Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network, a citywide grassroots coalition organized by ICA, gathered for the second meeting of 2019 on the evening of May 16th. The venue was The Plant, a “collaborative community of small food businesses” housed in a 93,500 square foot facility that was once a meat packing plant.
Businesses in The Plant create a circular economy, meaning that the byproducts of a brewery, for example, create the ideal conditions for their mushroom-growing neighbors. While the idea of The Plant is to create a closed loop, its educational nonprofit arm, known as Plant Chicago, works to broaden the circle by inviting others to learn about and get involved in cultivating local circular economies.
Before attending to CSLN business, participants got a small taste of that educational mission when Plant Chicago staff member Kassandra Hinrichsen and auxiliary board member Emily Rhea gave a tour of the basement aquaponics set-up. Unlike traditional gardens, where plants get nutrients from the soil, an aquaponics system “symbiotically combines fish and plants in a continuously cycling water-based growing system.” In other words, excrement from live fish adds nutrients to the water in which plants are suspended on floating platforms. Emily lifted one of these platforms, revealing how plants are anchored with small beads, allowing the roots to work their way through and hang in the water below.
Upstairs in the Plant Chicago office, the opening activity revolved around generating feedback on a draft of a memo to newly inaugurated Mayor Lori Lightfoot. A subgroup of the CSLN policy team began by updating the network’s Suggestions for Citywide Sustainability Policies, Programs, and Partnerships, written in 2015. Those Suggestions, and now the Memo to the Mayor, are each based on five key principles and seven “practical and tangible ways” for the City of Chicago to incorporate them. Each of those elements was written on a chart and hung on a wall, creating a gallery of the draft memo. ICA staff member Caitlin Sarro reviewed the five principles, then directed participants to visit each of the seven remaining charts and add their ideas for “tangible, reasonable, and catalytic” actions the administration could take in its first 100 days. Participants’ written suggestions and reflections were later integrated into a Memo to the Mayor, which was submitted on May 21st to the Chicago Community Trust.
Seeing the fruits of so much prior work hanging all around the room, CSLN member Dan Black enthused that “we’ve been creating a great foundation for working with the City about the things we want to move on,” expressing confidence that the network’s body of work will speak for itself.
Later, participants were invited to take a deeper dive into the Memo in one of several breakout groups. Other groups formed around interests expressed by participants, and included conversations on transportation, material reuse with Barbara Koenen of Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange, and a collaborative opportunity with ICA to organize events in support of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition’s Listen. Lead. Share. campaign. After lively conversations, the groups reconvened to report out about what was discussed.
During introductions participants shared something they’d hoped to learn, experience, or accomplish during the meeting. At the end of the meeting, they completed a phrase beginning with “before tonight, I was…” and ending with “and now I am…” Many of the hopes from before were fulfilled, but just as many new and unexpected understandings were created, especially for those who had not participating in creating policy suggestions. As one new member shared, “before tonight I knew little about policy, and now I’m ready to take action!”