During rehearsals, Associate Artistic Director and Chimerica director Nick Bowling (NB) caught up with British playwright Lucy Kirkwood (LK) to ask about the inspirations for the play, America’s blind spots, and the meaning of Tank Man.
(NB) What was the impetus to write a play about “Tank Man”?
(LK) I have always been fascinated by the photograph—the mystery of it, I suppose. The fact that we cannot see the man’s face, that he seems to have acted spontaneously, the David and Goliath structure of the image.
When I left university and got the original commission in 2006, I started to understand the ways in which the West and China had become economically bound, despite maintaining vast cultural differences, and found this fascinating. I also became aware of the depths of my own ignorance about China, so tracing the lines between that photograph and the present became a compelling game for me.
Also, I am deeply interested in protest and protest movements, and feel the power of these have been eroded in the West, and the Tank Man photo shows a remarkable act of protest.
Finally, I think national borders are increasingly useless tools with which to think about ourselves in the world. I am more interested in the international, and Tank Man was a way into global questions.
(NB) What were the most surprising things you learned about him, or about the 1989 protests?
(LK) Going right back to the beginning of my research when I knew very little about Tiananmen, the sheer number of protesters was a great surprise, as well as the fact that they weren’t just students, but people from every walk of life.
On a more trivial note, I also discovered that all of the artwork for Disney’s The Little Mermaid was being stored at a warehouse a couple of blocks from Tiananmen Square during the protest—this tickled me, as Disney is such an archetypal American company.
(NB) Your play is an examination of the U.S. and China—our differences and similarities told from the perspective of someone who is a citizen of neither. How important is that outside perspective? Did you have to do as much research on what it means to be American as you did with the Chinese?
(LK) This is a great question. Not as much, but certainly a considerable amount! And I am still discovering linguistic errors long after the play closed in the West End of London. However, in the UK we have absorbed so much American culture as our own that the gulf is far smaller. The brilliant thing about the internet now means I can find out with great specificity where someone of Joe’s class and income might live in New York—is it Brooklyn or Queens or could he just about afford Manhattan? If so which bit? And so on.
The outside perspective is very important to me, I would hate to pretend otherwise. This is an alien’s view of both China and America.
(NB) There is a single female British character in the play. Is she maybe there to represent you?
(LK) For me the importance of Tess is that she comes, like me, from a country on whose empire the sun has long since set, and she is standing pretty impotently on the sidelines, watching two countries battle for power in the way the U.S. and England battled during the War of Independence. I hope her presence brings the smell of that history, the epic timescale over which global power shifts.
The play is to some extent about the superpower of the 20th century looking at the potential superpower of the 21st century, and the fear and sense of insecurity that brings. Tess represents the superpower of the 19th century!
As a feminist writer it was strange to find myself writing such a superficially macho play, so I suppose Tess represents my desire to puncture those paradigms too, to break them down and lay them bare, see what their bones really look like. In retrospect, I feel like I am too easy on her as a character. Although she is clear-eyed and compassionate, in lots of ways I think she is also the banal face of evil! So not a representation of me, I hope.
(NB) You reference Susan Sontag’s book On Photography in your introduction. What ideas in her book influenced you?
(LK) Her thinking on how the proliferation of images we have experienced since the democratization of photography is very apparent in the play—the suggestion that this creates in us a pathological voyeurism. Her argument that photography and political engagement are at odds with one another: If you record, you cannot intervene; if you intervene, you cannot record. This underpins Joe’s entire character. That is the fire raging in his head, the disconnection between the way he sees himself, and his growing awareness that this might be empty posturing.
(NB) The word “Chimerica” is an economics term. Why did you choose it as a title?
(LK) The word was coined by Niall Ferguson and is in many ways a terrible title for a play, but it stuck and expressed most clearly for me the concept of the interdependency of China and the West. There is obviously also the echo of the word “chimera;” you don’t need me to explain why that felt appropriate.
(NB) Louisa Lim wrote a great book that you recommended to us called The People’s Republic of Amnesia, in which she suggests the Chinese are suffering from a sort of amnesia regarding Tiananmen. Do you agree?
(LK) It is difficult for me to say definitively as an outsider, but of course the play ventures that this is the case. Lim’s book certainly makes the case very strongly. For example, she details the flag-raising ceremony that now takes place daily in Tiananmen Square. It looks like an ancient tradition but was in fact invented in 1990, one year after the massacre. To me that is a classic piece of Don Draper—if you don’t like what people are saying about you, change the conversation—and distills something many people have observed about the way the fall-out of Tiananmen was channelled into a new, vehement nationalism.
(NB) Many Chinese Americans we interviewed have felt that Americans make too big a deal of Tiananmen and Tank Man. They don’t necessarily see him as the hero we do. What are your thoughts about that?
(LK) Part of the gesture behind the play is to agree with them on the Tank Man certainly—to reject the figurehead/hero model of history. To me the Tank Man is a fantastic image, but just as important are the vast numbers of people—nameless, legion—who sat in that square for months before the crackdown. The play’s ending is an attempt to break down the heroism of that image. The nobility of that man lies more in the protest he has made over months, not the photogenic gesture he makes in minutes. I find it troubling how much history loves personalities.
I am too much of an optimist to agree with them on Tiananmen itself, I’m afraid. An act of peaceful protest of that magnitude is an extraordinary thing, whatever country it takes place in. And for a government to turn violently on its people is a horror that should not be forgotten.
The nobility of that man lies more in the protest he has made over months, not the photogenic gesture he makes in minutes.
(NB) Do you think that Americans suffer from a similar unconsciousness regarding our country’s darkest moments?
(LK) I think that all ascendant countries suffer from this! England, for example, has an absolutely appalling relationship with its own colonial past and the consequences and responsibilities of this. We created a global inequality of wealth and are now baffled by the refugees flooding to our door. And protest has certainly been met with state violence both in the UK and the U.S.—the suffragettes, Kent State, to name but two.
Those of us in the arts can pat ourselves on the backs that movies are now being made about slavery, but the idea that those dark moments have been put to bed is laughable when you look at how many Black Americans are being shot on the streets by the state. But as I say, the judgements I make about America I would apply to the UK too, absolutely.
(NB) When you wrote this play it was very much in the present (2012), but now that feels strangely historical. What particularly has changed regarding the U.S. and China since you wrote the play? Do you ever wish you could update this or other plays?
(LK) This is a beautifully timed question as I have just, in the last two hours, decided to update the time frame to 2016 for the TV adaptation of Chimerica that I am currently writing. Trump has proved impossible to resist. His mania around China exceeds Romney’s, and he is being held up in China as an example of why democracy doesn’t work as a system! I think they have a point …
This is the only play I have written that has had such a forensically worked out timeline, so it is the only one I have a craving to rewrite in this way. The very first drafts were set over the 2008 election, by the way. That date also came to feel, as you say, strangely historical.
(NB) The original London production was an incredible success, winning the Olivier and garnering rave reviews. How has that changed your life?
(LK) The entire process of making the play changed my life in some wonderful ways, such as getting the chance to work with Lyndsey Turner, a director I had admired for many years. The process of writing also made me think in very different ways about how narrative works in the theatre. Finally, we changed more than I have ever changed before during the preview period. This was difficult and only possible because of a really heroic cast, but has encouraged me to do that more in the future.
(NB) What are your next projects?
(LK) I’m redrafting a play for the National Theatre that goes into rehearsal in November, and also writing two screenplays and the Chimerica adaptation for TV.
After 77 performances, Dominique Morisseau’s hit play Sunset Baby is closing this Sunday, April 10. We’ve had an incredible run of audiences who have been able to experience this volcanic production, and we’ve been particularly proud to welcome more than 500 high school students from Chicago Public Schools to the production through TimeLine’s Living History Education Program, now in its ninth year.
During Living History residencies, TimeLine teaching artists and classroom teachers collaborate on lesson plans that illuminate the themes of the play and their connection to each classroom curriculum. Students work on several scenes from a TimeLine production and are visited by the production’s actors and dramaturg. Then, they attend a student matinee of the play that includes a post-show discussion with the cast.
It has been a truly exhilarating experience to be present when these classes from throughout Chicago experience Sunset Baby. The deafening response to performances, from gasps to tears to thunderous applause at curtain calls, has been as exciting for those of us working backstage as to those who are working on it.
We asked a few of our Living History students to write about their experiences with the play and TimeLine’s Living History program. Excerpts from their responses, provided by Living History Program Assistant Ali Delianides, are reprinted below.
GET THE “SUNSET BABY” PLAYLIST! Living History classes put together a playlist inspired by their work on “Sunset Baby”, which is available through Spotify here.
Melissa says: “Over the course of the past week I have learned valuable skills from working directly with actors from the Chicago TimeLine Theatre. It gave me an opportunity to pour all of my emotions into acting and look at it in a different light. To be honest I never thought that I would have found in interest in acting because I doubted myself and my capabilities. I can portray my voice towards a broad audience, I can show my attitude through my facial expressions and body language, I can also adapt to different characters which came in handy when playing the role of Damon. …
“The moment that Nina finally makes the decision to speak with her father face to face was my favorite part of the play. I was surprised in how the chain of events played out because I expected Kenyatta to be the one to get violent, not Nina. I assumed that the reason she placed a gun behind her back was for her own protection, not to turn against her father and rob him. This moved me because after Nina robbed her father she broke down and cried. Throughout the whole play she portrays herself to be a woman with no emotion due to the lack of love from her parents as she grew up, emotionally attached to her mother, and mentally imprisoned.”
Daniel says: “Overall I enjoyed the play. I thought that all three actors were amazing and gave wonderful performances. I felt that the story was solid and felt very believable. I can imagine people like this in real life. It has great themes like abandonment and trust. There are a few things that bothered me about the play. At times it felt a bit boring because it had one setting which was Nina’s apartment. Other than that it was still an enjoyable play.”
Kiara says: “My experiences with the artists in our class was moving, motivating, and challenging. I was going through something before class started, it let me get that emotion out through the little bit of acting that we did. [The teaching artists’] energy and intensity they had with us working with our scripts just sculpted our minds to get a feel of how the play actually was, so when I seen the play, the same intensity and energy I felt from the actors, was the same energy I felt from myself and my group. …
“Although I was very nervous in front of the actors, and the way we acted the first time differed from the second time, it made me think a lot about what I want to do in the future. So I’m very thankful for this experience along with the artists and the actors because not every school or classroom gets things like this.”
For more information about TimeLine’s Living History Education Program, please visit our website.
Back during rehearsals for Sunset Baby, Artistic Director PJ Powers (PJP) talked with playwright Dominique Morisseau (DM) about the inspiration of history, using her voice as an artist, plans for her Detroit Cycle, and more.
(PJP) One of the many reasons TimeLine has been so drawn to your writing is because your plays explore history in such provocative and personal ways. What draws you toward historical stories and issues?
The past is everything about what the future can become.
(DM) I like to understand things that come before me that have a strong impact on my life and upbringing. I like knowing untold histories, things that are a part of my fabric and the fabric of my community, that inform our social structure. My character Damon says “the past is bullshit, only thing that matters is the present.” While I find that a valid point from his point of view, that’s almost the antithesis of what I truly believe. The past is everything about what the future can become. I want to bring it out and learn from it in the most interesting and human ways possible.
(PJP) What was your inspiration for Sunset Baby?
(DM) Several things that are listed in print in the opening of my published play. 1) A picture my father took of me as a baby sitting in the sunset (the picture described in the play is it). 2) Tupac Shakur. He is the child of revolutionaries and I always wanted to know how someone raised by such forward thinking people could be so brilliant and destructive at the same time. And 3) The various freedom fighters of the ‘60s and ‘70s and my curiosity of the things they lost to try to gain the world.
(PJP) Much of this play deals with the relationship between father and daughter—something that is surprisingly under-explored in comparison to the number of father/son plays or even mother/daughter plays. What led you to make this relationship so central to your play?
(DM) I have a very close and complex relationship with my father. I’m a daddy’s girl and a true reflection of my old man, for better or worse. I recognize the complexities and the love and fight that can exist between a father and a daughter. There is a likeness between the two that is not often acknowledged but I am living this likeness, so I am intrigued to explore it in my work.
(PJP) Among other things, Sunset Baby explores generational shifts in activism. And even since the play premiered in 2013, we’ve seen yet another wave of activism with the emergence of Black Lives Matter. I’m curious if you view the play any differently than before, in light of the ongoing shifts in activism?
(DM) I do. I realize that things continue forward and we keep repeating history until we settle the wounds. There is a strong connection that I’m only just discovering around the Black Liberation Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement. We are continuing to respond to police violence and disenfranchisement of Black and Brown people as is evidenced in Ferguson and Baltimore and New York and Chicago. I never wanted this play to be about current issues. I was hoping it could be an examination of the past. But the past is strangely becoming the present again. Repeating history until we settle the wounds ….
(PJP) I read an article in The New York Times about the ways that Black Lives Matter is impacting the upcoming election, and I was struck by a quote from Allen Kwabena Frimpong, an organizer with the New York chapter, who said: “There’s nothing wrong with being decentralized and dispersed. The problem is being disconnected. If we are going to build political power, we have to build connections.” It stuck out to me because your play, to me, beautifully examines the challenges of building (or repairing) connections. What’s your take on this quote?
(DM) I think it’s brilliant. I might counter that there is great issue with being decentralized and dispersed. That can be damaging to a movement and a people, but mostly because it allows us to become disconnected. So I think Allen is pretty great about highlighting that connection between generations, agendas, socioeconomic status, etc. Standing on our common ground is how we make effective and positive change happen collectively.
(PJP) I’ve read other interviews with you where you’ve eloquently discussed your role in a movement—as part of a revolution of African American playwrights who are helping to change the face (and topics) of the American theatre. Can you discuss what you think your voice is in this ongoing evolution?
The only way to remind us of our collective humanity is to keep pushing for more stories from the disenfranchised to have equal voice and support socially as those in positions of privilege.
(DM) Right now I’m just aware that my job is to speak the truth of my experience and my corner of the world. I can’t be afraid of that truth or mute it in any way, even as it becomes confronting for others or exposing of myself. The only way to remind us of our collective humanity is to keep pushing for more stories from the disenfranchised to have equal voice and support socially as those in positions of privilege. Balance of storytelling is all of our responsibility because we all ultimately benefit from it.
(PJP) Nina Simone’s life and music is clearly a source of inspiration in this play. What has her music and legacy meant to you?
(DM) As of late, in light of my recent outspokenness in my industry, Nina has become even more of an inspiration to me. She gives me power and liberation in her music and in her legacy of standing up to the world’s injustice and defining her art by her passion for justice. I also worry about things as I learned through her documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? that she was tortured by the ostracizing that happened to her as a result of her firm political beliefs. I recognize how much we can damage artists by leaving them on the front lines to take all of the critical bullets for us, and I try to move into a new model of social unity and healing for myself as an artist as a result of her example.
(PJP) Her music has always felt timeless, yet we seem to be in the midst of a particular resurgence of attention on her, with two new documentaries and a new tribute album in the last year. Why do you think the time is right for this renewed spotlight on her?
(DM) Because we are upon those times again, and I believe our generation is looking for its new Nina Simones.
(PJP) Three of your plays—Detroit ’67, Paradise Blue and Skeleton Crew—all deal with your hometown of Detroit, each in a different decade. As someone who grew up just outside the city and went to high school a few blocks from where you lived, I share your fascination and love for this town. What draws you to write about it, and can I hope that you’ll do for Detroit what August Wilson did for Pittsburgh by continuing to explore different eras through the lens of the city’s social and political issues?
(DM) Absolutely. In fact, what August did for Pittsburgh and what Pearl Cleage did for black women in her work is what greatly inspires me in my Detroit cycle. It’s what I know and for me it is about humanizing a people that have been dehumanized in our media and social narrative.
(PJP) You’re also an actress. How does that work inform and infuse your playwriting, and vice versa?
(DM) I tend to write characters that I think I’d want to play. Not that I ever really have a desire to play them myself, but I think about what the characters want and what motivates their actions because I know that is what drives a play for an actor. And ultimately, character relationships and desires drive the story-building for a playwright.
(PJP) I know that you recently got your first taste of writing for television. Can you discuss what you were working on and how your experience was in that different world?
(DM) I served as Story Editor for Season 6 of Showtime’s hit show, Shameless. It was a fascinating experience for me because I could rely on some of my playwriting sensibilities with dialogue and intention and stakes, but I had to learn a more concise and focused active language, and also how to keep scenes more physically active. I often forgot that we’re not just on a stage that is static. That the camera will be following these characters wherever I place them. It’s a completely different world and the collaborative writing makes it a huge switch from the singular act of writing a play.
(PJP) With so many different opportunities, either acting, or writing for theatre or TV, how do you decide what projects to pursue?
When I know I can bring value, dignity, integrity, honor, passion, fight, and humor to a story because I understand its world or its people, I am usually all in.
(DM) I typically pursue what moves or stirs my soul. Not always, but mostly. I have to find my way into a show or a story. If I can’t find my way in, if some part of it doesn’t connect with my passion or curiosity, or if I simply don’t connect to the vision or am not moved by the subject, I can’t participate in it. And it isn’t that I think it is less valuable, I just don’t imagine bringing any additional value to it myself. When I know I can bring value, dignity, integrity, honor, passion, fight, and humor to a story because I understand its world or its people, I am usually all in.
Today is a very big day for TimeLine Theatre Company.
Today it was announced that TimeLine has been awarded the prestigious MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. The foundation does not seek or accept nominations for this award, which “recognizes exceptional nonprofit organizations that have demonstrated creativity and impact, and invests in their long-term sustainability with sizable one-time grants.”
The MacArthur Foundation is an extraordinary organization. Many of us recognize it because of the incredibly distinguished individuals named to the MacArthur Fellows Program, often referred to as the “Genius Grants.” That’s impressive enough! But the foundation does so much more. It funds programs all over the world, yet continues to include providing general operating support to Chicago arts organizations among its many giving priorities.
TimeLine has been fortunate enough to receive operating funds from the MacArthur Foundation for many years—first via the MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation and currently through the MacArthur Fund for Arts and Culture at Prince.
Now TimeLine is honored to be one of 14 arts organizations in Chicago receiving the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
The MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions recognizes exceptional nonprofit organizations that have demonstrated creativity and impact, and invests in their long-term sustainability with sizable one-time grants.
I am grateful for the MacArthur Foundation’s commitment to the organizations they support, in ways that go beyond annual operating funds. This award is a representation of that commitment. It provides a one-time infusion of capital to reinforce an organization’s operating and programmatic foundation. And it requires that recipients use a substantial portion of the cash prize for a singular purpose that strengthens the organization over time. It is not for general operating support.
Here’s our plan for the $625,000 that accompanies this award:
- 85% of the money is to be placed in a restricted, Board of Directors-managed reserved fund, created to provide greater financial stability and to support strategic goals. Management will work with the Executive and Finance committees of the Board to determine appropriate uses. And any money spent out of the fund must have a plan for timely repayment.
- The remaining 15% will be spent in the short term to upgrade TimeLine’s woefully inadequate technology infrastructure. In our strategic plan, two of the primary goals involve the company’s internal culture and environment, as well as the experience our patrons have with us. We want to provide a work culture for artists, staff, board members and volunteers that embodies professionalism and that facilitates great work. And we want our patrons to have a seamless experience communicating with us and our art. Upgrading our current telephone system and computer infrastructure is crucial to meet these goals.
The confidence that the MacArthur Foundation has shown in TimeLine is truly humbling. As we prepare for our 20th Anniversary season and continue to plan for a new home, this award gives us enormous encouragement, an even more solid foundation, and renewed confidence to take our organization to the next level.
On behalf of Artistic Director PJ Powers and the entire community of Company, Board, Staff, Associate Artists and others who make TimeLine what it is, thank you to the MacArthur Foundation and to all our supporters for propelling this organization forward. Without your belief in TimeLine’s mission, we would not be where we are today.
For more about the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Organizations, read TimeLine’s news release about the award (PDF) and visit TimeLine’s page on the MacArthur Foundation website.
Big news! TimeLine is expanding our core artistic team of Company Members, welcoming new Associate Artists, and adding to our Board of Directors.
We’re thrilled to announce that Chicago artists Behzad Dabu and Ron OJ Parson have been named Company Members, effective immediately.
Company Members are the artistic leaders of TimeLine, working together to shape the artistic vision and choose the programming for the organization.
A creative force around Chicago for more than two decades, Ron most recently directed our current acclaimed production of Sunset Baby, as well as 2013’s sold-out hit A Raisin in the Sun.
And you’ve seen Behzad, one of the rising stars of Chicago theatre, on TimeLine’s stage in Inana, Blood and Gifts, and as an original cast member of The History Boys. Most recently he appeared at the Goodman Theatre in Disgraced.
We’re also adding 11 Associate Artists, who serve as advisers in artistic planning and work to enhance the work culture and environment of TimeLine. These new Associate Artists have all made enormous contributions to TimeLine, including work with productions on our stage and in the Living History Education Program: Tyla Abercrumbie, Wardell Julius Clark, Charles Andrew Gardner, Megan Geigner, Dennis William Grimes, Jerod Haynes, Kymberly Mellen, Mike Nussbaum, André Pluess, Chris Rickett and Demetrios Troy.
By adding these individuals we are furthering the vision of TimeLine’s founders — to build a collective of artists with varied skills, backgrounds, points of view and aesthetics who work as a team to help shape seasons that are diverse, unique and mission-centric. — PJ Powers, Artistic Director
Finally, we are honored to recognize three business and community leaders who have recently joined TimeLine Theatre’s Board of Directors: Philip Cable (President, John A. Cable Foundation), Sondra Healy (Co-Chairman, Turtle Wax, Inc.) and William A. Obenshain (Executive Director, Center for Financial Services, DePaul University).
To learn more about all of these individuals and the work of TimeLine’s Company, Associate Artists and Board of Directors, please visit our website …
Tonight’s the night!
We are thrilled to open the Chicago premiere of Sunset Baby by Dominique Morisseau tonight. Dominique is one of the most compelling and provocative writers to break out in the American theatre in recent years. A winner of the prestigious Steinberg Playwright Award and the Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, Dominique’s plays speak to the heart of TimeLine’s mission by exploring the past and shining a light on critical contemporary issues.
I first encountered Dominique’s writing when I saw Ron OJ Parson’s production of Detroit ’67 at Northlight Theatre, and I quickly got my hands on four more of her scripts, including Sunset Baby. My TimeLine colleagues and I were immediately enthralled by the depth of her historical scope, her dialogue that combines beautiful poetry with biting prose, and the stirring blend of disenfranchisement and hopefulness in her plays.
Dominique is a writer for our times, boldly looking at the past events that led us here and asking how we move forward.
Sunset Baby explores a trail that stretches from the Black Liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. It’s a play about activism, about reconciliation between father and daughter and about the ache to break out of one’s given circumstances.
As we continue to see our city and country wracked by systemic injustice, the issues of Sunset Baby feel all the more resonant, pushing us to ponder how generations of inequality have or have not evolved, as we consider what our role is to change the course of history.
With social media, we’re in an age of new forms of activism, new types of reach and perhaps a different definition of “connectedness,” prompting the question: What is today’s movement? Who are its leaders? And how is it different from previous generations?
That generational progression is at the core of Sunset Baby, and while it poses large, messy, sociological questions, this is a play that is less about the actions of the masses and more about the personal decisions and disconnect between a handful of people—daughter, boyfriend, absent father and deceased mother. It’s a deeply personal and intimate look at a family torn apart and examining what was lost in the struggle. Each must confront the mistakes of the past, recognize the choices that led to their division, and determine how or if healing might be possible.
Despite a background of strife, the play’s title reveals that this story is a young woman’s yearning for peace and beauty. She longs to escape her harsh urban confines and finally experience the tranquility and serenity of something that has always been out of reach—a sunset. To see its splendor with her own eyes, filled with color and warmth and hope for what the new day might bring.
What a beautiful thing for us all to look forward to—what tomorrow might bring.
written by Brandon Hayes, Openlands
Openlands is proud to be a sponsor of TimeLine’s Spill by Leigh Fondakowski. The play reminds us of the reality of greatest environmental disaster in U.S. history (save the encroaching catastrophe of climate change). Movingly, it tells the human stories of those most closely impacted by the Deepwater Horizon explosion and the BP oil spill—those who lost their lives, those left behind, and those whose coastal world was destroyed.
People are at the center of the play. And people are at the center of stewarding our planet and the landscapes we call home. In the face of cataclysmic disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill, the ongoing drought in the American West, and the dangers of climate change, it sometimes feels that there is little we can do.
World leaders yesterday concluded the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. The world’s eyes are on the developments there and their far-reaching implications.
But there is a growing body of research—in addition to news stories and anecdotes from around the world—that resiliency in the face of environmental disasters and climate change is being addressed most effectively at the local level.
For years, the focus on the world’s response to climate change has been on nation states, which have been mostly unsuccessful in brokering comprehensive agreements or taking action … Urban areas, home to more than half of the world’s people, are emerging as the ‘first responders’ in adapting to and mitigating climate change.*
Founded in 1963 as a program of the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago, Openlands is one of the oldest metropolitan conservation organizations in the nation and the only such group with a regional scope in the greater Chicago region. Openlands has helped protect more than 55,000 acres of land for public parks and forest preserves, wildlife refuges, land and water greenway corridors, urban farms, and community gardens.
Openlands’ vision for the region is a landscape that includes a vast network of land and water trails, tree-lined streets, and intimate public gardens within easy reach of every city dweller. It also includes parks and preserves big enough to provide natural habitat and to give visitors a sense of the vast prairies, woodlands, and wetlands that were here before the cities.
In other words, Openlands is about connecting people to nature where they live.
Each of us in the Chicago region can help our parks, lakefront, forests, prairies, and rivers remain healthy and vibrant.
Something as simple as planting milkweed is an immense benefit to Monarch butterflies, which have undergone a huge population loss in the past 20 years because there is less milkweed to feed caterpillars.
Planting trees in the wake of infestations of pests like the Emerald Ash Borer, helps to store carbon, cool neighborhoods, reduce crime, and foster a sense of health and well-being.
Supporting local farmers who grow lots of different types of food can improve land and water health by protecting soils and cleaning rivers and streams. Farming using conservation practices can serve as a buffer to natural areas and provide habitat for wildlife. On a smaller scale, community gardens in urban settings also provide valuable habitat for birds and insects and green space for neighborhoods.
Openlands and our partners—including volunteers, partner corporations and organizations like TimeLine Theatre, and governmental agencies—are working to keep our region healthy. To learn more and get involved, please visit openlands.org.
* Cynthia Rosenzweig, William Solecki, Stephen A. Hammer and Shagun Mehrotra, “Cities lead the way in climate-change action,” Nature, October 21, 2010, Vol. 467.
Brandon Hayes is Director of Communications for Openlands. He has spent his entire career at non-profit organizations and also has directed operas and plays in Chicago and his native metropolitan Detroit. Brandon is a long-time volunteer for the International Crane Foundation and a photographer and essayist, chronicling all 58 U.S. National Parks.