From Styrofoam to Sustainable

Our motto includes the words “listen” and “learn.” Indeed, these words drive the major focal points of our program. We try to provide space and opportunity for our students to listen and learn here in Chicago by interacting with community members and learning from local leadership. We hold this dear to our heart and believe it is the most impactful aspect of our entire program.

Toward the end of each week we ask our students to complete an evaluation of their time with us in an effort to hear how they were impacted, but also to hear suggestions on how to improve. Often times we get compliments but few suggestions, which is ultimately a double-edged blade. On the one hand, it’s great to receive positive feedback and yet I know that the collective wisdom of our students and leaders far surpasses my own. When we don’t receive constructive criticism, it can be easy to become complacent.

We recently had the privilege of hosting a team of bright and obviously environmentally minded students from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. (It was an interesting mix because these (mostly) thoughtful, reserved, upper-classmen students were here concurrently with a team of (mostly) playful, eager freshmen from Bethel University. It was a joy to see the differences in these teams and the common bond of Christ between them.) We had a fantastic week and it seems as though each student had a great experience and is seeking ways to bring their time with us back home.

However, in nearly each of the evaluations filled out by Calvin students, a particular theme kept recurring. It can be summarized by the following students:

“As an organization that advocates for change, and is so forward-thinking, I think it is important that you think of your environmental impact too: the styrofoam is horrible for the environment, and we could’ve just washed some dishes.”

These comments were for us quite unexpected. It’s easy to expect comments about theology, philosophy or sleeping arrangements.

But, environmental sustainability? That was a new one for us.

Yet it doesn’t take much reflection to realize that we could quite easily go through 1000+ pieces of disposable dinnerware in a week. As an organization that thinks seriously about our relationship to the Creation, this seems to be an obvious incident of hypocrisy. Sometimes it takes a team of students from a wildly different context to our own to expose us to our blind spots.

We are thankful for this criticism. We have been able to reevaluate our use of disposable dinnerware since that team and are seeking new ways to ensure that we become and remain more environmentally responsible. For us, this means more dishes and fewer garbage bags. It means giving out reusable water bottles. It means the elimination of Styrofoam wherever possible… which at this point seems to be everywhere.

This is reciprocity: we also need to listen and learn from you.