“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
It was a woman, Dorothy Erskine, who was instrumental in forming the group Citizens for Regional Recreation and Parks. She held the first meetings in her home and their first campaign was saving the San Francisco Bay from landfill and development. That group would later become Greenbelt Alliance.
Profound change often comes at the hands of volunteers who take it upon themselves to restore the bay or advocate for more parks, affordable homes, and safer streets. In Sunnyvale, the historic block of Murphy Avenue by the Caltrain station remains a charming, bustling shopping and dining district due to the tireless efforts of one such woman, Ann Hines. Ann saved Murphy Avenue from being redeveloped and becoming an extension of the more car-centric Sunnyvale Town Center. Today, her legacy lives on through a committed group of environmental advocates who call themselves Sunnyvale Cool and keep the City on its toes.
Janani, a recent transplant to California, is no stranger to volunteering. She was very active with Solargen—promoting climate change awareness—and also started a group in her hometown of Bangalore, India that protects lakes and the region’s groundwater source. It was on a drive with her husband not long after arriving in Sunnyvale that Janani felt overwhelmed by the size of the cars and roads in California.
“Why is this place that is supposed to be so innovative so car-centric?” she wondered. For Janani, commuting on a bus equipped with wifi while reading sounds much more idyllic and definitely less stressful. Her curiosity led her to Sunnyvale Cool.
Margaret grew up in a family in which volunteering was a tradition. Her mother volunteered with the YWCA and her grandmother rolled bandages for soldiers. It’s just something they do. So what’s Margaret’s advice for how to get involved? Show up, and if you have an idea, pull people together around it. Margaret has been active in civic affairs for decades and is a motivating force that inspires others to step up and lead too. She helped form Sunnyvale Cool and has enjoyed watching her friend Barbara develop into a leader.
“The first time I met Barbara, she seemed unsure about attending a meeting. I said, ‘You can go in… that’s a public meeting—get in there!’”
For Barbara the moment came once her daughter went off to college. She attended a Sierra Club rally on climate change and knew immediately that she needed to play a role in addressing it. She volunteered to hold the first Sunnyvale Cool Cities team meeting at her home in June 2007 and has been a driving force for the group ever since. (Barbara is Sunnyvale Cool’s figurative driving force; she bikes to most meetings.)
All three women agree that climate change is the biggest environmental issue we face as a society.
Since that first meeting, Sunnyvale Cool has had many successes. Turning out lots of supporters in favor of the plastic bag ban came first. The group’s number one goal, the City’s first Climate Action Plan, took seven years to complete, but they played an important role in shaping it.
Now, they are focused on implementing that plan. Step one includes enabling the City to buy cleaner, lower carbon energy—such as solar, wind, and geo-thermal—at competitive rates. Sunnyvale is proving to be a leader on this issue and Sunnyvale Cool can claim credit for being a strong environmental voice moving the needle on the issue.
Step two is transitioning the city to a balanced transportation network that includes more bike lanes, safer streets for pedestrians, and a robust public transportation system. Part of this effort includes building more affordable homes near jobs, which allows people to cut down their commute time and improves air quality.
All three women were actively engaged in the bus rapid transit (BRT) dialogue, advocating for dedicated lanes. Losing that vote was disappointing, but it hasn’t swayed them from their path. “You win a few, you lose a few, but you keep on fighting the good fight,” says Margaret.
Janani feels very hopeful when working on environmental issues in Sunnyvale. “The fact that so many people turned out in favor of BRT, and had really well-thought out things to say; the fact that people care and want to be engaged and have the courage to stand up in front of authority figures and say so… these are all very hopeful signs.”
These women demonstrate the power of stepping up and saying yes— to hosting a meeting, to speaking up at a council hearing, to rallying neighbors around an idea. A simple action can have profound ripple effects and inspire more people to find their voice and get engaged. As Greenbelt Alliance gears up for the update to Sunnyvale’s El Camino Real Precise Plan, we have relied heavily on Sunnyvale Cool to connect us to the community, put on great events, and turn out people for important votes. Sunnyvale Cool has co-hosted dozens of film screenings, presentations, and informational meetings to educate residents about environmental land-use and transportation issues. They have been an invaluable resource to the community and advocates alike.
Community champions such as Janani, Barbara and Margaret volunteer to make their neighborhood, city, and world a better place. Barbara envisions a Sunnyvale with “more trees, more bikeways, more parks, more vegetable gardens, more native plants, more green roofs, better public transit, and more homes too.” And you can bet Margaret, Janani, and others will be working hard to make this hope a reality.
Are you a resident of Sunnyvale? Say yes to an important volunteer opportunity in your community. The City of Sunnyvale is currently accepting applications for the El Camino Real Corridor Plan Advisory Committee. Completed applications are due July 13 at 5 p.m.
This article was update on June 24 to reflect the new advisory committee application deadline.
Photos: Taylor Hanigosky ©