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).
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:
- Values & Systems
"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."
- 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?