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Partner Perspective: We make a good team

Students cleaning up a waterway

Students participate in a clean-up event organized by the Ecology Action Center.

Partner Perspectives are written by members of the Community Consulting Board through the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning. These articles provide examples of partnerships, best practices, and other insights from the viewpoint of Illinois State University’s community partners.

By Michael Brown, executive director at the Ecology Action Center

Michael Brown

Michael Brown

As of last month, I’ve been working in Bloomington-Normal for 13 years. Thirteen lucky years with the Ecology Action Center (EAC). In this time we’ve had a very beneficial relationship with Illinois State University—its faculty, staff, and students. And yet, 13 years is just a fraction of our existence now that our organization is well into middle age with our 50th anniversary approaching in 2021. So to be fair, many of the benefits of being in a long-term relationship with Illinois State University are even well beyond my short time with the EAC. But let me try and count the ways.

The students—of course, the students come first. The students are what make the University possible but they also can greatly extend the resources of a small nonprofit like the Ecology Action Center. Volunteerism, internships, classroom projects, extracurricular projects, and service-learning all have regularly furthered the EAC. Our monthly Sugar Creek Stewards workdays to improve beneficial vegetation along Sugar Creek, with results including better filtration of stormwater pollutants, increased streambank stabilization, and increased habitat for wildlife including critical pollinators like Monarchs, are often attended by student volunteers including service groups looking for a meaningful project. Similarly, annual Earth Day clean up events of Sugar Creek and Constitution Trail frequently have overlapped with “Bring it Back to Normal” efforts, where we can receive 100 hardworking students at a time and make a big difference in a short period of time.

While the EAC is specifically an environmental sustainability agency, we benefit from student interns from many disciplines. Of course, environmental health, biology, or renewable energy majors have an obvious interest, but English, graphic design, and political science students all have contributed to EAC’s work in improving our local environment. Business and marketing students have helped through classroom assignments in planning awareness campaigns or projects to address specific issues.

Students presenting

Innovation Consulting Community student participants present on single-use plastic bags.

On their own time, students participating in the Innovation Consulting Community took on the issue of single-use bags last year, researching the problem and solutions adopted in other communities, preparing a recommendation for the EAC on how to better manage this problematic waste stream.

Under the guidance of Joan Brehm, graduate students with the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development have twice worked on local research projects related to environmental issues that the EAC is working to address. One of these was a community assessment of comprehension and values related to local watersheds and pollution issues. The other was a local assessment of attitudes and behaviors regarding recycling, waste management, and household hazardous waste disposal, which directly contributed to the recently approved Twenty-Year Materials Recovery and Resource Management Plan for McLean County, Bloomington, and Normal, Illinois, created by the Ecology Action Center through a collaborative community process which included student representatives and faculty including significant contributions by Environmental Health professor Tom Bierma.

Actually, even the local governmental approval process of that waste management plan involved students as three thousand students signed petitions organized by student organizations in favor of the approval of the plan and others delivered testimony through the official public hearing process.

Faculty collaborations continue to grow, with members of the renewable energy and community health programs providing expertise in current EAC community planning efforts to develop a set of focused strategies to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change and to simultaneously improve public health through reduction of air quality pollutants like ozone which contribute to respiratory disease.

Students cleaning up an area

Students participate in a clean-up event organized by the Ecology Action Center.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg, which doesn’t include the long-time partnership with the ISU Office of Sustainability since its inception, frequent referrals through the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, nor the numerous current and past (and future?) ISU faculty or staff providing leadership and oversight of the EAC through service on our board of directors.

As a recently retired member of the ParkLands Foundation Board of Directors, having reached my term limit after nine years, I can also attest to the invaluable relationship that ParkLands has with ISU, which again includes student volunteers at workdays and interns providing specific project assistance but also the very specific expertise shared by extremely knowledgeable biologists such as Angelo Caparella, the late Dale Birkenholz, and one of the leading experts on prairie in the entire state of Illinois, Roger Anderson.

The Ecology Action Center is extremely fortunate to enjoy the generous gifts of this beautiful relationship with Illinois State University. The question that comes to mind looking at just this brief accounting of partnerships, is where would we be without ISU? Nowhere near where we are today.