By Laurie Casey
How many neighbors do you know? If you're the average American, maybe not too many. Recent studies have shown that loneliness is on the rise across the country. A 2014 study showed that more than 1 in 4 Americans have no one to talk to when they feel sad, or even when they feel happy.
At the same time, climate change is relentlessly grinding forward. Governments are struggling to implement meaningful policies, leaving citizens to shoulder the burden. As with most endeavors, individual efforts can only go so far. But when community members share ideas, progress comes much more quickly.
That's where Green Guides come in. The Green Guides program was developed to support PlanItGreen, Oak Park and River Forest's sustainability plan. The program invites ordinary residents to share sustainability resources block by block. It's a terrific way to connect with neighbors while reducing our community's carbon footprint.
We spoke with Green Guide Dick Alton about his experiences so far.
Q: Why did you volunteer with Green Guides?
Dick: I feel this kind of community-building is a really important approach to pushing forward on sustainability. The key for taking care of this creation that we've been charged to steward is getting out and meeting your neighbors, and then helping them talk with others.
Q: What's the big take-away you've learned so far?
Dick: Our neighbors are a treasure! It's so enjoyable to learn about the gifts they have to share. Oak Park has such amazing people if you get out to meet them. The new acquaintances I've met on my block have interesting backgrounds, such as a trained Brazilian chef, a scientist, a Fortune 500 manager and an Oak Park Park District employee.
Q: How did you get started?
Dick: I attended a Green Guides meeting this winter and picked up some flyers on recycling resources here in the Villages. Some Guides pass out literature at block parties, but we can't have a block party because it would prevent access to a hospital at the end of our street. We also have many large apartment and condominium complexes, so it makes it a little more difficult to get to know people.
With the recycling flyers in hand, over three days I went around house to house, apartment to apartment and rang people's door bells and put flyers in mailboxes. I met about one third of the block. I got lucky and met a woman who is our block's Oak Park community policing contact, and she had an email list of neighbors that she shared with me.
I also stopped and chatted with a woman who was walking her dog, and it happened to be only her second day in the neighborhood after moving from Hyde Park. She and her husband and their children were looking to meet new friends, too.
Q: What came next?
Dick: On my tour of the neighborhood I asked people if they had ideas, and someone suggested a garden tour. So we put together a tour of native and edible gardens in mid-July.
Q: How did the evening go?
Dick: Twenty-six people came, including about 8 children. It was a wonderful evening and was pretty easy to pull off. I made some flyers and sent out an email. We had four gardens and a "Little Library" (a structure for sharing books) on our tour. We started the evening at 6 p.m. on a neighbor's porch with lemonade, a little food and name tags. Over the next 90 minutes, we went from house to house, with each host talking for about five minutes and allowing people to ask questions for another five minutes before moving on. The kids started playing together, and we all had a wonderful time. Some people stayed and talked for an extra hour afterwards.
Q: What will your block do next?
Dick: We are brainstorming ideas. We hope to have at least four events per year. One of the things that came out of the garden tour were invitations to a launch party by a new brew pub in our neighborhood and to a nearby street's block party. Other ideas include screening an environmental film together and starting a green book reading club.
Q: Any advice for getting to know your neighbors?
Dick: The flyers that Green Guides gives out make a good excuse to go door to door. If you are feeling shy, start with people who you already know, and ask them to introduce you to the neighbors they know. Hopefully you can find your community policing contact or the person who organizes your block party, because they may already have an email list they could share.
Q: Do you think your quest to build a more resilient community is achievable?
Dick: At the end of our garden tour, I asked everyone: "Well, are we building a greener, healthier and more resilient block?" They replied with a resounding “YES!”