The unlikely culture-cross that taught me about immigration, industriousness and environmentalism – and gave me reason to be hopeful about the future.
We often hear that to have an interesting life you need to try new things. That seems obvious enough, but I had a chance to see what that really means one day this past year.
Volunteers at the Pershing School WEF project also included some pretty bright students from universities around the U.S. and Canada who were competing in a student design competition. I had the opportunity to speak with several of them who confirmed for me that innovation and passion regarding environmental issues runs deep among smart young people.
I was engaged in a volunteer service day with a group that comes to Chicago every other year, the Water Environment Federation Stormwater Institute, an organization that is focused on urban runoff and wet weather issues. In 2013 and again in 2015 they organized groups of about 100 people to pitch in and build a rain garden on Chicago public school properties. In 2015, that project was at the Pershing East Magnet School on Chicago’s South Side (in the Bronzeville neighborhood) – which is a few miles and a cultural leap away from where I live on the city’s North Side.
My driving interest in projects such as this is about environmental solutions to urban flooding problems. I can’t honestly say why this matters to me – as a kid we enjoyed spring melt time because that’s when the creek near my childhood home in western New York overflowed with runoff from adjacent farmer’s fields. Drainage was something that was benign and kinda fun back there – but in cities such as Chicago with too many hard surfaces those overflows go into people’s homes and cause raw sewerage to run into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.
It's funny how those childhood experiences often lead to later-in-life pursuits.
Rain gardens restore the natural sponge of nature, capturing that water and directing it to underground aquifers instead. With the right plants, typically native species that can endure temporary flooding and extended dry periods, stormwater is captured and filtered while the thicket of plants provides habitat for beneficial species of birds, insects and sometimes amphibians. Rain gardens also provide teaching tools for elementary-age schoolchildren.
At the Pershing School, which largely serves an African-American community, a number of parents and children joined with university students visiting Chicago for the WEF conference, along with random greenies like me. One of those students pitching in to help was a girl, aged about ten, who arrived in Chicago from Africa only two years earlier.
I don’t remember the girl’s name, but I will never forget how hard she worked on this project. For a portion of that day we took on the responsibility of loading pervious paver bricks onto a wheelbarrow, which I then pushed about a hundred steps to where the bricks were being laid into a garden walkway.
Here’s the thing: as we walked together from the brick pallets to the construction site, on each trip, that young girl carried one extra brick in her hands. No one told her to do that. She simply saw we could complete our task a little faster if she did that. She wasn’t the least bit afraid of a little more work. She was thinking holistically and productively.
Even though she was noticeably shy and soft spoken, we talked a little about her new life in America. Her principal was there and said she was a good student and also a promising track and field athlete. I mentioned having once met Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the Olympic medalist (three golds, one silver and two bronze) and greatest female athlete of the 20th century (per Sports Illustrated for Women magazine). She didn’t yet know of Ms. Joyner-Kersee, whose heyday was in the 1980s and 1990s, but she showed interest in learning more.
I have a feeling this young person has a bright future. She traveled very far at a young age to a place with so many opportunities, so much stimuli and an ongoing stream of cross-cultural experiences. Importantly, she is participating in this new place with both hands, both feet and an active curiosity.
There's a chance she might pursue something in the environmental sciences. Pershing is a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts/humanities, math) magnet school. Plus she'll have that garden for outdoor studies.
That moment of that day really sticks with me. It not only gave me a first-hand look at the great potential of young, enterprising, hardworking people (who get scant notice in the gloom and doom of daily news coverage). But it also was a glimpse at what our country gains from immigration, from volunteerism on projects that serve the collective good, and also what happens when we venture outside our own neighborhoods.
Life is rich if we meet people who carry extra bricks. And that's more likely to happen when we venture into new places.
Russ Klettke is a business writer on whatever topics his clients throw at him. Contact Russ to discuss your communications needs.