During the school year, energetic and creative college students rally together in countless important movements, from renewable energy to LGBT rights to recycling fraternities' notorious red plastic cups. But as soon as summer arrives, students disperse ... and the good work they've been doing takes a vacation, too. Who can blame them? I know that, personally, I need to make enough money during the summer to pay for school in the fall, and volunteering to plant community gardens doesn't always do the trick. We need more real jobs in a new green economy, where students and professionals alike can make a living and make the world a better place.
In 2008, a group of students from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., decided to tackle this issue. Instead of scattering to the far corners of the world, or to summer jobs that would pay the bills but not save the planet, they would use the break from classes to work together, in their own city. This was the birth of Summer of Solutions (SoS), a new but quickly growing collaborative effort to envision and create sustainable, equitable and thriving U.S. cities. By brainstorming ideas for greener cities and launching practical, local projects to make these visions real, participants learn the techniques of effective activism. Their initiatives make a difference: for example, the first Summer of Solutions in 2008 generated Cooperative Energy Futures, an energy efficiency project connecting local contractors with neighborhood groups to insulate large numbers of houses in the Twin Cities. While improving their communities, the students are improving their own futures as well, with the goal that projects emerging from the summer will provide green jobs for other passionate and skilled students once they graduate.
Last winter we talked to the Summer of Solutions organizers about their plans to expand in 2009, and now we have a report on their success. Timothy DenHerder-Thomas and Abbie Pluoff, two of the national organizers, let Worldchanging know about the most exciting outcomes (which you can read about in depth on their blog):
A Twin Cities program established and managed three community gardens as a pilot project for developing a community-based gardening business, while in Omaha, NE, students planted a number of community gardens as a major local food and sustainability awareness-building tool.
Home Energy Efficiency
In Worcester, Mass., participants coordinated a number of energy efficiency "barn-raisings," where trained volunteers and community members made energy-efficiency improvements to a house, including caulking, lighting upgrades, and weatherstripping. The Austin, Texas, program managed community outreach for the local municipal utility in low-income communities. Students in Eugene, Ore., signed up local residents for energy audits through the Northwest Institute of Community Energy. In the Twin Cities, participants continued to coordinate outreach in 12 neighborhoods for Cooperative Energy Futures, an energy cooperative developed through the 2008 program.
In Minnesota's Twin Cities, participants analyzed the green manufacturing and mixed-use design scenario of a closing local Ford Plant site. Through financial modeling, land use analysis, and job-creation studies that are being used by the City of St. Paul, the SoS team came up with a proposal utilizing the manufacturing capacity for the site by putting in a wind or solar production plant. The site would also have high-density, affordable, eco-housing as well as mixed-use buildings split between housing and business. The Ford Site plan serves as an ecosystem model of what a new green economy would look like.
Through Listening Projects, where participants gather, record, and share community stories, SoS programs provide a forum for those people who have been traditionally left out of decision-making processes. For example, volunteers in Nebraska used this strategy to engage North Omaha community members in a discussion about the local coal plant and potential alternative energy sources. In the St. Louis, Mo., community of Northside, where a notorious developer has been seeking to completely redevelop a neighborhood without the consent or input from the people living there, a listening project helped citizens create their own vision for their community.
Community Engagement Projects
In the San Francisco Bay Area, organizers helped mobilize the Heartbeat of Oakland Parade and Block Party to deal with community tensions and generate momentum around the opportunities of a green economy. In Burlington, a major focus was deploying pellet-stove heaters to low-income residents to reduce reliance on fossil energy.
The summer has just ended for the Solutionaries, as they call themselves, but the projects they worked on will continue operating through the seasons. We’re impressed here at Worldchanging by their think-and-do tank philosophy: thought without action is meaningless, and action without thought is even worse. Like every innovative student movement, there is a long way to go, but here’s to a second summer of getting there!
Congratulations, also, to Timothy DenHerder-Thomas, a national co-director of this project, who has been nominated for the Nau Grant for Change award.