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Empowering Chicago’s community leaders

By Terry Bergdall

Networks are about connecting people. They involve diverse purposes, approaches, interests and forms. In Chicago, ICA-USA is creating a “Sustainability Leaders Network” (SLN) in a response to the urgent issues of our times. These include economic dysfunction and injustice, unsustainable consumption of natural resources, and the mammoth implications of global climate change.

SLN has involved 30 leaders from community groups across the city, continuing the “Accelerate 77” (A77) program launched by ICA in 2011. The success of the program led the Boeing Corporation to award $90,000 to underwrite the creation of SLN over a two-year period. Direct work on this commenced in September 2013.


Highlights of the Accelerate 77 program, 2011-2012

  • 800 community-driven sustainability initiatives documented from all 77 community areas of the city; this was accomplished by 220 students from DePaul, Loyola, Northeastern Illinois, Chicago State, and Roosevelt universities;
  • a network website established and basic database of community initiatives made publicly available at;
  • city-wide “Share Fair” held on September 15, 2012, attended by 400 people with tables from 63 communities;
  • three follow-up meetings - on the north, south, and west sides - held in February and March 2013;

Why SLN is important
 Economic chaos, disparity between the rich and poor, unsustainable consumption of natural resources, and the extreme effects of climate change are realities across the world. Climate change is often referred to as a “super wicked problem”. No one knows for sure what will happen when the earth warms two degrees. It is important to “expand the table” with different perspectives and knowledge so that people can work together to anticipate impacts - and so that they know how to collaborate when problems arise. The importance of collaboration and “soft skills” is apparent in analyses of numerous disasters around the world. People cope with disasters more effectively when they have good social networks and connections.

The challenges of climate change are increasingly obvious. According to national weather reports this year, 11 of the past 12 years have been the hottest ever. Wildfires, hurricanes and other disasters have been increasing in number and size. Like other cities around the world, Chicago has prepared sweeping plans. They ultimately depend on widespread engagement of the people. Regional and municipal plans use a “top down” strategy to change behavior among city dwellers through a combination of education, promotion and incentives. Though important, such strategies have limited ability to release the creativity and innovation of citizens. Another approach is “bottom-up, building upon ingenuity and resourcefulness that emerges from, and is driven by, people’s interests, concerns and commitments. A third approach, which SLN advocates, is complementary action from the top and the bottom - and the nurturing of a space “in-between” where government and communities work together to analyze and solve big challenges.

In addition to strengthening these networks and connections for lateral purposes of mutual support, there is a need to empower them to make vertical relationships more effective. Community representatives are frequently included on special commissions and working groups but they are often token participants. While other members represent large powerful institutions (for example, government, businesses and funding foundations), community representatives typically come from small, independent, organizations. While their work may be exemplary, their voice is relatively weak. Their insights are often buried or lost amid the volume of inputs from more powerful members. This imbalance has a negative effect, for example, on community representatives, when feelings of marginalization are perpetuated, and on the effectiveness of working groups, when insights from a local perspective are overlooked.
What the network does

SLN’s goal is to increase the impact of local sustainability initiatives through lateral interactions and by developing a stronger public voice in vertical relationships. SLN does three things - connecting, aligning and producing.

Connecting - ICA’s facilitation expertise has ensured progress through an initial link up with community organizations identified during the A77 program. There is now a core of 15 leaders and three SLN working groups. One is identifying assets and exploring ways to “share knowledge” as peers. A second is thinking through issues of “community design” to strengthen organizations within the network. A third group is clarifying the purpose of the network through planning and through promoting potential benefits to get other community organizations involved. Because SLN is new, much of this initial work is about conceptualization and planning.

Aligning - This involves establishing a common language and context through training events and workshops on sustainability innovation. This is still in an initiation phase. During the next year and a half, SLN will host activities involving facilitative leadership and community engagement skills in different parts or “hubs” of the city - the south, west, and north sides. Forums may also be organised on themes such as food, energy, water, waste management and recycling, transportation, and community resiliency. Such forums will link community organizations with experts who have researched and/or been involved in related work on a regional or municipal basis.

Producing - This is about coordinating local sustainability initiatives and is still in a planning stage. Communication and information sharing are an important part of future discussion. As more experience is gained with the hubs, SLN will act on high priority areas emerging from experiences and insights gained from the “alignment” phase. This could involve designing and testing a process to create sustainability action plans with clusters of communities.

Practical questions for the network

The SLN has been initiated by a core of leaders. Its aim is to multiply the impact of independent, and often isolated, sustainability initiatives. ICA, which plays a “backbone” role with the network, is now one of three highlighted co-sponsors of the Green Town Conference, along with the City of Chicago and Chicago Metropolitan Agency of Planning. This is company that would have been unimaginable for ICA prior to Accelerate 77. It is a result of growing recognition of the importance of nurturing the “in-between” space connecting top-down and bottom-up.

ICA has been invited to join a consortium to respond to a US$12 million request for proposals from the National Science Foundation to advance sustainability practices in urban environments. The consortium includes the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, Notre Dame University, and the Argonne National Laboratory.

While ICA and SLN are winning recognition, they still have many practical questions to deal with such as:

  • What value does SLN provide to community sustainability organizations and how is it communicated?
  • How does the SLN creatively relate to other networks?
  • Who speaks for the network? How is it represented in its online publications?
  • How are financial matters addressed? ICA has shared information about its grant from Boeing but there is the potential for people to feel like some are raising money for themselves based on the work of others. How can issues like this be avoided?
  • How will SLN’s impact be measured? What should be tracked and reported?

Answering these questions is crucial for the future as communities everywhere come to terms with the urgency of the environmental crisis facing us today.

This article first appeared in our April 2014 issue

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