Saturday, July 9, 2011

Summer of Solutions--June in Chicago

I spent the last few weeks in Rogers Park, Chicago, a neighborhood that has been called the most diverse in the world.  I was volunteering with Summer of Solutions,, a green economy youth leadership training, working on building a green economy from a grassroots, community based approach. 

Here are some things I accomplished, some things I've been thinking about, and some memories I don't want to leave behind.

Although the program is focused this summer on building a model of urban sustainability, and finding ways of doing social entrepreneurship, my short time frame didn't allow me to invest in the long term projects.  Instead, I worked on a lot of small projects, to get the community house I was living in and the program was based out of (the Kionia House) livable, more useable, and more sustainability. I also built raised beds, planted a large portion of a garden, cooked two meals a day for between four and fifteen people, and dumpster dove to my heart's content.  Of course, I also found time to explore Chicago, hear some music, and hang out with a lot of great people. 

Some highlights of the month:

Molly and Peter, the two program leaders, and I went into the city one evening to go to an art opening Molly's colleague had work in.  We biked for about forty minutes to the gallery, a new, upscale gallery filled with exactly the people one would expect to be at an art opening.  We drank a little wine and ate a little cheese, and looked at the truly incredible work Molly's friend did.  He does paintings of environmental and social issues, capitalizing on negative space and stylized human figures.  We got talking to the cousin of the gallery owner, a poster child suburban mom.  We talked to her about how to make bagel chips yourself, and then about the program.  For a long time we coached her on best practices for limiting her footprint, and got her thinking about some new things. 
On our way home, after getting kicked out of a hotdog factory parking lot (there was a spigot coming out of the building labeled corn syrup! Gross.) we stopped at the dumpster for an organic bakery.  We began pulling out delicious cupcakes, which quickly devolved into an icing fight.  Just as we were finishing the fight, my ear sealed shut with icing, two cop cars pulled up.  After realizing that we were white, and not tagging any buildings, two of the four cops left.  The other two assured us that what we were doing wasn't illegal, just "really fuckin gross."  THey stuck around, and we talked to them for a long time about environmental issues in Chicago.  Although the main cop was a good listener and really did give us the time of day, he was so amazingly racist it was sickening.  After our thirty minute conversation, we biked off, amused at the initial encounter, and saddened by the latter half.  When we arrived back at the house, we sat on the stairs of the Church we work in partnership with, and talked with Max, another participant in the program, and Calvin, a local drug pusher.  He told us intimate details about the Chicago crime scene and the police force, as well as the entire legal system.  He explained that the criminal justice system exists mostly to keep the judges and lawyers employed; citing precise figures of the actual costs of holding an inmate versus the cost charged to tax payers.  After this sad, but very insightful conversation, we went to bed. 

Molly, Peter, and my lovely girlfriend Maggie biked into Evanston to see David Wax Museum, a great, fun band.  We talked to the band after, and began convincing them to come to Oberlin some time this year. We'll see how this works out. 

With a few of the other participants, I went downtown a few times.  We went to a free day at the Art Institute, a wonderful museum that I could spend weeks in, and then went to the Taste of Chicago, a huge food festival in Grant Park. After eating, playing frisbee with a  lot of different people, including a few adorable children, we watched the fireworks from a private dock we were invited onto.

I saw Maggie's step sister perform in the circus. 

One night when Max, Maggie and I were biking back with a cart of dumpstered veggies, a guy looked in the cart, and said, "mmm fresh fruits and veggies!" and proceeded to grab a tomato from the cart.  As we was walking away, Max told him to wash it before eating, but it was too late: he'd already taken a huge bite out of the tomato.  After we told him it came from a dumpster, he said, "which dumpster?" and then took a few bananas and other veggies, without any invitation or anything.  Not that it was a problem: we'd gotten it all for free, it was just surprising and amusing. 

I built a nice little drying rack in the basement, and Maggie and I built a big treasure chest that holds tools and serves as a bench as well. 

The beach is four blocks from the house, and we had some great times swimming, playing frisbee, and collecting some of the abundant sea glass. 

We thought a lot about what a clean economy would look like.  Besides lots of local, green energy jobs, a clean economy would (and will!) be much more community oriented, much more resilient, diverse, and happy.  People will be able to work doing the things they love, not just work to make ends meet.  We'll move towards making our systems circular instead of linear, mimicking the natural ways of the earth. 

Maggie and I did a lot of planning for the event we're helping to organize at school in September, the Lorain Bike Fest: Moving Lorain, Moving Planet.  It will be a great festival of bikes where we'll bring together lots of local communities to collect, fix up, and give out free bikes, and celebrate the mobility and fun that bikes afford to all people, no matter what backgrounds we all come from.  Check out the event page and facebook event here: 

The program is a partner of the United Church of Rogers Park, an amazing Methodist church that feels and acts more like a community center than a church.  There are programs seven days a week, from language classes to a women's art collective, to a free after school and summer program.  I had the blessing of working with Wes Dorr, the Deacon at the church, who works tirelessly bringing people together, and working with lots of groups to make Rogers Park a better community.

Along with the abundance of free food came the license to be experimental with food.  We cooked some delicious things, including thai peanut veggies and tofu, raw peach pie, and pizza.  It was always fun to plan meals around what the dumpster provided, instead of trying to take too much control.