Marcella Bondie Keenan, OP sustainability coordinator

As humankind has plundered and depleted the Earth’s natural resources over centuries, the need to address climate change has become paramount. The village of Oak Park is looking to residents for help in developing its climate plan, which will serve as a guide for the village’s future sustainability efforts to thwart climate change while prioritizing equity and community.

“Community members are incredibly resourceful, and they know their neighborhoods and their homes better than anyone could,” said Marcella Bondie Keenan, Oak Park’s sustainability coordinator. “We’re really hoping to get their input.”

The climate plan is being developed with the help of sustainability consulting firm GRAEF, with which the village board entered into a contract worth $125,000 last September. Bondie Keenan told Wednesday Journal GRAEF has been “fantastic.”  The village’s Environment and Energy Commission is likewise assisting in the plan’s development, as is Bondie Keenan.

The deadline for community input is May 31, but there are manifold opportunities for community members to contribute. Perhaps the easiest way is through the village’s dedicated portal: http://www.oak-park.us/climateplan. There, visitors can complete a short survey about climate change experiences and priorities, as well as share thoughts and ideas by submitting comments to the site’s interactive map. The website also has a budgeting game where visitors can decide hypothetically how to invest in climate action. Visitors can educate themselves on climate change by perusing the wide range of scientific information available on the website.

“It is crucial that people communicate with us,” said Bondie Keenan.

One of the website’s most unique features is its do-it-yourself meeting kit. The downloadable 19-page document covers all the bases necessary to host a discussion on climate change, from planning and execution tips to follow-up instructions. Hard copies of the guide can be picked up at village hall. The guide includes background information on the impacts of climate change, as well as provides a list of community resources and discussion questions. Once the discussion among neighbors has finished, the group’s findings can be submitted through the website or mailed to the attention of Bondie Keenan at village hall, 123 Madison St., Oak Park. The findings also be dropped off at village hall.

“It can be as low-tech as you jotting your notes down on this hardcopy,” she said. “Or it could be a hybrid thing where we do it over Zoom, and you leave your comments on the website as you’re talking through it.”

For those who would like to host a climate change discussion but feel uncomfortable leading the conversation even with the kit, the village can provide assistance with organizing and promoting the event. Bondie Keenan or another member of the team are also available to co-facilitate the discussion.

“We’re available to help,” she said.

While climate change affects everyone, certain groups of the population are inordinately impacted. Those groups, said Bondie Keenan, include people of color, older adults, youth, individuals with disabilities, and English language learners or people who have limited English proficiency.

“They’re the people that are being centered and elevated in the plan,” said Bondie Keenan. “That is not to say that the plan won’t address everybody’s concerns, but they have unique needs that need to be planned for.”

To see that the plan directly and meaningfully tackles those needs, the climate plan development team has been meeting with a number of local community groups that serve people in those populations. Five affinity groups have been created, one for each of the most-impacted populations. The community organizations co-host each of the groups and meet monthly with the GRAEF consultants. They also weigh in on the plan itself.

“I really believe that climate plans cannot act only in a technical capacity or an environmental capacity,” said Bondie Keenan.

GRAEF and Bondie Keenan are also working with nonprofits Beyond Hunger and Housing Forward to talk with the clients of those two organizations, as climate change also presents a profound effect on food supply and housing.

“Food security is a global concern as weather patterns change, impacting agriculture,” said Bondie Keenan. “If you are unhoused, or your housing is unstable, you are automatically more at risk to be impacted by extreme weather events.”

Beyond Hunger and Housing Forward clients will be participating in human-centered design sessions with GRAEF. Human-centered design is a problem-solving approach that identifies solutions by employing a human perspective throughout the problem-solving process. The human-centered design sessions are private two-hour workshops where in-depth conversations take place in a safe space.

The approach was well-received by Housing Forward, according to Erik Johnson, Housing Forward’s chief development officer. Johnson called the session an “inclusive process” that incorporated the input of individuals who have overcome homelessness.

“Housing Forward was honored to facilitate the participation of those individuals at the March 1 workshop,” said Johnson. “We believe they can offer a unique perspective that enriches both the research process and the completed plan.”

Beyond Hunger CEO Michele Zurakowski told Wednesday Journal the food pantry has relied on its Client Advisory Council, which is made up of individuals who have utilized Beyond Hunger services, to assess and shape its programs. The expertise of those individuals that society often overlooks has been instrumental to Beyond Hunger.

“We wanted to help make sure that same insight was part of this process,” Zurakowski said. “Especially when we know it will make a difference for generations to come.

The climate plan will of course include scientific information, including greenhouse gas accounting, which will help pave the way to Oak Park becoming a net-zero community, a goal of the village board. But the contents of the plan are meant to advance social equity in a way that promotes environmental sustainability, according to Bondie Keenan.

“The heart of this plan is equity,” said Bondie Keenan.

A draft of the plan will be given to the village board in late April or early May, while the final plan will go before the village board for public review in June.

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