Greetings from the heartland! Representatives from the Iowa City Summer of Solutions have returned from the Grand Aspirations 2012 August Gathering in Hartford, Connecticut. This year’s gathering brought together roughly 60 individuals from SoS programs nationwide as well as leadership from Grand Aspirations and other allied organizations. These individuals came together from a variety of ages, backgrounds and beliefs in order to build community, share best practices and debrief both challenging and empowering experiences our programs encountered through our work this summer.
Before arriving in Hartford, the Iowa City program helped coordinate an ambitious caravan of vehicles from Chicago to Detroit and then on to Connecticut. Nearly 25 young organizers participated in the caravan at some point or another during our journey. Members of the Middleton, Iowa City and Twin Cities programs met at the Chicago program house in Rogers Park before carpooling to Highland Park, Michigan to meet folks involved with the Detroit program and witness the incredible realities and organizing work that exist in that community.
After enjoying a great deal of wealth and prosperity following the completion of the first Ford assembly line plant in 1909, the decline of the auto industry and broader deindustrialization in the region rendered Highland Park a divested and marginalized community on the north side of Detroit. Many properties and lots have been left vacant or abandoned, lending to a landscape where foragers and scrappers walk empty and often unlit streets in pursuit of any resources left by their former inhabitants. This is the home of the Green Economy Leadership Training – or GELT program – led by an incredible group of individuals who are commited to revitalizing this community and realizing the dream of an equitable and sustainable green economic base in this former manufacturing center. The individuals we met at the GELT program inspired all of us from Iowa City to believe in a better future for Detroit and for any impacted community by reframing their struggles as opportunities for progress.
Following our brief rendezvous in Michigan, the four vehicles set off together for the East Coast. The trip took us through much of the Rust Belt and northern Appalachia, where we witnessed the stark contrast between these regions’ natural beauty and environmental degradation surrounding extractive industries and the decline of the American manufacturing base. After traveling from sunrise til sunset, the caravan arrived at the Emanuel Lutheran Church in Hartford and settled down for a night of rest and recovery with colleagues before the August Gathering officially commenced.
The next five days were spent outlining the mission and vision of our national organization, sharing stories from our summer program experiences, planning and executing group meals and houskeeping responsbilities, strategic planning for the next five years and workshopping program areas like urban farming, environmental justice, working in impacted communities, energy auditing and community weatherization campaigns. We also held fun events like talent shows and trivia activities to build personal relationships and community across the organization. Iowa City facilitated discussions and panels relating to our home weatherization campaign, land acquisition for future community gardening projects, and a preliminary listening survey with colleagues in Wisconsin to ask how we can best begin applying our work to rural areas throughout the Midwest.
The professional and personal opportunities we enjoyed in Hartford were extraordinary, just like the programs and individuals we met from all over the United States. We also participated in urban gardening workdays and tours across the Frog Hollow neighborhood just south of downtown Hartford. We were also lucky enough to meet with a city councilman and resident of our host community who supported youth activism and community reinvestment. All in all, our experiences at the August Gathering were invaluable, and we sincerely enjoyed the opportunity to attend.
After a heartfelt and bittersweet closing, our colleagues began departing for their respective destinations. Our journey home was broken up by car trouble on I-95…a late night stay in a discount motel in the meadowlands near Secaucus, New Jersey…and a fantastic day-trip to New York City before heading back to the Midwest overnight. Despite the hassle of car failure, traffic, time constraints and getting eight people through some of the most densely populated and expensive parts of the country…we made it home safe and sound eight days after we departed. Most of the Iowa City representatives had never been to Detroit, Hartford or New York City, and we are still processing all the experiences we shared together on the road. Being back in Iowa City means turning the page on the Summer of Solutions, but we are excited to establish our new routines and begin planning for an even more successful 2013 program. We sincerely appreciate the support of our community and our partners with the City of Iowa City, Parks & Recreation, the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability and all the local businesses like YoTopia, Thai Flavors, Hertz and others who made our program and our adventure to August Gathering possible. We look forward to strengthening our relationships with our partners and our community throughout the school year and eagerly anticipate our next chance to connect with Summer of Solutions programs across the nation. Cheers!