Engaging Diverse Communities in Climate Action: Lessons from Chicago

June 18, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Photo credit: climatechicago.fieldmueseum.org. Chef Tsadakeeyah from Majani Catering demonstrates healthy vegan soul food cooking in the Bronzeville Community Garden.

What does climate change mean to people in the U.S. in the context of their daily lives? What does “climate action” look like in the context of particular places and cultures?

For five years, from the launch of the Chicago Climate Action Plan in fall 2008 until 2012, a group of applied researchers worked with over 25 diverse communities across Chicago to answer these questions. Initial ethnographic research conducted by anthropologists at The Field Museum revealed that, contrary to nationwide polls suggesting that people don’t care much about climate change (e.g., Newport), Chicagoans from diverse walks of life think this issue is critical—but don’t understand how it relates to their lives in Chicago or what they can do to make a difference.

Building on this research, community leaders, City agencies, and nonprofit organizations have been working together to develop, accelerate, and share place-based, culturally-driven climate action projects that are as varied as Chicago itself. Examples include:

• Boy Scouts installing bat boxes in their community forest preserve to strengthen residents’ connections to nature and encourage the use of natural pesticides (like bats);
• An urban agriculture organization conducting a poster campaign to collect residents’ stories about how they save energy;
• A Chinese social service agency partnering with an English-as-a-second-language school in Chinatown to develop a curriculum about climate change in Chicago and China for their ESL students.

These climate action projects feel and look like Chicagoans and their neighborhoods. As such, they provide alternatives to the dominant narrative of the polar bear and the Arctic. But they also challenge the common response to the polar bear narrative, which has been to build on social networks and norms to engage communities in pre-determined solutions, such as weatherization, bike riding, etc. Projects like those listed above provide a glimpse into the potential for developing innovative climate action solutions that emerge out of a community’s fabric, rather than being externally prescribed. In this article, we focus in particular on projects in two specific Chicago communities: Pilsen, one of Chicago’s best known Mexican neighborhoods, and Bronzeville, a historic African-American community which was known as Chicago’s “black metropolis” in the early- to mid-20th century.

The collective success of these and other projects in Chicago suggests a new model for engaging diverse communities−particularly low-income communities and communities of color−in climate action: providing them with tools to understand and analyze the climate challenge and then build on their own knowledge, culture, and experiences to develop innovative solutions tailored to their community culture.


This work was born out of an effort to facilitate community implementation of two plans: the City’s Chicago Climate Action Plan (CCAP) and the Chicago Wilderness alliance’s Climate Action Plan for Nature (CAPN). While the CCAP focuses on reducing emissions from our built environment, the CAPN focuses on helping plants and animals adapt to our changing climate.

The work began as an applied research project, commissioned by the City of Chicago to develop a community engagement strategy for the CCAP. From 2009 to 2012, Field Museum anthropologists conducted research in nine communities, chosen to reflect the city’s socioeconomic, geographic, racial, and ethnic diversity. The research explored residents’ understandings of climate change and identified community assets and concerns that could serve as springboards for increasing engagement in the strategies of the CCAP, and eventually the CAPN as well. These ongoing studies served as the basis for developing two City-led projects, starting in 2009: a community-based retrofit program and a retrofit network comprising social service agencies from low income neighborhoods across the city. It also resulted in two projects led by The Field Museum, both involving multiple communities: a climate storytelling initiative and the Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit. Through the Toolkit project, we worked with four communities to turn research findings into community-based climate action projects—and document this work along the way. This work resulted in the creation of over 60 tools for community-based climate action, available for free on the Toolkit website (climatechicago.fieldmuseum.org).


Our approach to research and engagement aims to align community goals, values, and aspirations with the goals and strategies of the climate action plans, so that local work simultaneously benefits from and advances city and regional visions. We do this by: 1) engaging diverse coalitions of trusted local organizations as partners; 2) identifying community assets that can be mobilized for action; and 3) linking climate change and action to community concerns and ongoing efforts to improve local quality of life.

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Photo credit: climatechicago.fieldmueseum.org. Our approach to engaging diverse communities in climate action aligns community assets and concerns with city and regional climate plans.

For example, in our work in Pilsen, a Mexican hometown association, a daycare center, and an environmental justice organization formed a new partnership to transform a vacant lot into a native plant garden with benefits that are more than environmental. The garden functions as a safe and educational play space for children and an outdoor classroom for workshops on topics ranging from rain barrels to immigration. The partner organizations and the vacant lot are examples of tangible neighborhood assets being mobilized for climate action.

The project also builds on key intangible assets, such as the cultural symbolism of the Monarch butterfly. The garden’s fence and wall are adorned with Monarchs painted by local youth, and the garden includes milkweed plants, which provide food for the Monarch’s caterpillars. Because of its migration patterns between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, and heavy concentration in certain areas of Mexico (in particular the state of Michoacán, where many of Pilsen’s residents are from), the Monarch has been used widely as a symbol of Mexican immigrant rights. The native milkweed that was planted in the garden not only helps the Monarchs thrive, but like many native plants, it is environmentally beneficial in our changing climate; in particular it is well-adapted to droughts and floods, which have already increased in frequency due to climate change.

In our work in Bronzeville, a for-profit community developer, a local chef, a community nature center, and a social service organization worked with us to incorporate a climate change focus into their ongoing work to return the area to its former status as a destination for African-American culture and cuisine. Their climate action project included neighborhood tours of public art and the South Side’s emerging green economy, a youth horticulture program, and vegan soul food cooking demonstrations held in community gardens that grow collard greens, okra, and other soul food staples.

The Bronzeville work is in part an effort to reclaim African and African-American connections to the land. This work, perhaps more than any other work we have done to date, reveals the importance of understanding climate action as a cultural, and not just technological or consumer, issue. During the course of conducting our research in Bronzeville, a number of people told us stories that suggested that climate change and sustainability would be hard sells in a community striving to establish a new, urban, middle-class image, which does not include practices often associated with rural life and poverty. For example, people told us that Bronzeville would never be a community where people garden or raise chickens—both increasingly popular sustainability practices in the city. One woman who runs a school garden program reported that angry parents confronted her about why she was teaching their children to be slaves. The Bronzeville climate action project aims to counter these ideas by portraying sustainability as both a proud part of African-American and neighborhood history, and also a key component of Bronzeville’s future growth and stability.

Our open-ended approach to engagement also nurtures bottom-up impact, as community-based climate action projects suggest new directions for our regional visions and strategies. For example, the Bronzeville project, with its focus on African and African-American food and cultural traditions, and the Pilsen project, with its focus on butterfly and human migration, both demonstrate the potential for engaging communities in transnational climate work, drawing on residents’ global connections to people in other countries. While it may sound cliché, our challenge is to “think global, act local.”


We are often asked to report on the results of our work with Chicago communities, particularly in terms of the most common climate action metric: carbon emissions reduction. However, while carbon reduction is a key long-term goal of this work, in the short term, our primary goal is for city and regional climate action strategies to be integrated into ongoing community work focused on other quality of life issues. This will establish the social and cultural conditions necessary for both reducing emissions and coping with changes in climate that are already inevitable.

To measure success in reaching this goal, it is necessary to evaluate post-project engagement in two realms: 1) project longevity and expansion at the community level, and 2) successful adoption of this approach by new constituents (municipalities and/or community groups, preferably in collaboration with each other). While we have not had funding to conduct a formal evaluation of post-project engagement, activity in the past year seems promising on both fronts.

Project Longevity and Expansion in Project Communities

A number of the communities where we worked have continued moving this work forward in creative ways that embed climate action more deeply in partners’ broader community-building efforts. For example, in Pilsen, the Mexican hometown association has continued working closely with its new collaborators and with additional partners, such as The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, to engage neighborhood youth in creating garden art and then to host a number of events, including a Monarch butterfly art exhibit, a rain barrel installation workshop, a climate change and migration conversation, and Earth Day celebrations in 2012 and 2013.

In Bronzeville, the community developer we worked with procured a $404,000 Illinois Green Infrastructure Grant to install a green roof on its new food co-op building, which is adjacent to the Bronzeville Community Garden. The garden is part of a network that is expanded last summer from seven to ten gardens, and is involving a broad range of residents.

Interest from New Constituents

Our approach to community-based climate action has gained traction and attention as a model that can expand here in Chicago and be applied in other places. In the past year, we have given 20 presentations and workshops, reaching approximately 450 people. Events in the Chicago area have been well attended by a broad cross-section of people from diverse backgrounds and fields, including staff and volunteers from community and environmental organizations, educators, environmental stewards and conservation leaders, local municipal staff, and university students, staff, and faculty. It also has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy as a best practice in community engagement.

Outside Chicago, in places as different as Cleveland and Portland, the approach is appealing to local municipalities that recognize the central role that communities need to play in reaching their municipal climate goals—and the challenges involved in nurturing this engagement. It provides an alternative to traditional approaches to environmental work that have failed to include or appeal to low income communities or communities of color; focused narrowly on consumer choices (“buying green”); and/or failed to connect global climate change to local ways of life.

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Photo credit: climatechicago.fieldmueseum.org. Our approach to engaging diverse communities in climate action aligns community assets and concerns with city and regional climate plans.

Lessons Learned

Our approach to engaging diverse communities in climate change work has focused on developing what some partners in Chicago have begun to refer to as a “space in between” communities and government, where community priorities and visions meet and mix with government plans and programs. Our experience suggests four key lessons for nurturing this space:

1. Translate government or regional plans—like the Chicago Climate Action Plan—into visual and multimedia materials.

It goes without saying that these materials should be understandable to lay people. More importantly, community leaders should be able to use the materials to explain the plans and their strategies to others; and, people should see themselves in the materials and be able to relate them to their lives and hopes for a better future. For example, to facilitate conversations about climate action, we turned the five strategies of the Chicago Climate Action Plan into six visual collages. These include one collage each for Improved Transportation Options, Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy, and Waste Reduction. For the fifth strategy (adaptation), we created two collages focused on the content of the actions—environmentally-friendly practices: water and land—since many people don’t know what “adaptation” means. The collages consist not of stock photos, but rather of photos of Chicago residents and places. They serve as conversation starters, helping turn seemingly dry issues associated with facts and data, such as energy use, into stories about how people live in a particular place. For example, a number of residents who grew up amidst droughts in rural Mexico told us that water conservation is part of their familial and cultural heritage. These stories help people relate to climate change in new ways and think about how their own traditions and practices can help address it. To quote our storyteller partner Emily Hooper Lansana: “…stories are like a bridge, like a glue, like a foundation, and … they are critical to allowing a people, a community, a culture to reinvent itself without forgetting its past.”

2. Help community partners identify existing assets related to the plans.

People tend to focus on problems. But assets are important motivators and catalysts for action because they help people recognize that the keys to change exist within themselves and their communities. As discussed earlier, assets can be tangible—like the partner organizations and vacant lot from the Pilsen community project—and intangible—like the symbolism of the Monarch butterfly. Everyone needs help recognizing their own assets. This is true especially for marginalized communities that are constantly portrayed in terms of their deficits or needs. It is also especially true when dealing with an issue like climate change that seems unrelated to local conditions.

3. Facilitate new collaborations among community organizations and also between community organizations and outside partners.

As explained earlier, a key part of our approach is working through local organizations that have not traditionally engaged in environmental work. Equally important, though, is helping these organizations find new collaborators, from inside and outside of their communities. New collaborations inspire new thinking across issues, which encourages people to address challenges in terms of balance and trade-offs—both key to sustainability thinking.

4. Encourage and be open to creative and holistic projects.

One of the most important lessons learned is the need to forego our focus on predetermined solutions (such as “100 ways to save the planet”-type laundry lists) and be open to, and in fact nurture, community-tailored approaches to climate challenges. This is often the most difficult lesson for climate change researchers and practitioners to heed. But to engage more diverse constituencies in problem solving and action, we need to turn the co-benefits narrative on its head and start thinking about community benefits as primary, and climate benefits as co-benefits. This approach encourages community organizations to keep working on the issues that matter most to them, and embed climate solutions within that work.

The Big Lesson: We Need All the Ideas We Can Get

These lessons are not simply tactics for getting more people to tackle climate change. Rather, they are the building blocks of an approach that is more genuinely collaborative. This approach is predicated upon the recognition that climate change is a wicked problem: a problem that is almost impossible to address because its parameters are largely undefined and constantly changing. This makes it imperative that we work together to understand and address climate change from multiple perspectives. This broader approach to climate work will not only push communities to implement city and regional visions and strategies—but will push those visions and strategies in new directions as well.


1. Climate Action Plan for Nature. Chicago Wilderness [online] (2010) (http://chicagowilderness.org/pdf/Climate_Action_Plan_for_Nature.pdf).
2. The Chicago Climate Action Plan [online] (2008). http://www.chicagoclimateaction.org.
3. Engaging Chicago’s Diverse Communities in the Chicago Climate Action Plan. The Field Museum [online] (2009-2012) (http://fieldmuseum.org/climateaction).
4. Chicago Community Climate Action Toolkit. The Field Museum [online] (2011-2012) (http://climatechicago.fieldmuseum.org).
5. Newport, F. Americans’ Global Warming Concerns Continue to Drop. Gallup [online] (2010) (http://www.gallup.com/poll/126560/americans-global-warming-concerns-cont…).
6. U.S. Department of Energy. Better Buildings Neighborhood Program [online]. http://www1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/betterbuildings/neighborhoods/driv….

Tags: building resilient communities, climate change, climate change messaging, policy