Chicago volunteers bring CCL values to life
By Justin Pelczarski
On March 13, 2019, the city of Chicago joined the list of 125 municipalities endorsing Carbon Fee and Dividend legislation. With a population of 2.7 million, this is the largest municipality in the U.S. to endorse this climate solution.
During this nearly three-year project, we put CCL’s values in action every step of the way. Here are a few stories that show how focus, personal power, optimism, and relationships helped us succeed.
The Chicago City Council is not your typical city council—with 50 aldermen, each representing one of 50 wards, it’s closer to the size of a typical state senate. Undaunted by the challenge ahead of them, volunteers methodically focused on what needed to be done: we prepared materials to share with aldermen, trained volunteers in lobbying, and started scheduling meetings.
Within the first year, Chicago CCL volunteers had held meetings with nearly half of the city council members. Over time we stepped up our organizational skills even more, going as far as creating a dedicated website about the resolution and writing code into a spreadsheet to automatically sort which volunteers live in each ward. Staying focused on the goal, and dedicated to the details along the way, was crucial.
In the spring of 2017 CCL volunteer Caitlin Arens, a manager of a cooking school, was a little nervous before her first meeting with her alderman, unsure of how it would go. She was glad an experienced volunteer would come with her. But once she sat across the table from her alderman and his chief of staff, everyone was quickly smiling and the conversation flowed easily. By the end of the meeting, the alderman had offered to sponsor the resolution.
When Caitlin left that meeting, her confidence and sense of accomplishment was visible. She went on to secure a second sponsor for the resolution the following year!
Although none of us had any previous experience working on a municipal resolution, Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) gave us all of the resources we needed. Volunteers Emily Church and John Orellana had never written a resolution before, but with the assistance of CCL’s National Resolutions Project Coordinator Sandy Simon, they were successful.
Most of the more than 100 volunteers working on this project had never even called their elected officials before, let alone held lobbying meetings with them. But this project gave all the volunteers, like Caitlin, the opportunity to expand their comfort zones and discover their own power.
The early months of the project saw fast progress. In November 2017, our resolution was introduced in City Council with 15 sponsors. New CCL volunteers Rebecca Ratliff and Shan Agarwal attended their first CCL meetings around that November. Expectations were high, and volunteers even held a practice press conference, expecting the resolution to be ushered through an environmental committee meeting and officially adopted within a month.
It was pretty easy to be optimistic when things were going well and felt like they were moving quickly. But month after month passed, and the resolution wasn’t included on the committee’s agenda. Throughout 2018, volunteers recalibrated plans often, lobbying committee members to add the resolution to the agenda. That year really tested our optimism, but as CCL’s values state, “We believe that people are good, and that democracy works. This is a process.” We kept at it.
As 2018 came to a close, the window of opportunity narrowed. Elections were approaching, and the legislative session would end soon. If the resolution didn’t pass by April 2019, it would expire without a vote.
Over the year since Rebecca and Shan joined CCL, they participated in everything from grassroots outreach to the June National Conference, and had both stepped up as co-leaders of the Chicago Northside chapter. With only two months left until the resolution would expire, Rebecca and Shan organized a city-wide conference call on how to pass the resolution, still believing it was possible.
Young people also lent their passion and optimism to the effort. Tabling at a farmers’ market, CCL volunteers met an ambitious group of high school students passionate about climate change. Soon after signing up for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, the students aimed high, securing a neighborhood council endorsement, appearing in a local newspaper article, and successfully lobbying the chairman of the Health and Environmental Protection Committee to add our resolution to the committee agenda.
The students were invited to testify at the Environmental Committee hearing, with high school sophomore Isabel Abarca saying: “A national carbon fee and dividend policy would not only help the city transition to a safer and less polluted environment, but it also helps the economy. Consumers who use less will benefit greatly through dividend.”
Relationships drove this process start to finish. Back in 2016, the two volunteers who wrote the resolution relied on their friends to hold many of the first meetings with aldermen. Volunteer Greta Kimbrell built such a positive relationship with her alderman that she not only became a sponsor but also made an unprompted public statement of support.
During the final week before the vote, we relied on each other more than ever. Despite being on vacation in India, Shan Agarwal was able to work overnight to update our media contact list and persuade a friend to reach out to an important alderman. Although Chicago Northside chapter co-leader Amelia Estrich was on a cross-country train, she still fielded calls at all hours and wrote our press release.
One looming uncertainty was how the resolution would fare in the Environmental Committee vote without the support of a certain pivotal alderman, whose approval we were told was necessary. Former chapter leader Karen Fort knew a longtime friend of this alderman, so she reached out. At 10 p.m. on the night before the committee vote, we found out that her efforts had been successful; this alderman would not only publicly support our resolution, but would also attend the committee hearing and sign on as a sponsor.
The resolution was approved by the Environmental Committee on March 11, 2019, and the full City Council voted unanimously to adopt it two days later.
Leaving City Hall that day, I felt grateful to have worked alongside so many volunteers who stayed focused and optimistic, dug deep to find our personal power, and leaned heavily on our relationships. But mostly, we just would not quit. Maybe “persistence” should be on our values list, too.
Justin Pelczarski is a physical therapist who is passionate about advocating for public health legislation. He helped found the Chicago Southside chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.