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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Fair
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Isthmus Green Day 2014 takes an inclusive approach to sustainability
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At Isthmus Green Day 2014, attendees could get their fill of environmentally conscious products, lectures and demos.
Credit:Ellen Meany

The bike-riding, granola-making, deodorant-shunning white hippie at the Willy Street Co-op is practically the poster child for crunchy Madison, one of the country's greenest cities. But not all environmentalism looks like your average east-side kale enthusiast, and an emerging movement in Madison seeks to encourage sustainability with a more inclusive approach.

That movement was a major focus of Isthmus Green Day, an all-day expo dedicated to environmentally conscious lifestyles, products and organizations. The event filled Monona Terrace on Saturday with lectures, panels, screenings, workshops, demonstrations, samples and educational activities on topics such as energy-saving household products, yoga, water-saving tips, community-supported agriculture and socially conscious investment.

The Edgewood stage of the convention center featured programming with a focus on diversity, beginning with a discussion of Madison Gas and Electric's pioneering The New Green Challenge/El Desafio de Vivir Verde program, which works with 18 African-American and Latino families to provide a six-month hands-on education in sustainable living. The families meet monthly for workshops led by experts in the areas of sustainable food, water, waste management, transportation, energy saving and recycling; this week wrapped up the project's second year.

Annette Miller, emerging markets and community development manager for MGE, says the project ramped up its social media outreach this year, providing spaces for participating families to share their experiences on Facebook in English and Spanish. "We kept hearing from the community, 'How do we get involved and engaged [with this project]?" says Miller. "We'll be keeping the Facebook pages alive and vibrant," she adds, giving participating families a forum to stay connected and share what they've learned.

Shalini Kantayya, a keynote speaker this year, even made a stop at the Edgewood stage for a discussion session with the New Green Challenge families, most of whom were in attendance for the presentation. "People think that environmentalists are all California hippies, but it's not that way. My mother wouldn't call herself an 'environmentalist,' but she would never waste a piece of food in her life," Kantayya pointed out. "It's old-school wisdom."

Kantayya asked the audience to share examples of sustainable lifestyle practices from their heritage, and a moving discussion ensued. Several attendees said that, while "environmentalism" may not have been a part of their parents' everyday vocabulary, African American and Latino families have a rich heritage of living off the land and practicing sustainable food-growing practices. They shared stories of watching their grandparents manage urban gardens, can and preserve food, and reduce household waste. "We're honoring our ancestors' wisdom," Kantayya concluded.

The Brooklyn-based filmmaker and clean water activist brought this inclusive approach to her keynote speech, a screening of her 20-minute documentary A Drop of Life followed by a discussion of the film's theme: control over water and what the future of water access could look like.

"We think of the problem of clean water access as something that happens 'over there,' in 'a galaxy far, far away,'" joked Kantayya, a self-described sci-fi nerd. She explained that it's a deeply flawed mindset, citing the inflated cost of water service in places with a high number of abandoned homes, like Detroit and post-Katrina New Orleans, and the resulting thousands of families who are cut off from water access here in the United States because they can't pay their bills.

MGE residential services manager Mario Garcia Sierra said that environmental issues affect communities differently, and that sustainable action can take many forms. "There are barriers here in Madison for people of color; sustainability itself is the same concept among all people, but the way we talk about it may be different. For us [Latinos], language is a big issue -- it's important to make sure you're connecting with the stories of the people. If I go to a meeting and don't see anyone who looks like me, my culture is not part of the discussion and I'm not likely to return."

An afternoon panel discussion on Latinos and the environment highlighted several examples of environmental efforts within the Latino community. Panelist Dr. Maria del Carmen Moreno spoke of the Latino Earth Partnership/Colaboración Ambiental program (PDF), which brings together the UW Arboretum's Earth Partnership for Schools habitat, gardening and watershed education programs, and Madison's Spanish-speaking communities. She also cited environmental projects at community centers including the Catholic Multicultural Center, which has set a goal to "make Park Street the rain garden capital of Madison" by organizing community garden-planting days on May 10 and 17. "We're engaging issues of health, creating outdoor spaces," she says. (Watch the Catholic Multicultural Center Facebook page to stay updated.)

Miller says one of her takeaways from working with the New Green Challenge has been "the strong connections to sustainability that these communities have." She adds, "I feel bad for Madison. They [the mainstream white community] don't recognize and see the treasure that it is."

Miller says she'd like to see Madison's environmentalist community, and Madison as a whole, widen its lens and engage in a little self-criticism. "If you don't see people of color [at your event or in your organization], ask, why aren't we seeing people of color? A lot of these groups, particularly native peoples, have been stewards of the environment. Why aren't they a part of this?"

Miller adds that everyone benefits when the environmental movement becomes more diverse. "The white community often sees people of color as people who need to be helped; as people who are taking resources. But it would help to look at the strengths these communities have to bring to the table, and how they actually contribute, rather than just taking."

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