This is the first of a series of occasional articles about what climate change means for Evanston and what we are doing locally to make a difference.

The word “sustain” is fascinating: In one definition, it means to prolong in the same manner, such as pressing the pedal on a piano to prolong the resonance of a note. Or, put another way, it means to keep to business as usual, maintain the status quo.

In the case of climate change, however, it means the opposite: To sustain the planet means we have to change. 

Cara Pratt headshot
Cara Pratt, Evanston’s sustainability and resilience coordinator. (Photo courtesy Cara Pratt)

And Cara Pratt, Evanston’s sustainability and resilience coordinator, has been an agent of change her whole life.

Pratt is the single person responsible for implementing one of the six goals of Evanston’s City Council: the city’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan, or CARP. 

What kind of background makes someone want to tackle, at the local level, the most challenging existential worldwide issue of our time?

Pratt says she is probably part of the last generation of kids that always played outside. She was born in 1990 and grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on a lot full of trees and vegetables and flower gardens which she helped tend. Her home was on a cul de sac, providing a safe place to play in the street, unsupervised by adults. 

Growing up, the occasional flooding of her basement bedroom and loss of her treasured possessions taught her how climate and weather could take a personal toll.  She was drawn to environmental clubs and activism. Her high school club was known for its great bake sales, the profit from selling sweets going to purchase an acre in the rainforest. In 2006, with the release of the film An Inconvenient Truth, the environmental club switched its focus. It began to promote the politics necessary for climate change.

Pratt’s burgeoning interest in politics led her to volunteer in election campaigns in 2008 and 2012. Whenever she looked at government, it was now through the lens of climate change and environmental action.

While she was attending Drake University in Iowa and majoring in environmental policy and international relations, Barack Obama was elected and there was a more concerted student effort to influence Congress. She joined college students from across the U.S. for a demonstration in Washington and to meet one-on-one with elected officials to advocate for investing in clean energy. 

Campaigning fundamentally influenced her life. Canvassing meant meeting and talking with people of different backgrounds than her own, working in neighborhoods she otherwise would never have visited. That experience was “huge” and “impactful,” she said, and led to her decision to learn more of the world. 

She joined the Peace Corps in 2012. Pratt spent three years living in a very rural village in Paraguay as a traditional environmental conservation volunteer. In this remote village she tackled everything from environmental education, reforestation, sustainable agriculture, nutrition, family gardens and a cookstove improvement project to summer camps.

For her third year in Paraguay, Pratt worked with the World Wildlife Fund. She got to travel to even more rural and isolated parts of the country. There she saw “pretty active deforestation,” she said, environmental damage that was driven by agricultural practices. She described seeing one lone tree left in a recently deforested field newly planted with soy, a stark image she said she will never forget.  

After the Peace Corps, Pratt began graduate studies at Cornell University and continued to focus on the global food system and the agricultural drivers of climate change. Cornell’s semester abroad program led her to spend nine months in Rome at the headquarters of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. 

Upon receiving her master’s degree in 2019, she was faced with “what next?” She was a finalist for three different jobs: with the federal government in the Office of Global Change (so called because the Trump administration banned use of the words “climate change” by the executive branch); with McDonald’s in its sustainable food systems program; and with the city of Racine, Wisconsin, next door to her hometown, as the sustainability coordinator.

Despite her educational focus on world agriculture, she felt that the grassroots local approach was her best fit to make a difference. And now, her position in Evanston provides her the same opportunity to create change.

How many people do you know who hope their jobs will get phased out? Pratt’s goal is exactly that! She hopes eventually a position like hers will not be needed. She hopes behavioral change will lead to sustainability and resilience goals being internalized, promoted, and enacted by all elected officials, staff and residents. That would truly be implementing CARP!

For more about Pratt, read this 2021 RoundTable article.

Libby Hill

Libby Hill is the author of "The Chicago River: a Natural and Unnatural History. She has been writing about birds and trees and Evanston's natural history for the Roundtable since 2004.

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  1. From my limited view, Evanston seemed to be a significant leader in this environmental consciousness movement..having at one time 28 chargers for electric cars at one time.

    I was especially impressed with the solar charger set up in the library parking lot and when eating or shopping in the area, I would plug in my 2013 Leaf, not only getting a free charge, but a free parking place!

    But to drive by today and to see it standing there, boarded up and in literally “disarray,” like an abandon and fore long child really breaks my heart, as did the time that I received a parking ticket while plugged in on the city parking lot on Central while shopping, having been mislead in that there was no parking charge when I was plugged in on the city lot that is east of Chicago Ave and south of Main.

    And when I was told by the store manager at the Walgreens on south Chicago Ave that their store was all front end loaded with solar and wind power and to come as much as I wanted to plug in because all unused electricity just went to ground, I would just stop in and plug in while wanderin around in Walgreens looking for something to buy!

    NWU is also a place that I would plug into when I was attending a function as are the chargers at city hall where I would see the cities Leafs plug in from time to time, remembering the time when a large event occurred there one summer displaying many types of electric cars and solar power storage panels.

    Such an exciting job to have..sustainability coordinator for the city of Evanston and when I read of her background and education, I hope Evanston continues to be even a greater environmentally conscious lighthouse, replacing in stature only, the majestic Grosse Point light house that stands so proudly on the shores of our beautiful Lake Michigan!