Creating and Growing a Community-Based Sustainability Leaders Network

Seva Gandhi, Institute of Cultural Affairs, Terry Bergdall, PhD – (ICA), Jennifer Hirsch, PhD, Caitlin Sarro (ICA). Samantha Sainsbury (Public Allies) (Lansing. MI): Creating and Growing a Community-Based Sustainability Leaders Network

This session focuses on the aims and challenges of creating city-wide networks of local groups and organizations who are actively engaged in addressing sustainability issues. While the discussion will draw upon insights and lesson learned from the past three years of the “Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network”(CSLN), it will be a highly interactive session that engages all participants in sharing their own experiences and insights. The format of the session will involve a panel consisting of CSLN members attending the INSS conference and ICA staff persons who have been playing a facilitation role with the CSLN. These representatives of the CSLN will play a panelist role.

The session will consist of three parts.

1.) Reflecting Upon Local Sustainability Initiatives
Photos in a slideshow will be used to illustrate recent community-based activities across the city of Chicago that the CSLN calls “local sustainability initiatives.” The slide show will be the starting point for a discussion engaging both session participants and the CSLN panelists:
What qualities or values do the photos suggest in regards to local sustainability initiatives?

Reflecting on these photos, how do CSLN members in Chicago define “sustainability” in context of local action?

What thoughts do session participants have about “sustainability” and community responses?

Why are local sustainability initiatives important? What role do they play in addressing the major â super wicked challenges associated with a sustainability?

2.) Conceptual Framework of the CSLN — Connections and the “In-between” Space
A summary of the “Accelerate 77” program: It assumed local sustainability initiatives are happening everywhere in all 77 community areas of Chicago. Action research with 250 students from 5 major universities proved that to be correct (slide showing city map and local sustainability initiatives). There also was an assumption that “connecting” local initiatives would expand knowledge and new practices, commitment and courage.
Panelists: how have CSLN members experienced “connections” with other local initiatives to be helpful to their work?

Participants: do you have similar experiences of connecting with others in a peer-to-peer relationship? What are they and how have them been helpful to you?

Short presentation on the CSLN diagram of relationships: regional and city plans are by nature “top-down” — they come up with schemes and programs for meeting particular objectives; local initiatives are driven my community concerns, passions and interest. The CSLN is about connecting local initiatives, empowering their collective impact, and strengthening a “bottom-up” voice within the “in-between space.” (attachment available.)
This short presentation is followed by another discussion:

Panel: in your past experience, what have been some of the challenges to working in the “in-between space” i.e., difficulties, uncertainties, and realities of power of initiatives from the bottom connecting, interacting, and influencing actions in some form or another with authorities from the top?

Participants: how would you describe challenges of interactions between the top and the bottom?
3.) Current Activities of the emerging CSLN
A quick presentation of key accomplishments to date and future plans of the CSLN via a handout or slide:


Aug 2013 – Boeing grant received to launch Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network (CSLN)

Oct 2013 – Network launched at The Institute of Cultural Affairs with 47 people

Mar 2014 – 1st iteration of network vision, mission, and guidelines collaborative developed

May 2014 – Panel Discussion facilitated at GreenTown Chicago Conference with 8 members

Aug 2014 – Greater Chicago Dialogue and Deliberation Community of Practice grant received for summer network gathering

Oct 2014 – “Is It Just Space?” interactive event held with Center for Humans and Nature, launching justice and space series

Sept-Nov 2014 – ICA GreenRise launches CSLN hub activities with three events planned with other network members

CSLN by the numbers:

130 people participate, representing 95 organizations

16 network gatherings held at 12 spaces across the city

8 CSLN members trained in ICA facilitation methods

7 public events held, collectively drawing over 100 participants

1 collaborative grant proposal submitted to Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF)

9 student interns placed with 4 CSLN members

Year Two Emerging Initiatives and Focus Areas:

CSLN Crowd-resourcing Training & Campaign with partner ioby (

Sustainable Summer – CSLN activities in neighborhoods across Chicago

Justice & Space Discussion Series

Faith and Sustainability Forum

Neighborhood Energy/Sustainability Hubs

Sustainable Economies

Art & Sustainability

Strengthening Partnerships with City and Other Planning Agencies

Youth Engagement and Education