Gary Cuneen fervently believes that every person should take responsibility in helping to preserve the planet.

That means making an effort to control greenhouse gas emissions;  stepping up to conserve water and energy;  participating in programming that diverts waste from landfills;  and taking other lifestyle measures — including walking, biking or taking mass transit more — in support of creating ecologically sustainable, healthy communities.

As the founder and executive director of the nonprofit, Seven Generations Ahead, Cuneen’s aim is to push the needle in that direction.  In Oak Park and River Forest, he certainly has.

In 2010, Cuneen teamed up with the Community Foundation of Oak Park and River Forest to envision, and now help implement, PlanitGreen, the two-community sustainability movement that currently has inspired 17 sustainability projects that are currently in the offing, or underway, and in terms of impact, measurable, he says. 

In addition to continuing to lead and foster that sustainability movement, Cuneen co-created SGA’s Green Town, a series of conferences focused on green community issues and projects, and designed and now manages SGA’s “Fresh from the Farm program.”

In 2007 he says SGA piloted Zero Waste Schools, and since then the collaborative, grassroots composting and recycling effort is now in play at nine District 97 buildings.  School by school it is helping to raise the next generation of environmentalists, says Cuneen, a 1983 graduate of Notre Dame University who is now married with three children.  

 Fueled by the philosophy of “think global and act local,” Cuneen has been tireless in his efforts, which has garnered numerous acknowledgements, including being named one of three Oak Park Villagers of the Year in 2012, and in 2013, the second “climate hero” to be recognized by the local chapter of Organizing For Action (OFA), plus the state of Illinois’ YMCA Pioneering Healthy Communities Award.

Beyond all that, Cuneen says that in August 2014, SGA’s 7th Annual Oak Park Micro Brew Review drew 4,300 people to join him in sampling a few of more than 200 unique craft beers from 74 breweries.  It was also “the largest zero waste craft beer festival in the world,” a press release says.        

This year, he has been addressing the issues of expanding food scrap composting statewide, and giving presentations on the benefits of creating public and private pesticide-free landscapes. 

Prior to forming SGA in 2001, Cuneen says he was doing organizational and development work internationally, when he “started getting all these updates on environmental catastrophes that were happening,” says the former high school teacher, coach and community organizer.  

“At some point, I was hit on the head that I really needed to figure out a way to create an organization in the Chicago metro area that would address global environmental issues on a local level,” he recalls, “so I did some research and pulled together an initial board of directors and founded Seven Generations Ahead, and now we are in our 13th year.  What we are trying to do is infuse sustainability into the mainstream.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....