All new civic groups face challenges.
Whether it be educating the public on their mission statement or just reminding residents that they exist, there are always birth pains along the way.
But the Coalition for a Sustainable Cheshire faced a different sort of hurdle. Incorporated in February of 2020, the group had to figure out exactly how to get their initiatives off the ground while in the midst of a once-in-a-hundred-years pandemic.
“That was the biggest challenge,” admits A. Fiona Pearson, co-founder of the group. “(Starting the group) right before the world shut down … that was difficult.”
Yet, Sustainable Cheshire has persevered to become one of the most active civic organizations in the entire community. With a mailing list that consists of more than 200 individuals and upwards of 40 active members, Sustainable Cheshire is growing at a time when many community-minded groups around the state are contracting.
“It’s holistic, it’s inclusive,” said Pearson, when asked why her organization seems to be thriving despite the many initial challenges. “If you’re interested in seeing more electric charging stations, or composting, or supporting the arts, there is something that appeals to a wide (variety) of people.”
Sustainable Cheshire is a part of the statewide initiative, Sustainable CT, which Pearson first learned about in 2019 while attending a forum in Hartford focused on issues pertaining to the climate. “I realized that Cheshire wasn’t registered (as part of Sustainable CT), so we created (Sustainable Cheshire) as a way to bring Sustainable CT to our community,” Pearson explained. The purpose of the group is simple — according to its website, Sustainable CT, formed in 2016, “provides a shared vision, an action road map, practical tools, multiple benefits, and collaborative spirit to build a thriving Connecticut for all residents — today and tomorrow.”
While one may think of sustainability only in terms of environmental initiatives, Sustainable Cheshire works to educate the public about the various “action items” that are promoted by the statewide initiative.
Currently, there are 13 such “action items” that range from “well-stewarded land and natural resources” to “vibrant and creative cultural ecosystems,” which focus on how supportive a community is of the arts. The list continues to grow, Pearson explained, as in response to the impacts of the pandemic, Sustainable CT added “effective, compassionate homelessness prevention.”
“It’s always growing,” said Pearson. “(The list) was originally at 10, and you didn’t have things like the Pollinator Pathway as part (of the action list). Now you do.”
The Coalition works closely with the Town through a Sustainability Team that includes members of Town government, to promote these initiatives and help the community achieve higher levels of certification through Sustainable CT. As of June 2021, Cheshire had earned a bronze-level designation, and the Sustainable Cheshire is working to now attain silver-level status.
Part of the benefit Cheshire attains being a part of the Sustainable CT effort is learning from other registered communities. Pearson mentioned that her group is constantly looking to towns such as North Haven, Branford, Guilford, and others for ideas on what new initiatives might work for Cheshire, which is made easier by the “flexibility of the action items.”
“(The items) are such that a lot of suburban towns, rural towns can benefit from them,” Pearson explained, noting that they are not all geared towards initiatives that would only benefit more urban communities. As an example, Pearson pointed to the Pollinator Pathway in Cheshire, located near Lock 12 Park along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. The “pathway” is a garden consisting of “straight-species” plants necessary for native insects to thrive.
The Pathway had originally been under the control of the Cheshire Land Trust, but is now handled by Sustainable Cheshire, which has put a tremendous amount of effort into maintaining and even expanding the garden.
“We’ve held education workshops at the (Cheshire Library) to really educate the public as to the importance of the pathway, and those kinds of events really showcase what we are doing,” said Pearson.
However, the Pathway is just one of the initiatives supported by the group. Sustainable Cheshire has helped to sponsor numerous talks at the library, touching on everything from “housing through the whole life cycle” to work being done in an effort to save the Mill River. Sustainable Cheshire has also participated in the Fall Festival, held the community’s first-ever Sustainability Fair last October, and even sponsored a “Repair Cafe,” where residents were invited to bring their broken items — from a flat tire to a worn-out jacket zipper — to be fixed by experts in particular fields willing to dedicate their time for free.
“The response (to the Repair Cafe) was so positive,” recalled Pearson. “We had over 100 people bring items. Afterwards, I received so many emails from people asking, ‘When are you doing that again?’”
A second “Repair Cafe” will be held, Pearson promised, as will the “Summer of Sunflowers” in Cheshire, first held last year as a community growing event. Sustainable Cheshire donated thousands of seeds to be distributed to everyone who wanted to plant the flowers, no matter their age or where in town they were living.
“It was really a feel-good project, just as we were coming out of the pandemic,” said Pearson, who explained that, in order to fulfill one of the “action items,” her group had to make sure it was equitably done.
“We had the seeds available at the Food Pantry, at the Senior Center, everywhere,” said Pearson, “so that it was really open to everyone.”
“That’s one of the things that has really appealed to us,” she continued, referencing the emphasis on equitability. “Even look at all of our parks in Cheshire. They are open to everyone.”
Cheshire’s bronze-level status has been earned not only through new initiatives, but also by noting what the Town has already done. Pearson admitted that working on behalf of Sustainable Cheshire with local leaders has educated her as to what has already been achieved as well as what the plans are moving forward. Whether it be the Town’s solar panels near the old landfill off of Waterbury Road or ensuring that work on school modernization takes sustainability into account, Pearson has been impressed.
“Working with people at Town Hall, seeing what’s already been done and how cognizant people are of the issues,” she said. “That’s been exciting.”
Sustainability efforts have also been helped by several local groups, including Artsplace, which Pearson described as a unique local feature — “Not many communities have such an emphasis on the arts or a place (such as Artsplace)” — to all the work done at the old Ball & Socket factory.
“I knew (what Ball & Socket Arts) had done with brownfields at the site, but I didn’t really know,” said Pearson.
So now, the group will await word, expected sometime later this summer, as to whether it will achieve silver status. But until then, the focus will be on “maintaining what we have,” said Pearson. No date has been set for another “Repair Cafe” but a second Sustainability Fair is tentatively scheduled for this coming October. And the group will continue to promote composting, after its initial Seeding Backyard Composting campaign fundraiser to buy composting materials raised more than $3,000. “We are really excited to see how excited people are for composting,” said Pearson, with a laugh.
“I think people are recognizing that we need to think proactively (about sustainability),” said Pearson. “People are thinking about our connection to nature … and because of the pandemic, I think people are connected to their local spaces in a new way. So many people are hiking, taking advantage of what’s available in the community.”