Energy Leaders Discussed the Promise of Renewable Energy in Illinois at Brushwood Center’s Smith Nature Symposium

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods welcomed speakers Craig Sieben, Kelly Shelton, Jen Walling, and moderator John Wasik to Renewable Energy Surges, the fourth panel in this year’s Smith Nature Symposium.

This roundtable, part of a seven-part live-streamed series on critical environmental issues, explored the future of renewable energy in Illinois and the positive impact a clean energy transition would have on climate change and existing environmental inequities linked to fossil fuel pollution. These top energy consultants, policy leaders, and government officials shared their perspectives on the state of the private and public energy sector, current incentives to transition to renewables, and policy needs as we aim to build a cleaner future for our communities and the planet.

“We are excited about the current enthusiasm and political will behind a renewable energy transition in Illinois. It’s crucial to improve the health of our environment, maintain a robust economy, and ensure all people’s well-being,” expressed Catherine Game, Executive Director of Brushwood Center.

Over his 35-year career in energy efficiency, Craig Sieben has witnessed a significant transformation of the industry to one that increasingly values clean power. Since founding Sieben Energy Associates in 1990, Sieben has guided individuals and organizations in energy resource optimization and now uses his expertise to direct energy strategies at AECOM during this continued period of rapid industry change.

Kelly Shelton, President of Shelton Solutions, Inc., also witnessed this important shift in the sector over her more than 25-year-long career providing energy consulting services to Chicagoland. Shelton Solutions currently provides energy audits and energy modeling on behalf of the State of Illinois, and Shelton’s previous clients include the City of Chicago, Chicago Transit

Authority, Chicago Public Schools, and Cook Country. In guiding one of the largest cities, public school networks, and counties in the United States to greater energy efficiency, Shelton demonstrated that simple restructuring of energy portfolios provides a significant return on investment in energy and cost savings for even the most complex of organizations.


Consultants’ work is key to restructuring the energy portfolios of organizations, governments, and businesses from within, but applying external pressure to government is also necessary to push society towards a future powered by renewables. This is precisely what Jen Walling, Executive Director for The Illinois Environmental Council, does as she lobbies government decision makers on environmental issues. Jen has directed The Illinois Environmental Council since 2011 and drafted, negotiated, lobbied, and passed hundreds of bills in Springfield while working to build the power, expertise and relationships of the region’s entire environmental community. Recently, as a steering committee member of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, Walling pushed hard for Illinois to ratify the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which aims to put Illinois on a path to 100% renewable energy by 2050, lower energy costs for consumers, and create new job opportunities. This would improve people’s livelihoods across the state and would be particularly positive for communities of color that are often more closely located to coal-fired electricity plants than other portions of the population.

Moderator John Wasik, Commissioner of the Lake County Board, also has a direct role in local government and uses his position as a public servant to advocate for a smaller county carbon footprint and the careful stewardship of community resources. Wasik pushes for greater energy efficiency as Chair of the Forest Preserve’s Planning Committee and Vice Chair of the Lake County Energy and Environment Committee. For Wasik, greening Lake County means preserving it for future generations by protecting the environment, creating good-paying jobs, and lowering government operating expenses. He has authored 18 books, spoken all across North America and contributed to The New York Times, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and other national publications.

This year’s Smith Nature Symposium is virtual for the first time, which presents an exciting opportunity for Brushwood Center to reach as many people as possible with these timely discussions. Ticket prices are “give what you can” with a free option available for students and those who are unable to donate. The series began on August 13th and culminates in the Smith Nature Symposium Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 9th, with honorees Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern and Masters of Ceremonies Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra.

All funds raised from the Symposium directly supported Thrive Together, Brushwood Center’s COVID-19 crisis response for a more just and sustainable future. All presentations were available in English and Spanish.

To learn more about the series visit  www.smithnaturesymposium.org.

How to Reduce Floods, Heal Ecosystems, and Protect Human Health through Natural Solutions: A Conversation at Brushwood Center’s Smith Nature Symposium

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods welcomed speakers Elena Grossman, Vidya Venkataramanan, Aaron Feggestad, and moderator Ted Haffner to It’s Raining, It’s Pouring during the Smith Nature Symposium.

This roundtable, part of a seven-part live-streamed series on critical environmental issues, examined the local implications of climate change in the form of altered ecosystems, more frequent and intense floods, and increased public health threats. These researchers, designers, and strategic planners shared their perspectives and solutions for this defining crisis of our time.

The coronavirus pandemic exposed how economies, health, and futures are inextricably intertwined. The climate crisis – also an all-encompassing, but less tangible threat – will likewise worsen human and environmental health and deepen existing inequalities.

“This year’s Smith Nature Symposium is all about exploring a more just and sustainable future amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis, two of the greatest global challenges facing our world. These speakers illuminated why nature, health, climate change, and racial equity are all critical parts of the solution,” expressed Catherine Game, Executive Director of Brushwood Center.

Panelist Elena Grossman is the Program Director for BRACE-Illinois (Building Resilience Against Climate Effects), a partnership between the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and the Illinois Department of Public Health. This program, which Grossman develops and designs, is formulated to prepare Illinois for the health effects of climate change. In leading this program, Grossman researches the relationships between climate change and health, creates education and training tools, and facilitates the strategic process for local health departments to address climate change. She also collaborates in developing and writing state reports to share possible solutions to these problems and increase awareness that climate change will disproportionally affect disadvantaged communities.

While Grossman focuses on designing strategic processes that mitigate the effects of climate change on public health, Vidya Venkataramanan (a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Northwestern University) is interested in understanding the flipside of the equation: how communities perceive these interventions and value environmental sustainability programs. Venkataramanan’s research is specifically focused on water sanitation and hygiene programs, and she uses her findings on community engagement and participation to understand how to set sustainability initiatives up for success. She uses qualitative and quantitative methods, particularly drawing on tools from policy and implementation research. Her current research goals are two-fold: understanding community perceptions and impacts of green stormwater management interventions to prevent flooding in Chicago and understanding perceived value of urban green spaces to inform education and outreach for conservation programs.

Green spaces are crucial to mitigating the impacts of climate change, because they provide habitat for local flora and fauna and reduce surrounding temperatures for human and non-human residents in urban areas. Green spaces also provide a connection to nature that people need for good mental and physical health in a rapidly urbanizing world.

Aaron Feggestad, a restoration ecologist at the design and consulting firm, Stantec, has deep knowledge of how restoring natural areas mitigates the effects of change by creating a buffer for plant, wildlife, and human communities. Working from his base in Madison, Wisconsin, he uses his understanding of ecology and project management experience to restore the health of degraded ecosystems, making land hospitable to native flora and fauna and bringing beauty to communities. He sees projects through all phases from planning and design and on-the-ground implementation to natural resource assessments and monitoring. He works with clients to promote resiliency in natural systems and is currently managing several large restoration projects in the Great Lakes Region.

Moderator Ted Haffner, a Climate Fellow and Landscape Architect at Openlands, also approaches climate challenges from a land-based background. Prior to Openlands, Ted served as Senior Associate and Project Manager with Terry Guen Design Associates, a landscape architecture firm specializing in public and institutional landscape design. His deep technical knowledge and project leadership helps Openlands design spaces that are refuges for wildlife and people. When realizing urban green infrastructure projects, Ted takes existing community contexts into account and works innovatively to connect the natural world to the built. As climate change makes the future more uncertain, ecological restoration and landscape design are an increasingly important part of the solution in protecting the health of natural and human communities.

This year’s Smith Nature Symposium is virtual for the first time, which presents an exciting opportunity for Brushwood Center to reach as many people as possible with these timely discussions. Ticket prices are “give what you can” with a free option available for students and those who are unable to donate. The series began on August 13th and culminates in the Smith Nature Symposium Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 9th, with honorees Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern and Masters of Ceremonies Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra.

To learn more about the series visit www.smithnaturesymposium.org.

Artist and Biochemist Explored the Beauty of Water and Danger of Pollutants at Brushwood Center’s Smith Nature Symposium

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods welcomed two global advocates for the oceans, artist Arica Hilton and biochemist Dr. Janet Angel Welch, to the 37th Annual Smith Nature Symposium.

The panel, part of a seven-part live-streamed series exploring current environmental issues, was moderated by Gail Sturm (Chair of Brushwood Center’s Board of Directors) and dove into threats facing the world’s oceans and water sources. This program also featured a special musical performance, “Reflections on Earth – Oceans,” created by Sibylle Szaggars Redford, The Way of the Rain Artistic Director, with music by Tim Janis, and spoken word by Robert Redford.

From ubiquitous plastic pollution to devastating oil spills, Hilton and Dr. Welch told their underwater stories, shared thoughts on the current state of aquatic environments, and illuminated solutions to today’s marine challenges. Though these advocates took very different approaches to preserving the world of water, they share the same ambition for restoring it and work to inspire people to be better stewards of this precious resource.

“If we can inform and educate people, and convince them to modify their harmful behaviors, that would be a great step toward protecting the co-inhabitants of our earth,” said Hilton.

Hilton, a Mediterranean-born artist, uses fine art to capture the beauty and vulnerability of the watery world. She feels moving people to the plight of the oceans is something art is uniquely equipped to do.  Some of her most touching pieces are works from I Flow Like Water, a series of paintings incorporating recycled plastics. She was invited to participate in a scientific expedition with Ocean Geographic Magazine to Raja Ampat, an Indonesian archipelago and part of the Coral Triangle. This hot-spot for biodiversity is endangered by illegal fishing, climate change, and most visibly – plastic pollution.

Upon her return, she created a series of multi-media paintings incorporating microplastics – small fragments of plastic that float in the ocean, leach toxins, are eaten by marine life, and ultimately, end up in our bodies when we consume marine food. These works of art are whimsical and calming, with fairy-tale colors revealing a sunrise, waterfall, or drops of rain rippling a pool of water. Upon closer examination, the shimmering layers embedded in the paintings turn out to be thousands of pieces of plastic, some, recycled, and some of which were pulled directly from Raja Ampat’s waters. Hilton’s works are a reminder that even the waters of paradise cannot escape the effects of human carelessness and they will continue to be degraded unless we take action.

Dr. Janet Angel Welch has responded to marine degradation with a scientific approach: EcoBioClean®, her revolutionary green technology that rapidly removes oil contaminants from the environment. She was inspired to develop EcoBioClean® after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest oil spill in the history of marine oil drilling operations, which emptied four million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

“As I considered what happened to the ocean following the Deepwater spill, I thought, ‘why not remove toxins from the ocean the way microorganisms and enzymes break down substances in nature?’” explained Welch.

EcoBioClean® works by breaking down crude oil into tiny particles in seconds, which allows indigenous microbes to more easily biodegrade them. It is safe for use on water, land, vegetation, and around wildlife. EcoBioClean® was nominated for the prestigious 2017 United States Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge award and was approved by the EPA in 2019. It is now listed on the National Contingency Plan as an effective and safe method to remediate crude oil spills if a disaster should occur in USA navigable waters. Additionally, EcoBioClean® was one of just three US Companies chosen from around the globe to present to the United Nations Environmental Program alongside dozens of internationally known chemists and Nobel Prize Laureates. Dr. Welch was also the only US company executive and inventor invited to represent the US at a similar conference in Vienna, Austria, and her company was the only bioremediation company chosen to participate in the Canadian Government’s new Environmental Lakes Area freshwater research project.

“Hilton and Welch are global leaders for their work in preserving the marine world and inspiring others to take responsibility for its care. We were honored to welcome these two advocates at the Smith Nature Symposium and appreciated the opportunity to learn how we can better steward precious aquatic ecosystems,” said Gail Sturm, Chair of the Board of Brushwood Center.

This year’s Smith Nature Symposium is virtual for the first time, which presents an exciting opportunity for Brushwood Center to reach as many people as possible with these timely discussions. Ticket prices are “give what you can” with a free option available for students and those who are unable to donate. The series began on August 13th and culminates in the Smith Nature Symposium Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 9th, with honorees Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern and Masters of Ceremonies Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra.

All funds raised from the Symposium directly support Thrive Together, Brushwood Center’s COVID-19 crisis response for a more just and sustainable future. All presentations are available in English and Spanish.

To learn more about the series, visit www.smithnaturesymposium.org.

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods Opened Smith Nature Symposium with Our Future Speaks, Featuring Local Young Leaders

Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods welcomed youth of the distinguished nature and community-based program, Cool Learning Experience (CLE), for the opening of this year’s Smith Nature Symposium.

Brushwood Center believes it was important to start the Symposium, a seven-part live-streamed series exploring current environmental issues, with these voices of the future. CLE (partner of Brushwood Center) is based in Waukegan, IL and nurtures children’s well-being through innovative learning programs that foster healthy relationships between families, the community, and the natural world. These talented nature buddies collaborated both virtually and live to create structural art and spoken word that reflected their life experiences. Their collective presentation, titled Black, Brown, and Green, explored their visions and actions for a more just and sustainable future.

“CLE was honored to be the first to bring youth voices to a Smith Nature Symposium. Their thoughtful art and powerful poetry spoke to the realities of our changing world. We know those who joined us were inspired by their bravery, creativity, joy, and resilience!” shared CLE Executive Director Barbara “Coyote” Waller.

For over a decade, CLE has helped students grow a love of the outdoors through eco-excursions to local treasures like Lake Michigan. While CLE youth typically create work connected to outdoor experiences and environmental stewardship, these expressions spoke to the challenges of connecting to themselves, one another, and the natural word amidst a landscape marked by the COVID-19 pandemic. The innovative instructional strategies of their coaches, Jackie “Frog” Lopez, Angye “Bumble Bee” Zamudio, and Deeksha “Flourite” Pagar were on full display as the youth showed how they brought the “Outdoors, Indoors.” The students also revealed their secrets to building community, celebrating nature, and inspiring well-being through a digital platform. For this special event, the 6th through 9th grade students joined forces to bring Smith Nature Symposium attendees a peek into their inquisitive minds and a deeper understanding of how CLE serves families, educates children, and cares for the world around us.

The 6th and 7th grade Planet Protectors earned their moniker from their serious study of environmental, food, and social justice issues that cross national and international borders. This summer’s deep dive into the life cycle of plastics empowered students to be vocal environmental stewards at home and in their community. Although digital, students connected to nature through experiments with local water sources, independent time outdoors, and growing plants. Their online blog was a safe space to exchange ideas, share feelings, and give tips on everything from recipes for food scraps to how to reduce landfill waste. When not posting on their blog, these budding activists were learning healthy ways to communicate across cultures about the tough topics in today’s headlines.

CLE’s eldest group, the Future Champions, was made up of 8th and 9th graders poised to make their mark on the world. Like their namesake says, these nature buddies engaged in forward-thinking activities related to future career choices. Along with designing their own websites, they led an ongoing oral history project, Talking the Wauk, that centers on the Waukegan lakefront and its surrounding community. Through interviews and research, these students amplified a diverse cadre of voices that re-imagined their city and their place within it. The Future Champions truly became ambassadors for nature and are ready to continue their journeys exploring the world and diverse career pathways with confidence, creativity, and critical thinking. 

“Brushwood Center was proud to partner with these future leaders and share their visions. We know that CLE’s work is life-changing and inspires the next generation of environmental stewards,” said Catherine Game, Executive Director of Brushwood Center.

CLE has been positively impacting lives since 2008 when two First Baptist pastors hosted the first CLE summer learning program to link children and their families to nature with the belief that what one cares about, one cares for through actions and words.  Brushwood could not have seen a more fitting group to commence the Smith Nature Symposium, which was created to celebrate nature, the arts, and individuals who have connected their communities to the environment and deepened understanding of the natural world. 

This year’s Smith Nature Symposium is virtual for the first time, which presents an exciting opportunity for Brushwood Center to reach as many people as possible with these timely discussions. Ticket prices are “give what you can” with a free option available for students and those who are unable to donate. The series began on August 13th and culminates in the Smith Nature Symposium Awards Ceremony on Friday, October 9th, with honorees Bill McKibben and Sue Halpern and Masters of Ceremonies Bill Kurtis and Donna La Pietra.

All funds raised from the Symposium directly support Thrive Together, Brushwood Center’s COVID-19 crisis response for a more just and sustainable future. All presentations are available in English and Spanish.

To learn more about the series visit www.smithnaturesymposium.org.

WHAT TO READ by Marion Cartwright

As we are about to launch our 2012 programming wrapped around the theme Lessons from the Prairie, we’ve decided to offer a new aspect to our blog.  Several times a year, we will invite individuals from the conservation community to share their list of recommended reads with our readers.  Here read about the books that have influenced our good friend Marion Cartwright.  With vast experience in organic gardening, ecological restoration and environmental education, we are so pleased to share Marion’s list of must-read books.  Enjoy!

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The Garden at Elawa Farm in Lake Forest, a recent project of Marion Cartwright’s.

The current 5-year Farm Bill is set to expire this September 30 and the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are working on recommendations.  Now is the time to write your members of Congress.  What do you want to tell them? What will you recommend be kept, dropped, changed in this next farm bill?  How much can any of us be expected to know about how our food is raised, transported, processed, made safe for consumption?  How much say do we have about soil and water health in our country? What is a healthy American diet anyway, given the way recommendations keep changing over the years?  How many U.S. citizens don’t have access to the healthy foods?  How are other countries dealing with agricultural policy and practices?  Big picture questions.

Then there are the personal, in my backyard questions.  If you want to grow more of your own food and flowers following organic practices, how do you go about that, in the place you live?  What if you want to raise chickens for eggs or goats for milk and cheese?  What if you want to take out the Scotch pines and Norway maples and plant native trees?  Do you know what pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers your neighbors and local government agencies are using? Is your soil and water healthy?

These questions have been front and center for me both personally and professionally for 35 years.  I have read a lot, attended lectures and conferences and town meetings, started gardens at schools, grown gardens for my own family, and created 1-2 acre organic market gardens in more than one place.  I have also spent over 10 years working to restore degraded native woodlands, prairies and wetlands and delivering environmental education focused on keeping native ecosystems healthy.  The need to read has been intense.   Here are a few of my go-to sources, the ones that provided either inspiration or factual information to guide me.

Older, but also wise, and still relevant and inspirational today:

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold, Ballantine Books, 1966

If you haven’t read it yet, it’s time.  If you have, this in one book to read again (and again) ‘nough said.

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The Albrecht Papers: Soil Fertility and Animal Health, by William Albrecht, Acres, 1975.  A soil consultant recently summarized the life and career of soil scientist Albrecht by saying, “Everything this man ever wrote is 100% correct.”   The health of plants and animals on a farm (and ultimately human health) are dependent upon the soil health.  We hope to breed plants to tolerate diseases, but if plant nutrition is deficient that will remain a vain hope.  Why didn’t more farmers and university professors and U.S.D.A. and extension service staff study read this book?

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Forest Farming: Towards a Solution to Problems of World Hunger and Conservation, by J.Sholto Douglas & Robert A de J. Hart, with  a foreword by E.F. Schumacher, Rodale Press, 1978. Agriculture in mountainous, rocky or dry regions is a disaster and is happening more and more with the pressure of overpopulation, but trees are salvation, providing food, clothing, fuel, shelter, soil retention, water cycle balancing. This book will lead you to read more about Permaculture.

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The Unsettling of America, by Wendell Berry, Sierra Club Books, 1996. Wendell Berry is an articulate and knowledgeable advocate for family farms, local economy, the value of human work, and the cultural and spiritual life of farming.   A distillation of years of Berry’s thought can be found (on-line) in his April 2012 address for the National Endowment for the Humanities.  He was selected this year to give the annual Jefferson lecture, the most prestigious honor the national government bestows on academics.

More recent:

Reclaiming The Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, by Brian Donahue, Yale University Press, 2001.   Helpful example about how a community can organize and support a local farm (with animals) for the local community and also harvest a local woodland for syrup and wood for the community. Still going strong today in Weston, MA.

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How To Grow More Vegetables (and fruits nuts, berries, grains and other crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land than You Can Imagine, by John Jeavons, Ten Speed Press,  1974 first edition, 2006 7th edition.  A primer for the backyard gardener with limited space.  Though I don’t find the need to double dig my beds as frequently as Jeavons, there is a lot of helpful information to help you with a garden plan and an extensive bibliography and supply catalogue list.   Jeavons is all about soil sustainability and encourages gardeners to grow their own compost crops rather than bring compost in from the outside (robbing Peter to pay Paul as he sees it).

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The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Movements, by Sandor Ellix Katz, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2006.  Chock full of facts and figures on where modern industrial agriculture and the food industry have gone awry and ideas for positive change, both at the policy level and in our own homes. Each chapter includes a list of Action and Information Resources.  For people interested in taking more direct responsibility for their own health and nutrition, this book goes into detail about how to grow it, forage for it, ferment it or cook it yourself and it gives lots of examples of how food was grown and prepared “traditionally” for years.

And even if most of you have already heard about these or read them, my personal list just wouldn’t be complete without them:

In Defense of Food (2008) and The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), by Michael Pollan, Penquin Press.

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is Pollan’s simple, clear message in the former.  It’s all here: how we produce and market food and learning how to eat healthily again.

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The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Pollan provides an inside look at industrial farming and organic, sustainable farming practices.  You will also go on foraging and hunting trips with Pollan.

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Consulting the Genius of the Place: An Ecological Approach to a New Agriculture by Wes Jackson, Counterpoint, 2010. Agriculture has gone through an Age of Monoculture.  And it is not sustainable.  If we hope to continue providing food in perpetuity, we must transition to the Age of Perennials. Jackson has been doing research since 1976 at his Land Institute in Kansas to help us make this transition.  The new farm bill needs to support this research and effort.    Write your government representatives and senators.  Come to the Smith Nature Symposium at Ryerson Woods on May 19th to learn more from Wes Jackson himself, the keynote speaker!

Marion Cartwright is a long-time member of Friends of Ryerson Woods and previously a member of the Board of Directors. Thank you, Marion!