How can we maintain grassroots energy in the midst of social distancing? The first Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network (CSLN) meeting of the year, which was also the first virtual full network meeting, explored that question on March 26, as the changes wrought by COVID-19 and public health guidelines swept Chicago.
Although originally scheduled to take place in person at ICA GreenRise, the meeting was moved to a virtual format designed to integrate our Technology of Participation (ToP) methods to maintain a high level of interaction. As soon as participants logged into the Zoom conference, they were directed to sign themselves in on a Google workspace, creating a shared visual of everyone present. Each person introduced themselves by sharing their name, organizational affiliation, and what brought them to the meeting.
ICA staffer Samantha Sainsbury introduced the CSLN’s mission, vision, and guiding principles, then asked members to share examples of how they’ve collaborated with others in the network. Steve Ediger said he’s recently created a new cooperative, Chi Commons Coop, as a result of the Nourish (comm)Unity event series. CSLN helped Brock Auerbach-Lynn find speakers and spread the word about a local sustainability workshop series. Emily Rhea met another member who helped her translate her interest in sustainability into a career.
When asked “What is CSLN’s niche in sustainability in Chicago?,” members said that the network engages a broad cross-section of issues, meets physically at venues in different parts of the city, and emphasizes the cultural element of sustainability and the connection between residents and local government.
At our December 2019 meeting at the Field Museum, we facilitated a consensus workshop to identify key goal areas for 2020. Many of those goals, such as community building and local policy action, have been impacted by social distancing recommendations and IL Governor JB Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order.
Those niche elements of showcasing local assets and building a culture of sustainability have been rooted in our ability to connect in physical spaces. However, the shift to virtual organizing that arose in mid-March did not deter CSLN members, who responded by curating a list of community responses to the pandemic and suggesting that we open up the CSLN Facebook group as a forum for needs and offers.
Those immediate responses were shared at the March 2020 meeting as examples of ways the network has pivoted to keep momentum going when it might have otherwise stalled.
But the core of the meeting was rich conversation and relationship-building among the 27 participants. ICA staffer Caitlin Sarro split the meeting into smaller breakout “rooms” of about five participants each. While each group answered the same set of questions, the small group format gave each person more air time and allowed conversations to emerge around distinct themes. Each person shared the focus of their individual work, what has changed in light of the pandemic, and what has been helpful or challenging in addressing those challenges. Groups then brainstormed creative ways to work together to maintain grassroots energy and care for communities.
Those creative solutions were shared with the full group as each breakout room came back together:
While the March meeting was focused on finding resilience in response to the dynamic situation, CSLN will still be working to move forward to goals identified in late 2019.