Q&A with local climate hero Gary Cuneen

Opinion: Columns

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By David Martin

Gary Cuneen personifies the familiar environmental mantra, "Think global, act local," which urges people to consider the health of the entire planet and take action in their own communities.

As founder and executive director of Oak Park-based Seven Generations Ahead, he has worked hard and long at planting the seeds of community sustainability in Oak Park and River Forest.

He is a1983 graduate of Notre Dame University with a B.A. in political science and a secondary teaching certificate from Trenton State College. A former high school teacher and basketball coach, he was a community organizer in Wilmington, Del., and Philadelphia. He has been honored several times for his work, including the Natural Home Magazine Earth Mover Award in 2007; the William Fitzsimmons Public Health Award from the village of Oak Park in 2008; the Chicago Tribune Good Eating Award in 2008; one of three Oak Park Villagers of the Year in 2012; and the state of Illinois YMCA Pioneering Healthy Communities Award in 2013. He is married with three children.

An Oak Park resident, Gary is the second climate hero to be recognized by the local chapter of Organizing For Action (OFA), through its Committee on Climate Change, which educates consumers and advocates with legislators on sustainable energy goals.

Why "Seven Generations Ahead"?

That comes from the Great Law of the Iroquois: "In every generation we must consider the impact on the Seventh Generation." Founded in 2001, Seven Generations Ahead's mission is to promote the development of ecologically sustainable and healthy communities. SGA works with local government, community and private-sector leaders to help communities make the changes they need to create a healthy and sustainable future. Through community-wide sustainability planning, implementation and report cards, educational conferences and consulting, and school-based zero waste and farm-to-school programming, SGA is a catalyst for local community solutions to global environmental issues.

How have you personally helped define sustainability efforts in Oak Park?

In 2011, we helped develop the original concept for PlanItGreen, Oak Park/River Forest's sustainability vision plan, and now direct PlanItGreen implementation and its Community Sustainability Report Card. We co-founded Green Town in 2007, a series of events involving public-private cooperation on green community issues and projects. Early on, we were the catalyst behind Oak Park's and Illinois' first LEED-certified public works facility and advocated for the hiring of Oak Park's first sustainability manager.

What is SGA's Fresh from the Farm program for schools?

SGA connects local growers to schools while supporting healthy eating and local foods education across Midwest schools. SGA's Fresh from the Farm — ranked recently among the top 10 farm-to-school programs across the country — promotes a culture of healthy eating, combined with environmental awareness. It includes classroom food tastings and lessons, organic farm tours, farmer class visits, and chef cooking demonstrations. Fresh from the Farm also teaches students how to grow their own food and convert waste into fertilizer with school-based composting and organic school gardens that give students a new context for healthy food, as well as an educational classroom experience.

 

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