On a clear, sunny weekend in mid-September, our community partners at Faith in Place hosted the fourth annual Green Team Summit at Chicago’s Field Museum. People from across Illinois joined together for an energizing exchange of knowledge, questions, and ideas around how to promote environmental stewardship within organizations, engaging in a series of workshops focused on action within communities of faith.

Faith in Place “empowers Illinois people of all faiths to be leaders in caring for the Earth, providing resources to educate, connect, and advocate for healthier communities”. One well-adopted way to do this in faith communities, as I learned, is through Green Teams. Despite a low-profile name, Green Teams aren’t just promoting recycling. They think big: taking actions like going solar, empowering youth to act, and advocating for environmental justice. As Rev. Brian Sauder stated, “Green Teams are justice committees”, leading the charge for impactful environmental action—and the right to a clean, safe living environment—from within their own communities.  One group of leaders that stood out were seven young people who hosted a workshop for adults to learn about youth empowerment. Their clear perspectives and the shining support of their Program Coordinators created some of the most memorable moments of the whole summit. 

Of the seven students, four were recent graduates of Faith in Place’s Eco-Ambassador program, an environmental education program that gets youth outside and active in their community. For six weeks, the Eco-Ambassadors explored local ecosystems and the environment, focusing on food access and urban farms in Chicago. They had the opportunity to develop a creative project and were encouraged to explore topics that hit close to home.

Eco-Ambassador Tiara Bullock shared a story she wrote based on her neighborhood. Initially, Tiara’s idea started out as a research project in which she planned to interview owners of local liquor stores on the decision to open a business in her area. As she embarked on this project, she found that not a single owner was willing to answer her questions: the lack of response proved extremely telling. However, instead of giving up on her research project, she wrote about the abundance of liquor stores and the unwillingness of people like “Kevin” to bring new business to the neighborhood because of it. You can read her story here. That is the type of tenacity we need to make a difference.

As Tiara read her story, I flew back to my own childhood with a different lens. I grew up in the suburbs of Houston where grocery stores were abundant and well-stocked. It was a given that fresh fruits or vegetables would just be available. Now that I reside in DC, disparities in food access and affordability are often on my mind, but realizing this more intimately about my hometown struck a different chord, one of guilt and frustration. Frankly, it is unjust how access to nutritious food can differ so starkly across parts of a city, and even more drastically in rural communities. Hearing about the conditions from Tiara, and being able to put a face to a story, made this fight even more personal. 

Another first-time Eco-Ambassador, Indigo Shephard, shared a poem she authored on how we should perceive differences and individuality. Indigo shared, “My project means a lot to me because it shows many of my old coworkers’ personalities and it also shows that I can be… an advocate to someone that needs help...”:

We all have different opinions 

We all have different emotions 

Some more perplex than others 

But we somewhat have the same perspectives...

We show them in many ways

Our tone, memories, and body language 

The differences of two people can be the blossom of a friendship 

The weirdness of a loner can be the start of a novel 

The anxiety of a teenager can be the start of a therapist 

The heart of an elder can be the start of a new life 

The heartache of a parent can be the start of a movement 

The silliness of a person can be the source of someone’s happiness 

Take this simple message of that the simple things matter and there is always someone that will need you no matter what ...

Also, that no matter what happens there are people that will always care about you 

no matter how far away they are...

Her message is an important one: People come from different backgrounds; we think, speak, act, and feel differently but with a bit of appreciation, we can get creative in the space between these differences. In taking the time to appreciate the perspectives of people around us, we can find ways to connect rather than getting caught up in the fear of what might be different, and we can be present and available to support each other in taking positive, valuable steps forward. We share our neighborhoods and environments, so why not start with such similarities instead of remaining dangerously comfortable?

Two returning Eco-Ambassadors—Kim Wilborn and Keanu Dean—also shared their insights with the adults in the room, educating us through their experiences in the program and reminding us how valuable it is to truly listen to and empower voices of all ages. In 2018, they participated in the program and spent the summer unconventionally, exploring environmental issues that they wouldn’t have otherwise known existed. And in 2019, they returned to lead the new Eco-Ambassadors in their journey. Impactful ideas and perspectives can come from all walks of life, and young voices have a lot to say. At a time when youth leaders like Greta Thunberg are being heard around the world for their action on the environment and communities, it is similarly vital that we are empowering local youth in establishing a healthy, safe, and equitable tomorrow. 

Once again, we are deeply grateful to Faith in Place for inviting Groundswell to such a collaborative, action-oriented conference and for 20 years of leading communities of faith, young people, and Green Teams on the path towards environmental stewardship. We are proud to stand together and to be one of many voices included at your table. From food, water, and energy access to improving the environment, community health, and happiness, by sharing ideas and knowledge in an open manner, together we can affect change.

With that, I’ll leave you with the next viral hit: the “I Recycle Anthem”, produced by Program Coordinator Cesar Almeida and the 2019 Eco-Ambassador class (Keanu Dean with the verses, Kim Wilborn with the glorious chorus). I couldn’t ask for a better song to be on replay in my head.