by Tom Frakes of the Iowa City Summer of Solutions.
As the summer draws to a close, it’s easy to feel nostalgic for those sultry mornings spent with local food producers, conservationists and community gardeners when the July sun shone through hazy skies. Even those long hours spent in the office are becoming a happy memory. Our participants in Iowa City Summer of Solutions have a lot of work to reflect on and be proud of, and we’re especially thankful for all the support that our partners and the Iowa City community at-large gave us. Part of our mission has been and will continue to be building a lasting relationship with this city and its residents, and everyone in our organization looks forward to carrying the torch into 2012 and beyond.
Iowa City was one of fifteen communities nationwide to host a Summer of Solutions program, with several more being added for the 2012 operating year. Our parent organization, Grand Aspirations, is actively fostering new programs in rural areas, college towns and major metropolitan communities across the country. While the focus of each program is local and dencentralized, the need for national cohesion and community sets the stage each year for the August Gathering in a Summer of Solutions host community. This year’s gathering was in Raleigh, North Carolina…a city who has earned international notoriety for its emphasis on green economics and green collar job growth in addition to its established scenes in academia, research and the arts. Our partners in Raleigh were phenomenal hosts and graciously introduced us to their community. Iowa City was able to send four team members to the week-long conference where all SoS programs could showcase their ongoing projects, share successful models and methods of community organizing, and contribute to Grand Aspirations’ national vision and strategy. This was a truly rewarding experience for our members who traveled to Raleigh, and will provide lots of innovation and resources for the Iowa City program.
Thanks to generous donations and fundraising opportunities from community partners such as the University of Iowa’s Office of Sustainability, the City of Iowa City Recycling Division, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Dairy Queen and Cold Stone Creamery…our team raised enough money to drive to North Carolina for the week to participate in this vital conference. We were also able to cut the drive in half with a one-night camping adventure in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This park is famous for its accessibility (trails aplenty and admission is free), its range of microclimates, and its biodiversity and endemic species. This was not only a great place to break up the seventeen hour drive, but also was the first chance any of the Iowa City delegation had to visit this park with its inspiring vistas and wildlife. We learned about the stress the park is facing from invasive species and acid rainfall despite its unspoiled appearance to the untrained eye. We also had several opportunities to learn about Appalachian history and the cultural heritage of the region. We walked the Appalachian Trail near Clingman’s Dome at 6,500 ft. above sea level and listened to native bluegrass music on the Blue Ridge Parkway on its way into Asheville. Even before reaching the conference, the August Gathering had given us opportunities of a lifetime.
After descending from the Smokies and crossing the park and plantation landscapes of the Piedmont, we arrived in Raleigh in high spirits. Immediately we got to work meeting colleagues, setting norms and goals and settling in for a week of focused workshops. Almost fifty participants from across the United States joined together at the Umstead Park United Church of Christ, who donated its fantastic and LEED-gold space to Grand Aspirations for this year’s gathering. Within hours we had set the tone for the week, met dozens of visionary peers ranging in age from 15 to 31 and in backgrounds from Oakland and Detroit to Arkansas and West Virginia. If ever there were proof that youth leadership and the sustainability movement are alive and well, this was it.
The week progressed and so did our conversations and our work, despite the levity added by earthquakes and hurricanes in the region. We awoke at dawn on Thursday to strange pressures and skies, as the atmosphere was palpably charged from the impending hurricane. The woods were very still and quiet that morning in anticipation of the storm. Despite these events, the whole group enjoyed visiting parks and coffeeshops in downtown Raleigh, held a beautiful fundraising event at the Mahler Fine Art Gallery within sight of the capitol building, cooked delicious food for each other at mealtimes and spent eight or even nine hours each day hard at work in sessions, workshops, breakouts and program spotlights. We also participated in a talent show and, when time permitted, spent evenings relaxing and building relationships with our colleagues. Overall, the 2011 August Gathering was a tremendous success despite natural disasters, travel logistics and a pervasive lack of sleep.
We left the Carolinas on Friday evening with the outer bands of the hurricane moving inland and gusty winds picking up from off the Atlantic. Irene was visible in our rear-view mirrors all the way across the Blue Ridge and the Alleghenies where she rained on our rental car with gusto. It wasn’t until we reached the coal fields of West Virginia that the skies cleared and temperatures dropped. Before we knew it, we were crossing the vast landscapes of Indiana and Illinois. The sun rose crisp and bright on the banks of the Wabash and by 9am we were home, alive and well, simultaneously stimulated and exhausted.
We here in Iowa City believe that each SoS program and Grand Aspirations as a whole will benefit from the work accomplished and relationships forged in Raleigh. Motivation is running high; maintaining it will be paramount to our success as obligations to work and school are established this fall. There will be challenges, but with the vision and support networks established in North Carolina, Iowa City SoS is eager to face them. We want to reiterate our heartfelt thanks to our partners in Iowa City, in Raleigh, in the Twin Cities and across this great country in setting the stage for an incredible and proactive 2012. Check our website,Twitter and Facebook pages often for volunteer opportunities and upcoming events. Good luck to all our peers and supporters this fall, and thanks again to Iowa City for being a great community to work with!