Corporate Leaders, Environmental and Energy Experts Highlight Sustainability Challenges, Resources and Opportunities at Chicago Urban League’s 2023 SUMMIT
Naomi Davis and Jacky Grimshaw receive inaugural Environmental Equity Leadership Award
On Tuesday, May 2, the Chicago Urban League convened nearly 350 business and civic leaders for its 2023 SUMMIT, a daylong conference focused on “Equity in Clean Energy and Water.” Over the course of the day, more than 20 industry experts and corporate leaders shared insights and useful information about addressing environmental and sustainability inequities ranging from access to affordable, renewable energy to safe drinking water, and employment diversity.
SUMMIT 2023 was the League’s first to focus on energy and environmental equity. The day’s agenda included three plenary conversations, along with six breakout sessions that focused on specific topics such as federal contracting, financing, and opportunities in water and infrastructure projects.
“Each year, our SUMMIT aims to lift up a policy issue that is of importance to the Black community. While those issues may also be of interest to the general community, we know there is often a greater impact for Black communities. Such is the case with environmental justice,” said Karen Freeman-Wilson, President and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. “This year, we set out to talk about access to clean air, clean water, and the opportunity to be engaged in workforce and business opportunities around tangible solutions.”
Funding and Resources
Leaders representing local, regional, and national government agencies discussed the sustainability challenges facing Black communities and provided information on funding and other resources that are available to develop and support solutions.
The morning keynote speakers, Shalaya Morissette, Chief of the Minority Business & Workforce Division of the U.S. Department of Energy, and Debra Shore, Region 5 Administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), both noted that one of the biggest issues they see related to racial and economic inequity within renewable energy and sustainability is limited awareness of available resources. Both said their agencies have billions of dollars of grant funding available to support the efforts of minority business owners and communities, but people might not know about these opportunities or how to access them if they do not specifically visit their websites. (Minority Business & Workforce Division; Region 5 EPA grants)
Morissette and Shore also stressed that it is important to understand how to write a government grant to access the funds and said that technical assistance is also available.
“The Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure law have more than doubled the Region’s budget and increased the agency’s budget 10-fold,” said Shore, who added that the EPA is hiring and seeking talent.
The Intersection of Sustainability and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
Executives from three of Chicago’s largest employers—ComEd, Walgreens Boots Alliance, and United Airlines—shared information about internships and diversity initiatives during a luncheon conversation about how sustainability intersects with diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We are growing faster than any other airline has grown in the history of aviation, and we’re thinking about how do we grow fairly and equitably,” said Jennifer Muench, Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Officer for United Airlines. “Like our air, water and our land, human beings are a limited resource. How do we take care of that resource to make sure that people are ready with the skills needed to meet that hiring demand? That’s how I think about sustainability.”
Muench, Alethia Jackson from Walgreens, and ComEd CEO Gil Quiniones also responded to audience questions about job opportunities, supplier diversity, and rising energy costs.
“Illinois is at the forefront of the clean energy revolution, and as the electric company powering homes and businesses throughout Chicagoland, ComEd is excited to play a leading role in the effort to prepare our communities for a 100 percent clean energy future,” Quiniones said following the luncheon. “Ensuring an equitable transition requires all-hands-on deck, with a diverse pipeline of local workers and suppliers to deliver new sustainable technology and to meet our goals.”
Creating a Just and Sustainable City
SUMMIT concluded with a look ahead at how leaders can work with the community to create a just and sustainable city and solutions to increasingly prevalent issues around safe drinking water, poor air quality, and related health concerns in underserved communities in the Chicago-area and elsewhere.
Karen Weaver, a former mayor of Flint, Michigan, shared lessons from her experience leading that city during an ongoing water crisis and noted similar issues seem to occur disproportionately in minority communities. Kimberly Du Buclet, Vice President of the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, said MWRD hopes to take advantage of the Inflation Reduction Act to address such issues locally.
“We’re most excited about using some of those funds to build our infrastructure, particularly in Black and Brown communities,” Du Buclet said. “There is a community in the south suburbs, Dixmoor, right now that doesn’t have clean water because their infrastructure is so old that it cannot hold their water capacity and the water is contaminated.”
Darnell Johnson, CEO & President of the Urban Efficiency Group, noted that he is concerned about the “mis-prioritization of the human being” in many conversations about sustainability.
“It’s great to talk about saving the turtles … but I’m looking at real people that we need to prioritize as we think about sustainability and talk about how we make a just transition into this sustainable future to ensure that we have communities that are safe, communities that are thriving, communities that are prosperous so that the next generation of thought leaders have homes and schools and communities and playgrounds and access to fresh fruits and vegetables that they can look forward to raising their families in,” said Johnson. “That, to me, is what the essence of a sustainable and just community looks like.”
Honoring Environmental Equity Leaders
Freeman-Wilson stressed that one reason that this year’s SUMMIT focused on environmental justice is because “it is a matter of civil rights.” As part of that, the Chicago Urban League wanted to recognize two Chicagoans who have been pioneers around issues of environmental equity. Naomi Davis, founder and president of Blacks In Green, and Jacky Grimshaw, Vice President for the Center for Neighborhood Technology, received the League’s first-ever Environmental Equity Leadership Awards.
In addition to focusing on policy issues, SUMMIT is one of the Chicago Urban League’s major annual fundraisers. This year’s top sponsors included GCM Grosvenor and ITW.
To view video from the informative panels and workshops, visit and subscribe to the Chicago Urban League’s YouTube page.