Meet eight more green women pioneers and powerhouses making a difference in the North Shore and Chicago…a window design team, environmental justice activist, restaurateur, building salvager, compost entrepreneur, journalist, public garden CEO and educator. For this 3-part series, I specifically chose females to represent a wide spectrum of fields to show regardless of profession or for-purpose work – anyone can weave sustainability into their practice. It’s been an honor to interview each person, coming to know their work more fully and what led them to take an eco-minded path. Hats off to these determined, innovative women forging ahead with green solutions. Not only do they positively impact our region, they surely will inspire more changemakers.
Linsey Burritt and Crystal Hodges, Founders and Designers of INDO
What’s a graphic designer and interior designer to do in an industry out-of-sync with their eco-sensibilities? Linsey Burritt and Crystal Hodges chose to start their own firm, INDO, and put sustainability on full display. Incredibly, they design elegant, imaginative window displays, more like art installations, using ONLY found objects. Hip clients seek out INDO for their stunning designs, from a massive 50-foot wall of meticulously stacked used paper (6,200 lbs worth!) at Steppenwolf’s The Garage theater to a school of fish made from hundreds of mannequin arms at the Merchandise Mart’s Delta showroom. Chicago’s new Hotel Lincoln recently commissioned them create a circular masterpiece from hundreds of used soap boxes. It highlights the hotel’s affiliation with Clean the World, a program that recycles discarded soap from hotels and distributes it worldwide to prevent illness and disease. In celebration of the Highland Park Public Library’s 125th anniversary, INDO also created the work of art, Open Book. This 12-foot sculptural piece found in the library’s lobby, is made from more than 17,000 old card catalog cards. Despite the success of their unique green niche, Burritt and Hodges prefer subtle eco-messaging, simply relying on the beauty of resourcefulness. Concerned about cradle to grave, they consult with clients on a game plan to recycle or reuse materials after displays are taken down. See INDO’s gorgeous, upcycled creations and find out what odds and ends they are currently collecting for future projects, such as chopsticks & envelopes, on their website.
Beginning with its name, Uncommon Ground, Helen and her husband Michael Cameron chose a unique path for the restaurant they opened over 20 years ago. Today their award-winning restaurants on Clark (Wrigleywille) and Devon (Edgewater) have been certified as the #1 and #3 Greenest Restaurants in America and are raising the bar in the industry. Cameron’s recipe for sustainable success? Sticking to their ideals, supporting the local economy and making smart, efficient business decisions. While things didn’t happen overnight, Uncommon Ground naturally became more sustainable with small and steady choices over time. Believing the highest quality food starts with knowing where it comes from, Cameron has built long-standing relationships with local, sustainable farmers and suppliers. On their menu that notes “we care about the earth and you,” guests can find entrees from organic black bean burgers to steak from grass-fed Illinois beef to craft beer produced in Chicago. Taking the farm-to-table ethic a step further, Cameron has made groundbreaking efforts to grow food on-site. Last year they produced over 1,300 pounds of fresh produce from the Edgewater location’s roof top farm (which includes 2 beehives) and the Wrigleyville location’s sidewalk farm, both certified organic and firsts in the country. They have also incorporated over 100 green measures in their facilities, many to use energy and water more efficiently. Cameron is quick to point out these green measures have led to significant cost savings for their small business. Let alone the environmental benefits, the solar thermal panels supplying them with hot water paid for themselves in 3.5 years and replacing paper towels with Excel hand driers had a 2-month payback. Uncommon Ground has become a community satellite for sustainability, with eco-mixers, school partnerships, and soon an i-Go Solar charging canopy. Cameron’s green spirit and event planning know-how also led her to co-found and organize Chicago Women in Green. This group holds monthly gatherings at eco-friendly venues, offering like-minded women a chance to meet, share ideas and socialize. More than a gracious eco-host and successful restaurateur, Cameron provides compelling food for thought on the viability of green enterprise.
As a general contractor renovating and restoring homes for over 20 years, Lou Dickson became frustrated with tremendous amount of demolished building materials heading to landfills. However, after stumbling upon on an empty warehouse in Evanston, her longtime vision to promote sustainable deconstruction and reuse took off. Following in the footsteps of rebuilding exchanges in Boston and Portland, she created a space for builders and rehabbers to donate used materials for resale. She opened the non-profit Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse (ERW) in May, 2011, and since then supply from the community has been so steady they’ve already relocated to larger 11,000 square foot building. There buyers can find a range of brand new to gently used items at 50-90% less than retail prices. Pre-screened materials arrive daily, including cabinets, countertops, hardware, appliances, solid doors, lighting fixtures, wood flooring, marble fireplace surrounds and much more. She mentions, for example, a customer just purchased a Sub Zero refrigerator for $500. In addition to environmental benefits, contractors can save money on dumpster costs and donors can take a tax deduction. Prices are kept low by volunteer workers dedicated to sustainability. More than diverting waste and providing low-cost, reclaimed building materials, the ERW serves the community by offering education, job-training and job-development programs which foster individual, community and economic growth in Evanston and beyond. In collaboration with Connections for the Homeless, they offer a five-week Warehouse Course to help individuals earn a living wage. The class teaches real world job skills such as forklift operation and inventory control. The ERW will also provide more specialized deconstruction or “velvet crowbar” training to teach contractors how to carefully take apart buildings. Having a Master’s Degree in Community Development, Dickson’s career turned to the building field through the renovation of her own 100-year home. She notes anyone familiar with the craftsmanship of an old home is horrified that treasures are often lost during demolition. Dickson is encouraged by new codes in Northbrook, Winnetka and Cook County to divert construction/demolition waste from landfills, although she is quick to point out that reuse trumps recycling. She hopes rebuilding warehouses become commonplace in communities, making salvage an easy, automatic choice during the building process. When asked about her volunteer 50-hour work week recovering both home materials and hope through job growth opportunities, she says, “Getting involved and helping society is just what one does.” While some of the ERW’s inventory is listed on their website and specials on Facebook, Dickson encourages do-it-yourselfers and professionals alike to stop by, “you’ll never know what you might find.”
Former bookkeeper-turned-compost pioneer, Erlene Howard is on a mission to “change the paradigm of garbage.” In 2009, she shifted to a cleaner, organic raw foods diet and noticed her trash was piling up with fresh produce peelings. Since her vintage condo wasn’t compost-friendly, she started saving her scraps to add to a friend’s compost pile. In a lightbulb moment, it struck her that more people would compost if it were easier, especially for those living in a “concrete world.” After studying up on composting services across the country and mentoring with Kenn Dunn at the Resource Center, Howard started Collective Resource in 2010. This door-to-door food scrap pickup service is the first and only of its kind in Illinois, possibly the country. With a simple phone call, residents from North Shore suburbs and the north side of Chicago can order a clean, 5-gallon bucket for weekly or bi-weekly food waste pickup. Collective Resource also offers larger totes for restaurants, schools and businesses. Although the telltale orange bucket may not be visible, some regular North Shore customers include Blind Faith, Unicorn Café, Found Kitchen & Social House, Campagnola, Artisanal Market, Hubbard Woods School, Wilmette Junior High, Wilmette Central School, as well as many notable Chicago establishments. Thanks to the addition of Mary Beth Shaye, Collective Resources offers another unique composting service – Zero Waste events. For special gatherings, they can provide one-time collections and know-how on selecting compostable products. For example, they collected food scraps from Evanston’s Dewey Elementary Pancake Breakfast for 300 people, the Evanston Green Living festival, the Evanston Green Ball, and even green weddings. Since all food scraps collected are taken to a commercial composting site, Collective Resources is able to accept anything “once alive” including meat, bones, dairy, oils, food soiled paper and biodegradable plastic. These items are typically forbidden from backyard heaps. Currently, Collective Resource is harvesting more than 4 tons of food waste per week. And as of December 31, 2012, they have diverted 202 tons of food waste from the landfill. This is significant because food and food soiled paper is now the single largest type of waste going to municipal landfills and incinerators. Also, the nutrient-rich end product can be can be put back in the earth to replenish soil. Compost helps grow new plants and is used in landscaping, vegetable gardens and urban farms. Conventional haulers and others have begun to enter the composting business, typically serving large institutions and universities. Perhaps, one day food composting will be part of regular residential trash pick-up in Illinois, currently Seattle and San Francisco have mandatory programs. Howard agrees composting is the way of the future, and says there’s plenty of room for expansion. She enjoys working with many interesting people in green circles and looks forward to building more lovely partnerships. Following her heart and the motto, “food waste is not garbage,” Howard’s innovative service proves there’s a willing market to further along nature’s miraculous cycle. Check out interesting updates on their Facebook page and website.
Sarah Elizabeth Ippel is on a mission to revolutionize public education and empower sustainable leaders. Imagine a school with organic homemade breakfast and lunch in a zero-waste cafeteria; fresh vegetables and eggs harvested from an edible schoolyard garden and chicken coop; daily yoga, wellness and nutrition instruction; a walking school bus; core courses, such as math and science, taught in the context of hands-on environmentally sustainable themes; and engaging exploratories including a solar energy learning lab, demonstration wind turbine, compost bins and rain barrels. Thanks to Ippel’s new vision of “this thing called school,” the Academy for Global Citizenship has come to life. While Ippel attended grad school in Cambridge, England, she became fascinated with the learning backgrounds of her multi-national classmates. She went on to study different educational philosophies by traveling to more than 80 countries around the world. Her global interest in education turned local when she moved to Chicago. Low performing, overcrowded schools in the under-served Southwest side of the city highlighted disparities in educational quality and access. So at the age of 23, Ippel proposed to open a green charter school with an international outlook to the Chicago Board of Education. Three years later, in 2008, the AGC public elementary school opened its doors near Midway Airport to “empower children to be mindful leaders in their community and the world beyond.” Now in the fifth year of operation, the school currently serves 300 K-5 grade students, composed of 90% minority, 83% low-income and 20% special-ed children. As an accredited International Baccalaureate school, the students’ academic success has eclipsed other local schools, with literacy rates jumping 63 percentage points, 93% of general education students meeting/exceeding math standards and 100% students are learning a second or third language. While each year a new grade level is added, admission is based on a lottery and there are 14 times more applicants than space. Ippel is currently focused on purchasing land for a new pre-K – 12 sustainable school and net positive energy campus. Working with acclaimed Winnetka designer Bruce Mau and architect Trung Le at Cannon Design, she hopes to transform an 11-acre brownfield into an urban farm and outdoor classroom that would include vegetable gardens, fruit orchards and a greenhouse. The campus would generate power though wind, solar and geothermal energy, collect and reuse all water on site, and create a native forest with community walking trails. Dedicated to the transforming the way society educates, Ippel intends for AGC to serve as an innovation incubator and replicable model to create systematic change. Sparking broad interest, so far over 5,000 visitors from around the world have come to the Academy to learn about their initiatives. They’ve even published a downloadable best practices sustainable school handbook to help satisfy information requests. Ultimately, Ippel hopes to impact 20 million students by 2020! The Academy has received numerous accolades including the Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge Gold with Distinction Award from Michelle Obama and one of the nation’s first Green Ribbon Schools Award. Ippel was named Monocle’s Top 20 International Pioneers in Education alongside Michelle Rhee, and has been featured in Everyday Heroes and TEDTalks. During her world travels, Ippel explains she witnessed the urgent state of the planet. For that reason, she’s devoted to fostering environmental stewardship and community collaboration to face our challenges. Her students couldn’t have a better role model for changemaking.
While many green happenings often escape notice, Judith Nemes is well known for spotlighting Chicago’s sprouting green economy. Initially a general business writer, she gravitated to environmental and sustainability reporting and earned street cred for her objective coverage. “So many important, untold green stories are out there,” she enthusiastically refrains. As a freelance journalist with over 20 years of experience, Nemes penned the weekly “Green Scene” column for Crain’s Chicago Business for over two years. In addition to Crain’s, she covers urban sustainability in USA Today’s Green Living Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Edible Chicago, GreenBiz.com and more. Her stories have brought awareness to eco-trends in business, home, and lifestyle, such as mobile produce stands in food deserts, sustainable renovation and green restaurant certification. While Nemes enjoys covering sustainable leaders, she is wary of greenwashing. She believes journalists have an important watchdog role, “We need to keep the City of Chicago true to its word about putting teeth into their sustainability efforts and to also hold the business world accountable.” Nemes stays on top of issues by networking and attending conferences, including a recent deep dive sustainability course at Northwestern University. She’s also working to cultivate the next generation of writers by teaching journalism. For the past six years, Nemes has been an adjunct professor at Columbia College Chicago. She created an Environmental Reporting course to “light her students’ butts on fire,” to not only to care about and cover green issues, but write relevant and strong enough pieces to get them on the front page. Mindful in both word and deed, she has been working to shrink her family’s carbon footprint and to help her congregation, Temple Sholom, become better stewards of the earth. When it comes to interesting green developments in Chicagoland, chances are Nemes is on the beat. Visit her website, blog or follow her on Twitter @JudithNemes.
Kimberely Wasserman-Nieto, Executive Director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)
Chicagoland is breathing easier thanks in part to Kimberly Wasserman-Nieto’s efforts to organize against injustice in her community. Her longtime grassroots efforts helped close Chicago’s notorious Crawford and Fisk power plants, distinguished as the oldest and dirtiest urban coal plants in the country. In 2002, a Harvard School of Public Health study validated what Little Village residents already suspected. Air pollution from the antiquated coal plants in their neighborhood was linked to over 40 premature deaths, 550 emergency room visits, and 2,800 asthma attacks each year, not to mention heart attacks, bronchitis and other ailments. In order to fight this epidemic on a larger scale, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) helped form the Chicago Clean Power Coalition, made up of fifty community, public health and environmental organizations. The coalition’s relentless efforts eventually led to victory, with the closure of both plants this past September. Wasserman-Nieto’s lifelong South Lawndale neighborhood (also known as Little Village) is a predominantly Mexican-American, low-income community facing unequal environmental burdens. Although they were suffering the impacts, residents weren’t fighting the pollution. With membership from 300-500 people, LVEJO has been working to protect public health and the environment through democracy in action. Wasserman-Nieto first crossed paths with LVEJO while working as a computer teacher at the Little Village Boys and Girls Club. When the club faced closure, the staff and students rallied with the help of LVEJO to keep it open. Attracted to community organizing, she later took a position with LVEJO after her first son was born. When her son was three months old, he had his first asthma attack, and now two of her three kids have asthma. Chicago in fact is the asthma capital of the country. This strengthened her resolve to fight the coal plants. For the past ten years, Wasserman-Nieto has been “making environmentalism more mainstream” through door-to-door contact, community meetings, protest action and clever activities at community events. For example, at music festivals they organized Coal Olympics games with gold, silver and bronze asthma inhaler prizes. It was a fun way to point out that China closed coal plants and Atlanta shut down highway traffic during Olympic games for the appearance of cleaner air. Wasserman-Nieto is particularly interested in training young people to stand up for environmental justice. Now that the coal plants are shuttered, she is working to make sure the highly contaminated coal plant sites are properly remediated before any redevelopment. Another LJEVO campaign is to create more green space in their community. Currently Little Village is ranked #1 for the worst deficit of open space, no new parks have been built there for 75 years. Nieto is encouraged by a proposed new nature walkway on an abandoned rail line and plans for a new 24-acre park, designating 6 acres for urban agriculture to open up access to fresh produce. LJEVO is also working to promote better public transit options. This year, along with Naomi Green of Blacks in Green, Wasserman-Nieto helped form the Chicago Environmental Justice Network to connect with other local social justice advocates in the city. Wasserman-Nieto intends to keep pushing the envelope for greater engagement and sustainable self-determination in her community. Learn more about LVEJO here. **On April 15th, Wasserman was awarded the prestigious Goldman Prize, the largest prize honoring grassroots environmentalists.
Sophia Siskel, President and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden
Along with a 37% boost in visitors, so too has the Chicago Botanic Garden’s sustainability profile bloomed under Sophia Siskel’s leadership. From her early career as an art historian at the Art Institute, Museum of Contemporary Art, and Field Museum, Siskel recalls Evolving Planet, which chronicled the earth’s natural history, as being one of her fondest exhibitions. Her lifelong passion for gardening and conservation led her to join the Chicago Botanic Garden seven years ago, blending both her education and exhibition expertise with her love for nature and science. Nearly one million visitors flock to Glencoe’s magnificent natural wonderland each year, and Siskel has ambitious plans to keep growing this world-renowned cultural institution. Beyond presenting four seasons of ecological splendor, Siskel has made sure the Garden also models a range of in-house sustainability measures. They have removed invasive buckthorn and garlic mustard from all 385 acres, eliminated disposable water bottles since 2007, started full-scale recycling and food composting at the Garden Café, and opened the Gold LEED certified Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center in 2009. This cutting-edge research lab features 288 PV solar panels and a 16,000 square-foot rooftop gardens accessible to all people. Offering much more than a lovely stroll, the Garden serves as a regional hub for nature education. Currently, formal and informal education programs reach over 100,000 people each year. In addition to teacher training, over 500 classes are offered to adults, ranging from Botany and Nature Photography to Raising Backyard Chickens and Tai Chi. Young nature lovers are also being nurtured through field trips, camp programs and the new outdoor, experiential Learning Campus, which includes the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden and the Cove. The Garden also offers job training programs in conservation, horticulture and urban agriculture. Through Windy City Harvest and Green Youth Farm, young adults and high school students acquire hands-on organic farming experience for the city’s advancing farm belt. These programs also provide critical access to fresh produce in food desserts of Chicago and North Chicago. Siskel emphasizes the essential role plants play in our lives – we need plants for our food, medicines, homes and commerce. Scientific research at the new Conservation Science Center is geared to save plants from invasive species, pollution and climate change. Ultimately, Siskel is hopeful the more visitors enjoy and understand nature, the more they will be inclined to protect our natural world.
Read here for Part 1
clockwise: Debra Shore, Rev. Claire Butterfield, Betsey Leibson, Beth Drucker, Heidi Lubin, Ann Feldman, Nancy Tuchman center: Jeanne Gang
Read here for Part 3
clockwise: Wendy Abrams, Brenda Palms Barber, Lynn Fosbender, Dr. Sarah Pressman Lovinger, Jeanne Nolan, Ann Alexander, Karen Weigert, Amy Francetic center: Jeanne Nolan
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A huge thanks to the all the woman for sharing their green inspiration and tremendous efforts with me!
Dedicated to all the sustainable sisters I know out there working hard to make a difference. Keep going girls!
And no disrespect green guys – we need your help too!
… Amanda Hanley