Preparing for Rainy Days: Culturally-Inspired Smart Grid Education in Diverse Chicago Communities

Jennifer Hirsch, The Institute of Cultural Affairs and Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network, Belinda Li, Citta Partnership/Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network, and Johnnie Owens, Centers for New Horizons/Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network (Lansing, MI): Preparing for rainy days: Culturally-inspired smart grid education in diverse Chicago communities

Smart Grids, Corner Stores, and Historic Landmarks?
A Community-based and Network Approach
to Smart Grid Education & Engagement in Diverse Chicago Communities

Energy and Smart Grid outreach is often portrayed as an educational and messaging endeavor. In fact, its success “in program enrollment and as a piece of community development” depends on taking a sociocultural approach. This presentation will share the preliminary efforts four community development organizations, working together through the Chicago Sustainability Leaders Network (CSLN), to educate and engage their low- to moderate-income communities in Smart Grid, with funding from the utility-supported Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF). The CSLN connects grassroots leaders from communities across Chicago to share resources, support each other’s work, collaborate, build a stronger collective voice, and nurture equitable and impactful relationships with policy makers. Its vision is: inclusive and just communities of civically engaged residents working together to address social disparities and promote environmental health, human well-being, and community vitality for present and future generations.

The first part of the presentation, delivered by applied cultural anthropologist and Project Manager Dr. Jennifer Hirsch, will frame our approach to energy and Smart Grid engagement in terms of social sustainability, building on research on climate, energy, and sustainability engagement that emphasizes the importance of working through groups or networks (e.g., Michaelis 2007), highlighting the human benefits of sustainable lifestyles (Westphal and Hirsch, 2010), relating to people’s intrinsic values (Marshall 2012), and situating behavior change efforts within more transformative projects for sustainable social change (Corner and Randall 2011). Specifically, our project focuses on organizational development (integrating Smart Grid into organizations’ ongoing initiatives) and networked, cross-cultural, and cross-community learning (working together as a community of practice). We believe that this approach will allow us, as a network, to expand Smart Grid educational successes well beyond the current 1-year ISEIF grant period, bringing Smart Grid benefits to ever increasing number of low- to moderate-income families in our communities.

The second part of the presentation will share two of our organizations’ approaches to integrating Smart Grid outreach into their ongoing activities in very different communities and report in their initial efforts for this project. Joseph Taylor, Project Outreach Worker, will report on the efforts of The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) to incorporate Smart Grid work into ICA’s efforts to turn their historic landmark, eight-story ICA GreenRise Learning Lab building into a demonstration site and neighborhood hub for sustainability. ICA is located in Uptown, a low- to moderate-income, racially and ethnically diverse community on Chicago’s North Side. Johnnie L. Owens, Project Lead, will report on Centers for New Horizons’ (CNH) efforts to develop an energy component to their sustainable communities program focused to date on urban agriculture, corner store improvement, youth development, health and wellness, and employment, with the latter focus including potential career opportunities related to Smart Grid. CNH is located in Bronzeville, Chicago’s historic African-American community, which is mixed income and located on the South Side.

The third part of the presentation will discuss our plan for evaluating and analyzing our efforts, across partner sites, at both the individual and organizational levels. Evaluator Dr. Belinda Li of Citta Partnership will share some of our metrics and present initial efforts to document the culturally-tailored and cross-community approaches that these partner sites are undertaking.

In reference to INSS’s work, our presentation will explore connections among four parts of the INSS space diagram: energy, culture, community empowerment. By virtue of our focus in on low- to moderate-income families, we will also address “justice, equity and rights,” as these populations are the least likely to understand and thus benefit from Smart Grid on their own. Additionally, our presentation will address a number of the network’s guiding questions, including the potential roles of different types of institutions to address social sustainability (in this case, different types of community-based organizations); how ideas of and approaches to sustainability vary across groups (in this case, communities and cultures); and how to assess social sustainability in relation to environmental and economic sustainability.

In reference to INSS’s work, our presentation will explore connections among three parts of the INSS space diagram: energy, culture, and community empowerment. Additionally, it will address a number of the network’s guiding questions, including the potential roles of different types of institutions to address social sustainability (in this case, different types of community-based organizations); how ideas of and approaches to sustainability vary across groups (in this case, communities and cultures); and how to assess social sustainability in relation to environmental and economic sustainability.

Our intent is to further conversations about the social sustainability dimensions of technology and infrastructure projects, including but also beyond behavior change and economic motivations for participation (saving money). We would like to conclude by facilitating a conversation with session attendees about their experiences approaching technology and infrastructure projects from a social sustainability perspective. How can we move beyond the idea of social sustainability as community-based social marketing, focused on “framing” messages and engaging “trusted messengers” to deliver set behavior change programs? How can we practice social sustainability in ways that will bring people into two-way conversations about energy (Schwartz 2014) to increase personal and community control and, in the best case scenario, also impact the broader technological system or infrastructure so that innovations flow not only from top-down but also bottom-up and, in the case of networks like ours, laterally? Analyzing energy and infrastructure projects as they play out within social contexts should help shed light on the ways in which these contexts both influence behavior change (thus making it largely a community, as opposed to individual, challenge) and can build on technological or infrastructure innovations to further broader innovations in civil society (Hielscher, Seyfang and Smith, 2013).