In 1968, when he was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Chicago, Ken Dunn spotted a group of unemployed men throwing their empties into a vacant lot. Believing that both the men and glass were being wasted, he pulled up alongside them in his truck and made a proposal: if they helped him gather the bottles and sort them by color, he’d sell them to a glass company and they could split the proceeds. They went along with it, and after Dunn returned with their cut, one of them asked, “So where are we working tomorrow?” He couldn’t just walk away. By 1972, he’d made a decision to make garbage his life—a decision he didn’t see as necessarily incompatible with philosophy.
The Resource Center, the south side-based nonprofit he founded in 1974, now has 38 employees running recycling, composting, bike rebuilding, job training, and community gardening programs. Their City Farm is an organic garden cultivated on a vacant lot in the middle of the Cabrini-Green public housing development, employing several neighborhood residents and selling vegetables to local restaurants and walk-in customers. Like all of the center’s projects, Dunn says, the farm is meant to demonstrate that it’s viable and preferable to live in close proximity to nature: “We need to create an alternative on a scale that can’t be dismissed, and that showcases the pleasure and beauty of life values—of being in the right place with plants, animals, and people.”
Dunn, 65, says that in recent years Americans have become more aware of the need to make sustainable choices, “but I still don’t see people doing the right thing.” Too many are still buying SUVs, driving when they could bike, and assuming the solution to our energy problems is finding more places to drill for oil. But Dunn doesn’t sound angry or frustrated. “I’ve never felt repressed or denied—I’ve always thought, ‘The world is open.’ And when I encounter a problem, I try to solve it.” Resource Center (222 E. 135th Pl.) and City Farm (1204 N. Clybourn), 773-821-1351, resourcecenterchicago.org. —Mick Dumke
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