* The phrase “Love is Recyclable” is borrowed from my group’s last-minute facilitator and fellow philosopher.
Preparing to return home to Northeast Ohio last year, I knew I wanted to focus my post-college career and community involvement back in Akron. A few meetings I’d had with community leaders resulted in similar sentiments about the city’s vibe:
…it’s an exciting time to be doing sustainability and social justice work in Akron!
I’d only heard of The Big Love Network on Facebook, but after attending one of my first GAINS meetings, I sensed where the inspiration for its name may have come from. The atmosphere of love and belonging at that meeting in July 2016, which celebrated the sustainability contributions of the immigrant and refugee community, was unlike any I’d ever experienced at such an event.
Consequently, the announcement of The Big Love Network’s new initiative, Hands On Sustainability 2025, to be held Saturday, October 14, 2017, immediately grabbed my attention. I’d long hoped that Akron would follow the lead of Sustainable Cleveland 2019 and create its own annual community collaboration event. As a city with half the population of its neighbor to the north, the opportunity for a small group of people to make a big impact is that much greater.
Keeping true to Akron’s welcoming nature, Hands On Akron first stood out for its inclusivity. Held on a Saturday at the LEED Gold Certified Bridgestone Firestone Technical Center building (reportedly a short walk from a bus stop), the free admission, free parking, and free onsite childcare provided by the Old Trail School, made Hands On accessible to just about anyone.
Attendees had the opportunity to not only learn more about the intersectionality of waste, health, and poverty in Akron but have a direct hands-on influence in shaping the city’s 21st Century livability.
Admittedly, due to some confusion that I and three other attendees had with parking and entering, my optimism had been lessened slightly. Thankfully, my skepticism quickly dissipated as I entered a room of approximately 40 people immersed in a guided morning meditation by The Big Love Network’s Zach Friedhof. For those unfamiliar with the power of meditation and its relevance in this kind of setting, think of it as akin to stretching and feeding the body after a long night’s rest. Meditation essentially energizes the mind and opens it to new ideas.
Participants were invited to choose a topic table where we participated in the Appreciative Inquiry method of collaboration. I picked Changing the Narrative Around Waste.
Planning to stay for the entire program, which was scheduled for 10am to 7pm, I was disappointed to have missed the meditation. It seems I also managed to miss a morning yoga session held by none other than Tracey Gordon Nguma, more well known as the voice of Akron’s own reggae band, Umojah Nation. Although there was not a midday repeat of these mind and body essentials as I’d then hoped for, the day was organized so that fatigue would be minimal.
Every 30 to 45 minutes, attendees were invited to move from the roundtables into another area for focus group discussions and a lunchtime workshop. The focus groups featured a variety of panelists who were presented with pressing questions from a moderator. Although time constraints only allowed for limited audience questions, the panel discussions were quite insightful and even heated at times. (I took relatively good notes that I may transcribe and share later.)
The most inspiring aspect of Hands On was that the collaborations were not simply focused on sustainability but on justainability–a concept originated in love for all fellow humans and translates to actions toward a truly just, fair, and equitable society.
The impetus of the table discussions was the correlation (illustrated by aggregated data in city maps) between the high rate of cancer in certain zip codes and the high rate of inequities such as access to health services, food deserts, housing conditions, poverty, drug overdose deaths, and infant mortality in those same zip codes. Another piece of the puzzle is the fact that many of these same areas have had their city recycling withdrawn for not correctly following procedures.
The challenge that the facilitators presented to the groups was to discover neighborhood-based assets, skills, and resources; and brainstorm and design solutions around this issue as it relates to our particular table topic.
Judging by the lively and thoughtful discussions and goals produced by the group I was a part of, Hands On Akron is off to a promising start. We decided on holding monthly neighborhood listening meetings to learn how Akron’s residents perceive and interact with waste and what their ideas for changing the narrative (and subsequently improving waste relations) around it are.
The Big Love Network got this right. A poignant point I kept hearing throughout the day was made by the group’s COO / Director of Programming, Beth Vild. At one point, she said:
How we treat the environment is how we treat one another. Whole populations, like Puerto Rico, are just being thrown away. We just put what we don’t want to deal with over there and we don’t have to think about it.
The last whole-group diversion was a fishbowl discussion (a method of holding participatory group dialogs) about our throwaway culture and its connection to health disparities. Watching Beth, Zach, and four or five other participants, I couldn’t help but notice how the passion of their expressions and gestures matched the truth to power that they spoke.
As the conversation flowed and new voices stepped in, I fully realized that what I was witnessing and taking part in was more than a sustainability event. It was the beginning of a movement that will ensure Akron’s health and livability for the 21st Century and beyond.
At Hands On, I saw an authentic love for Akron, Ohio and its people. I felt the same atmosphere of love and belonging that I did over a year ago at my first GAINS meeting.
I saw that Big Love is recyclable.
<3,C – 20171017