaders Network
8.      Focus on collective solutions
7.      Build on assets
6.    Identify and publicly recognize local champions and innovations
5.    Incorporate climate action into existing programs
4.    Link climate metrics to quality of life indicators
3.    Create neighborhood demonstration hubs
2.    Make it (hyper-) local, cultural, & personal
1.    Create & use place-based, visual, & participatory tools

Over the next two days, I was inspired by the case studies I heard about how local governments across Canada are reaching out to their constituents. I came away from the conference wanting to revise and expand my original list, to more deeply incorporate these ideas:

Focus on relationship- and community-building
The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority presented its SNAP program--Sustainable Neighborhood Retrofit Action Plans—which aims to inspire community members to “reclaim responsibility to care for their neighborhoods.” Its projects are tailored to community assets. For example, in one community with rich cultural diversity, a history of social activism, and lots of gardens, SNAP focuses on food. In another community where people care deeply about their yards, it focuses on native landscaping. The overall goal is to strengthen relationships, among people and between people and nature, and to facilitate engagement by nurturing “a sense of belonging to a neighborhood invested in its future.”

Institute collaborative problem-solving structures
Toronto’s Public Health agency shared its approach to creating Canada’s first Shade Policy and Guidelines, through the Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition, which included members from a broad array of fields in and outside of government. Relationship-building takes time; and it took 10 years to create the shade policy. But after being rejected once by the City Council, it now has broad support from multiple sectors, including urban foresters, the school board, public health, universities, and the parks department. Key to building support, presenters said, was the multidisciplinary nature of the coalition; identifying co-benefits; linking to existing policy frameworks (beyond health, where this project started, to environment, for example, the Urban Heat Island Directive); supporting community champions; and demonstrating the project concept through pilot projects.

Evergreen CityWorks, whose mission is to green cities, also focuses on collaborative problem-solving, which is the second of a three-step behavior change model that starts with doing research to identify a problem and ends with implementing innovation projects. The problem-solving step involves bringing diverse stakeholders together for activities such as scenario planning, charrettes, and data visualization.

Make climate change and climate action local and visual
Our host, the City of Hamilton, highlighted their Hamilton Climate Change Action Charter, which organizations and individuals can both sign on to. As signatories, they commit to taking and reporting on climate actions in their work or personal lives. According to coordinator Brian Montgomery, the goal is not to get them to do new things, but rather to understand what they are already doing that is in fact climate action—and thus see themselves in a new light, as climate champions. Basically, the City is building a constituency; and when they embark on the task of writing a climate action plan, they will already understand what the community cares about and have broad support.

The Hamilton Conservation Authority is also focused on making climate change local and has produced a series of short videos called Climate Change in Our Own Backyard that show the local impacts of climate change on traditions such as ice fishing. According to the presenter, residents did not connect extreme weather events to climate change in the past—and these videos, more than anything else the Authority has done, are making people want to get involved in climate action.

Finally, Stephen Sheppard, of the University of British Columbia’s Collaborative for Advanced Landscape Planning (CALP), presented examples of visual tools that local government can use with communities to do collaborative planning. For example, one data visualization tool is a moving graph paired with a visual of a local landscape that shows how changes in sea level rise will correlate directly with inundation of the landscape. In production now is a place-based video game on sea rise in the Delta community where the player takes on the role of mayor and makes different choices and then sees the consequences. Dr. Sheppard’s new book, Visualizing Climate Change, also provides many examples of how visual tools can help communities look to their present and past ways of life for low-tech solutions embedded in local cultures.

Overall, these and other stories highlight the ways in which community engagement—beyond communication, framing, and messaging—can help broaden the climate action movement to include diverse stakeholders who have not had a significant voice in our conversations or initiatives to date. The Livable Cities Forum advanced this crucial conversation, and I hope we can continue to expand on the lessons from this conference through online forums like Climate Access and at conferences not only in Canada, but also in the U.S. and beyond. What will this conversation sound like when we truly open it up? What will climate action look like once it’s out of our hands?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

“Cierrale!” Building on Latino Values and Traditions to Fight Climate Change – and Strengthen Chicago’s Neighborhoods in the Process

I have written a number of articles about my community-based climate action work in Chicago, and will slowly share them here. Here's the first, prompted by a phone call that I received from Brenda Torres, who works with a New York City group called El Puente that is starting to engage Puerto Rican residents in Chicago, New York City, Puerto Rico, and Orlando, Florida around climate change. They are starting with "encuentros," or conversations, that bring together scientists and community leaders who have not yet been very involved in this issue. Their goal is to mobilize them to vote around this issue, starting with the next election.

Brenda got in touch with me because she found an article that I wrote about engaging Latinos in climate change work, for Toolkit partner Casa Michoacan's Mexican federation magazine this past summer, when they hosted a big gathering of federations in Chicago. That article is shared below.

Please share:
How have you worked with the Latino community, in Chicago or other places? 
What's your experience of how different Latino practices and values connect with sustainability and climate action?
How are these practices and values similar to or different from those you have found in other cultural communities?
How are they different among different Latino populations?


Cierrale!” Building on Latino Values and Traditions to Fight Climate Change – and Strengthen Chicago’s Neighborhoods in the Process

Over the past five years, Chicago has gained international attention for its efforts to address climate change, as laid out in the Chicago Climate Action Plan, released by the City of Chicago in fall 2008. In particular, Chicago has been recognized for involving a broad swath of stakeholder groups in the Plan’s implementation. In May 2012, Chicago was one of three cities awarded the prestigious Siemens Sustainable Community Award for its “multi-disciplinary approach to sustainability” bringing together “businesses, advocacy groups, philanthropists, utilities, government offices, museums, and restaurants.”

What is climate change?
Climate change refers to shifts in weather patterns over long periods of time. It has the greatest impact on those lacking the resources to adapt. Learn more at: climatechicago.fieldmuseum.org/learn.

Chicago’s multidisciplinary approach is succeeding in large part because it links climate action to improving quality of life. Diverse groups across the city are getting on board because they see that particular climate actions—like installing rain barrels or native plant gardens or weatherizing homes—will also positively impact other issues residents care about, like flooding, health, and saving money.  

Latino organizations are playing a key role in Chicago’s climate action efforts.
They are mobilizing their communities to address the strategies of both the Chicago Climate Action Plan and the area’s other major plan, the Chicago Wilderness Climate Action Plan for Nature. And they are strengthening community life in the process.

For example:
  •  The Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) helped lead the successful fight to close down the Fisk and Crawford coal-fired power plants, a major source of pollution and carbon emissions in the Latino neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village since the early 1900s. 
  • Other organizations in Pilsen are installing and running gardens, to grow food, provide more green space for play and socializing, improve health, and store carbon. Many gardens are working together through La Alianza Verde, which is leading an effort to plant milkweed throughout the community to turn Pilsen into a Monarch sanctuary. Like many of the Michoacanos who live in Pilsen, Monarchs migrate between Michoacán and Chicago. They serve as a cultural symbol and as a powerful symbol of the ability to freely cross borders. The most recent garden installed in the neighborhood is the Mary Zepeda Native Garden, a collaboration between Casa Michoacán, The Field Museum, PERRO, and the daycare center El Hogar del Niño. It serves as a play space for the daycare and an outdoor learning classroom for the community.
  • Latino organizations comprise 15% of the Energy Action Network, a city program that provides funding to community organizations across the city to sign up residents for home weatherization and engage them in energy conservation, to save money, reduce carbon emissions, and improve health. 
  •  On the Southwest Side, the Academy for Global Citizenship charter school draws on their Latino families’ traditions of reuse and outdoor socializing to bring them together for a variety of climate action-related activities including a very popular community-wide rummage sale. 
  • The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) participates in national and international climate justice efforts and leads local environmental justice campaigns that also link to climate action, including public transit, water, clean power, and open space. 
  • Chicago’s Latino residents have a proud history of entrepreneurship, and a number of small businesses are incorporating climate action into their business models. For example:
o   In 2007, a group of Pilsen immigrants laid off from their jobs founded Workers United for Eco Maintenance, which uses only green cleaning supplies.
o   An entrepreneur in Pilsen collaborated with a local baker to create a Chalupita, an edible dough bowl for the ice cream he sells, precisely to eliminate waste.
o   In South Chicago, entrepreneurs have been engaging in climate action for a long time—without thinking of their work as climate action. The junqueros are homegrown recyclers, collecting cast off metal items and selling them to reclamation centers. This practice is complemented by repair shops owned by Mexican community members that fix small electronic appliances that would otherwise find their way into landfills.

 An entrepreneur in Pilsen created an edible bowl to eliminate waste

Latino heritage provides key building blocks for local climate action.
The effort described above to turn Pilsen into a Monarch sanctuary provides one example of a growing trend in Chicago: engaging immigrant and other ethnic communities in environmental and climate action by drawing on their environmentally-friendly strengths, including cultural values, traditions, and practices. This trend is being led in large part by The Field Museum and by the Chicago Cultural Alliance, a collaboration of over 25 community museums and cultural centers—including Casa Michoacán—that draws on cultural heritage to effect social change.

Many of these strengths have been documented through rapid research studies conducted by Field Museum anthropologists between 2008 and 2012 in nine communities across Chicago, including in the predominantly Mexican community of Pilsen and in two other areas with large Latino populations, South Chicago and the Southwest Side.

These studies reveal a strong environmental consciousness among Latinos, particularly Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, developed partly through familiarity or personal experience with water scarcity and droughts in Mexico. Residents told the anthropologists different stories related to this issue. One woman said that in Monterrey you can only use your hose on certain days, and people are careful not to leave water running. Another Pilsen resident recalled the “Cierrale!” water conservation campaign from the 1970s, which he claimed became a household phrase, like “Got milk?” Another resident from South Chicago reported a popular phrase in a rural Mexican village where she worked: “Gota a gota se agota el agua.” 

  Water conservation campaign in Mexico

A number of residents who grew up in rural areas developed close connections with nature and the land—connections that they miss in Chicago. One man in Pilsen reminisced about his mother and aunts in Mexico grinding fresh corn using a mano and metate and recalled one year in which his family persisted almost entirely on food that they grew. Some residents try to recreate these connections and pass them down to their children through gardening. A young staff person at Pilsen’s Orozco School said that neighborhood parents have been very supportive of the community garden and spend time with their children talking about gardening practices from their childhoods. Another Pilsen family reported keeping chickens in their Chicago garage and collecting fresh eggs every morning with their children.

Residents also spoke about changes in weather patterns and the negative impacts on Mexico of recent extreme weather events—a key marker of climate change. One South Chicago resident from Cuernavaca said that it always used to feel like spring, but now her friends and family are buying winter coats. A community organizer in Pilsen made a direct link to climate change, explaining that it exacerbates migration. Referring to a recent hurricane and subsequent flooding in Mexico, he said that lack of development combined with environmental disasters like earthquakes, mudslides, and volcanoes will keep pushing Mexicans to migrate to Chicago.

Think global, act local.
One of the key findings of The Field Museum’s research, across all of the research communities, is that many Chicagoans care about climate change—but don’t know what it has to do with Chicago or their lives and don’t know what they can do to make a difference. The research findings from the studies in communities with strong Latino populations suggest that cultural values, traditions, and practices provide a strong platform for making climate change personal. For this reason, they provide a platform for engaging residents in climate action programs, such as water and energy conservation, green design, climate-friendly gardening, and waste reduction.

The findings also demonstrate the value that a transnational perspective brings to understanding and motivating peole to act on climate change. The studies of Latino and other immigrant communities—West Ridge (South Asian) and the far northwest side (Polish)—all suggest that immigrant families may possess a particular global awareness of climate change that makes the issue feel personal even if they haven’t yet seen its impact on the Chicago region. Among the Polish and Polish-American research participants on the northwest side, for example, many people have been involved over the past decade in helping family, friends, and communities in Poland deal with severe flooding.

This transnational perspective can lead to important transnational action programs and campaigns. For example, in the Polish community, the Polish American Chamber of Commerce is planning to take a delegation of Polish contractors from Chicago to Poland to learn about the Polish green building industry. In 2011, another organization in Chicago, the Council of Islamic Organizations, organized the “Green Ramadan” campaign to promote green living and climate action among Chicago region Muslims as part of a long–term solution to social disasters in Africa, including drought and famine in Somalia.

These transnational understandings and campaigns are key because they make climate change a personal issue without making it an insular one. We live in a global world—and Chicago’s immigrant communities are pointing the way for global-local climate solutions that build on our collective knowledge and rich, interconnected lives.

Learn more
The Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit presents over 60 multimedia tools to help communities develop and carry out local climate action projects that build on community strengths and improve quality of life. It was created based on The Field Museum’s research studies, in collaboration with four of the research communities, including Pilsen, and over 40 partners from throughout Chicago. The Mary Zepeda Native Garden was installed as part of the Toolkit project. Watch a video documentary about the garden and download other tools at: climatechicago.fieldmuseum.org. Materials are available in English and Spanish.