Last weekend I really enjoyed participating in the inaugural “Sustainability Dialogue & Action 2013” symposium hosted by University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The symposium was geared to presenting solutions to the various sustainability challenges we face. My fellow keynote presenters included Majora Carter and Winona LaDuke, two accomplished leaders who shared their stories and how they’ve overcome challenges to improve the livelihood in their respective communities. The three day event was a refreshing look at how individual actions can make a profound difference. There were numerous speakers and panelists sharing their work including college initiatives such a biodiesel programs, garden projects, recycling and clean energy programs, as well as research on ways to mitigate water pollution in agricultural lands and initiating local food programs.
One of the overarching themes that emerged in the symposium was the importance of placed-based programs. The significance of local actions and being rooted in one’s community was emphasized by both Majora Carter and Winona LaDuke. When one of the participants mentioned their desire to move elsewhere because of their frustration and exhaustion from fighting for the protection of a local watershed, LaDuke and Carter highlighted how that desire typifies our collected anxiousness about confronting local challenges and instead wanting to move away to a more desirable place. An alternative approach: to stay in our neighborhood and improve it so that we change it into a place that we want to live in.
Majora Carter’s work in urban renewal in the South Bronx area of New York City also highlighted the importance of spending the time up-front to do detailed research in order to determine what initiatives will likely succeed. She described how her team spends many hours figuring out what the needs are in her community and who has already invested in local projects. They also identify the abandoned and neglected real-estate sites that would lend themselves for renovation and provide potential commercial opportunities. This research lays the groundwork for who might be interested in investing in the local community and create new job opportunities. Seeing her slides of the amazing transformation from degraded empty lots to beautiful parks and new commercial spaces was incredibly uplifting.
Kudos to UNI Provost Gloria Gibson, Professor William Stigliani, Sustainability Coordinator Eric O’Brien and the entire UNI team for pulling off a fantastic symposium. Their collective efforts brought awareness about sustainability issues to the students and local community members and how they can get involved to make a difference. More of these efforts at the local level will keep spreading the work and encourage all of us about taking actions for positive change.