By Lisa Biehle Files
In mid-November, Mindy Agnew took on the role as Oak Park’s new sustainability coordinator, stepping into a post that had been vacant for more than three and a half years.
Mindy’s sustainability pedigree is already well established in Oak Park. She was a member of the team that guided District 97 to incorporate zero waste programs in the schools, beginning in 2008. Since that time, composting, recycling, and zero waste lunches have become commonplace throughout the Oak Park educational system.
She recalls: “It involved the green committees and the PTOs and the school administration, the principals. We are blessed with local community support on zero waste schools from Seven Generations Ahead. That’s why I like to say there are a lot of ‘Mindies’ running around Oak Park! It’s not just me doing this kind of work.”
A Deeper Motivation The event that kicked off Mindy’s focus on waste reduction was an incident when her eldest daughter (now a freshman at OPRF) started elementary school. Mindy volunteered in the school lunch room.
“I observed the volume of waste, and it really hit me hard. It brought me back to my youth,” she explains. “My father’s side of the family owned a small, family farm in Wisconsin. When you operate a small farm like that, you automatically live a sustainable life. We didn’t have weekly trash pickups. We wasted very little and were pretty resourceful with the few resources we had outside of ourselves and our community. Volunteering at my daughter’s school really tapped into those memories and gave me a deeper motivation to make a change.”
Her timing could not have been better because local Parent Teacher Organizations had just created green committees. That’s when Mindy jumped in with both feet, helping to apply for funding for the zero waste schools initiative.
Working closely with Karen Rozmus, Oak Park’s recently retired Environmental Services Manager, Mindy helped to launch the Oak Park CompostAble program. Single family homes and up to five-flat households can pay a monthly fee for weekly collection of organics in the summer and bi-weekly collection in the winter. For more information, go here.
Mindy has been under contract with the village to coordinate Green Block Parties beginning in 2014. Green Block Parties expanded in 2017 to encourage neighbors to learn about monarch butterflies, organic lawn care, edible gardens, and tree walks in addition to composting, recycling, and zero waste. This can all be done as part of any annual block party. Requests from residents for Green Block parties have quadrupled to almost 100 in the past year. For more information, go here.
Two Quotes to Live ByIn Mindy’s work and life, she tries to follow two powerful quotes:
“Going back to a simpler life based on living by sufficiency rather than excess is not a step backward.” By Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia)
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” By Mahatma Gandhi
Mindy’s goals in her new role are to “beef up” education (possibly using multimedia) to make sure the entire community knows what they can do in their daily lives to reduce consumption.
The zero waste concept has been embraced already by Downtown Oak Park, the Park District of Oak Park, with Sundays in the Park and the Frank Lloyd Wright Race, Oak Park Runners Club’s Good Life Race, Pilgrim Church’s annual Food Truck Rally, St. Giles’ annual block picnic and more.
Says Mindy, “It’s gratifying. When our Frank Lloyd Wright Race runners hit the finish line and they see all the volunteers recycling and composting, they make great comments like, ‘I’m so glad you’re doing this!’”
To make something like this happen, Mindy and others like her work hard behind the scenes with logistics, to make it all look easy. And generous volunteers wake up early to set up, be available to answer questions, and help.
As sustainability coordinator, Mindy will implement the single-use bag fee, oversee the community choice electricity aggregation program, pursue grant funding, and collaborate with a variety of community partners.
Regarding these directives, she says: “Our goal is to change behavior, to address the negative environmental impacts the billions of disposable bags have on our environment, and to reduce greenhouse gas through programs that help with energy efficiency, cost effective options for the advancement of renewable energy, and reduced energy consumption.
“For the shorter-term, my goals are aligned with coordinating implementation and maintenance of new and existing ordinances as originally recommended by our citizen volunteers on the Environment and Energy Commission.”
Mindy’s experience with community partners is already broad and wide, and one thing is certain: her heart is clearly in this work.