Early this month, Seven Generations Ahead (SGA), an Oak Park nonprofit that partners with local leaders to host projects and forums on sustainability, celebrated its 20th anniversary. Throughout the years, SGA has held 22 conferences in four different states; created the youth-led group It’s Our Future, which just sent five Chicago-area teens to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26); and launched a composting program at 14 Chicago Public Schools, which may expand in the coming months.
But founder and Executive Director Gary Cuneen recalled the days when his SGA team was small, and the countless hours he spent wondering whether they were making any impact at all. Cuneen even admitted it took him eight years before officially establishing SGA in 2001.
“I had to kind of put it together, do the research from the time I had the idea,” he said, adding that one of his main focuses for SGA was to provide a space to educate, discuss, spread awareness and collaborate.
With that goal in mind, SGA grew, partnering with several organizations and communities across the Chicago suburbs and beyond.
“We started to develop projects that were engaging mayors, and executive directors of park districts, and superintendents of universities and really starting to get into influencing decision makers at high levels of institutions,” Cuneen said.
When he started SGA 20 years ago, he said, the conversation around climate change was a little different. Back then, the words “sustainable” and “organic” — which now seem inseparable and are considered “common language,” Cuneen said — were new.
“When we talked about ‘local organic farms,’ we literally got deer-in-the-headlights looks about why we should eat organic or local or fresh, sustainable food,” he said. “Composting was just not on people’s radars. I think what happened is that many of the environmental catastrophes have increased in severity, and more people now are completely aware of the need to be sustainable.”
“So now it’s less of a task convincing people that a problem exists, and it’s more of a task of equipping them to take action,” Cuneen added.
Fast forward, SGA has a few things in store, continuing its mission to build healthier neighborhoods. Cuneen said his nonprofit is currently working on placing solar array installations in Chicago Public School buildings, as well as teaching students about solar energy and introducing them to careers in renewable energy.
He said SGA’s work with young people plays a crucial role in creating a better tomorrow.
“The youth are so excited, so energized. We’re just hoping they also take this experience moving forward and just become strong advocates and leaders.”