“What brought you here tonight?” asked Institute of Cultural Affairs Program Manager Caitlin Sarro of the group that gathered near the dusk of September 26th at the Gold Dome Fieldhouse in Garfield Park. This simple question carries the powerful assumption that each person has their own reason for coming to a Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network (CSLN) meeting. Beyond those reasons are deeper values and motivations, the interaction of which has helped CSLN remain a dynamic, emergent network for nearly six years.

While she stood at the front of the room to pose the question, Caitlin didn’t stand there waiting for answers. Instead, she invited newcomers who had never before attended a CSLN meeting to pair off with someone who has more experience with the network. Folks who were new were immediately able to spark relationships with veterans, and to experience names, faces, and stories in the opening minutes of the meeting.

As the summer winds down, so do many of the outdoor activities associated with sustainability, such as gardening, biking, and community tours. Fall invites reflection and planning for the winter months, so the Policy and Collaborative Events working groups each gathered to check in on the year’s work so far. Newcomers were invited to sit in on those groups, or learn more about the network’s history in a New to CSLN conversation.

Each working group presented back to the whole group:

The Policy group said its purpose is to bridge grassroots organizing and citywide policymaking, influence decision-makers, engage with leadership at all levels, and stay current on policy discourse. The group most recently created a candidate questionnaire for the 2019 Chicago elections and submitted a memo to Mayor Lightfoot. The Resilient Chicago plan, released earlier this year, included input the group gave through a series of roundtable meetings with the previous Chief Sustainability Officer of the City of Chicago. The group felt it was most successful organizing around municipal recycling and developing relationships in the Mayor’s Office. On the other hand, it recognized the change of mayoral administrations, disorganization in city government, and disconnect between city and statewide policy as major challenges. The group has since reconvened to begin exploring strategies for engaging aldermen.

The Collaborative Events group works to foster awareness of the abundance of assets in the city through partnerships, to connect people across geographies and generations, and to broaden understanding of sustainability. The group just recently concluded its Nourish (comm)Unity II events series, which consisted of bike rides in Uptown and Bronzeville and an asset-sharing workshop in South Shore. It was a successful follow-up to last year’s series that drew more diverse audiences and increased participation of young people. However, the group still experiences logistical challenges, such as limited funding and drawing people from across the city to localized events. 

The Storytelling group did not convene at the September meeting, but is hoping to enhance marketing of all things CSLN, spotlight the work of its members, and facilitate connections and resource sharing. The group will soon convene a cohort of interested participants to create a plan for collecting stories of network members and initiatives.

ICA Program Manager Samantha Sainsbury then led a full group conversation on the presentations, asking questions to draw out themes, similarities, and lessons to be shared among them. When she asked how the working groups could amplify one another while still maintaining their distinctions, participants were excited about synergistic approaches. For example, the Policy group working with an alderman on a policy issue while the Events group organizes an event in that ward, with the Storytelling group reporting on the outcomes.

The meeting concluded with leftover time for participants to chat and help clean up the space. Most of the established members stayed until the very end, the conversation among a group of them fading into the distance as they walked off together toward the nearby train line.

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Author: accele11

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