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Transition Chicago and Accelerate 77: working with Chicago’s Communities

Today we have a guest post from Naresh Giangrande:

Transition Chicago planting a garden at ICA on Earth Day 2011.

“WE had no idea what was going on in Chicago; were we laggards or social and environmental innovators? So we decided to find out.”

I was recently in Chicago, America’s great mid western city, doing a Train the Trainers for US folks, and had the opportunity of talking with Karen Snyder of Transition Chicago, and the Institute for Cultural Affairs (ICA).

Karen, who has worked for the ICA for over 20 years told me a by now ‘typical’ story of how she got involved in Transition. She heard about Transition in 2007, saw Al Gore’s film, and went into deep dark despair; just like it says in The Transition Handbook. Then in the next 6 months started looking at how to get involved, and then another colleague mentioned Transition and this time she had a look at the web site.

She saw the resonance of her work with the ICA, and saw that The Transition model made it easy for people to be engaged and that it was easily replicated. Then she got an email from Chicago’s first Transition Initiative, Transition Rogers Park and started to work with them. She then thought, this needs to be working in all of Chicago.

She talked with Terry Bergdall, the director of the ICA, and wondered about how to get Transition going in all of Chicago. So she and a group of others applied to become Transition Chicago. They started by asking, ‘What do these communities really need?’. So they started listening, and listened and had conversations for over a year. Last summer, the ICA had a programme called Service Learning – and it was connected to a college curriculum. It wasn’t strong on environmental education, they we felt environmental sustainability is key to the future and students are key to the future. So they had students come on the revamped Service Learning programme for 3 weeks, and they went to two communities in Chicago, Pilsden and Hillsborough. They did asset mapping; what’s going on in these two communities.

They were looking work going on in the 3 areas, Economic, Social, and Natural capital.s applied to become Transition Chicago. They started by asking, ‘What do these communities really need?’. So they started listening, and listened and had conversations for over a year. Last summer, the ICA had a programme called Service Learning – and it was connected to a college curriculum. It wasn’t strong on environmental education, they we felt environmental sustainability is key to the future and students are key to the future. So they had students come on the revamped Service Learning programme for 3 weeks, and they went to two communities in Chicago, Pilsden and Hillsborough. They did asset mapping; what’s going on in these two communities.

They then visited De Paul University, and there was a freshman class who could do the same sort of asset mapping as part of their degree. They did a three hour session with them, and then the professor brought another class along and they talked to them. They then called all the universities in Chicago, and developed contacts in environmental departments. They now have a data base of 90 professors who are working with them on intern programmes. The students need 100-200 internship hours for their degree. They then raised some money from the Boeing Foundation to run the programme and went on to develop 3,4,7,and 10 week programmes, where the students have to do minimum of 20 hrs a week.

They wanted 40 interns working in pairs in order to asset map all 77 neighbourhoods in Chicago. They didn’t quite have enough students to do that. They were in all but 22 neighbourhoods. They put the programme out in Idealist.org and got some students from that. They went to job gatherings. They got 10 people for 10 weeks. One of the keys was to make it a student led programme. Nina and Adda started teaching students, and then by the second week they had the students teaching each other.

Transition Chicago indulge in a spot of urban gardening on 350.org’s day of action in 2011.

They developed a manual which told them the steps to do asset mapping. The programme begins with talking to the students in the classrooms, and then at the end of the internship they went back to hear their reports. All the universities are jumping on the environmental programmes bandwagon-really fast.

There has been very little push back from the communities. Communities of colour generally welcomed them because they are from a non profit. Now they have finished the research. And they now organising an event so that all the community groups come to a Share Fair on Sept 15th. All 77 neighbourhoods will be represented and there will be 20 connection seminars.

Where are they going from here?

They have done Phase 1; listen and learn. And now they are starting Phase 2; People working on projects in the different neighbourhoods don’t know each other; so connect people up- the Share Fair.

Phase 3 In their wildest dreams. They know that ICA is good at facilitation and networking, and getting people to work together. They can see having connection seminars to introduce to these communities as a resource.

To date they have found over 500 initiatives going in Chicago, and one big surprise was how much was happening in Hispanic and African American communities in environmental areas.

Transition Chicago is a phenomenal example of Transition working at scale in a large city. It is also a great example of networking; listening and taking a position not of being experts, but with a degree of humility, not knowing. In their ‘not knowing’ leads them to finding out, and honouring all that is being done. Having a fantastic resource like the ICA which gifts Transition Chicago office space as well as staff time enables something like this to happen. And then there is the work of Karen and her colleagues who bring such a wealth of knowledge and experience without which Transition Chicago couldn’t be happening.

Naresh with participants in the Transition Thrive training that took place in Chicago in July (sixth from the left, green shirt). Sophy Banks is the one at the right in the very front.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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