Jessica Renslow is the Gary's Miller Spotlight community builder. She leads a cross-section of people to work collectively to improve the quality of life in Northwest Indiana. She teaches groups of volunteers to create and implement attainable goals so they in turn, invest in their communities. The spotlight program, which focuses on community planning, has grown to include an active transportation, micro-enterprise and ecotourism hub in Gary’s Miller Community. How long have you lived and/or worked in the Calumet region? I grew up here. Left for fifteen years and then returned in 2015 to be the community builder for my hometown. What do you love about the Calumet region? Our diversity; it’s interwoven in our environment, people and economy. We are used to being nonhomogeneous and that is where our ability to innovate is born. If you could share one asset or piece of information about the Calumet region with someone who is unfamiliar with this area, what would it be? Gary, Indiana is home to a world class beach. What is your vision for the future of this region? My hope for the Calumet region is for us to learn how collaboration makes us stronger. If vested community members truly understand smokestack and silo splintering only stifle us and commit to working collectively, great things will be possible for us. How is the Calumet region starting to work towards that vision today? A lot of groups are catching on to how effective collaboration is across the region. Getting these early adopters to partner with more groups would be the goal. For more information on Jessica’s work visit facebook.com/millerspotlight or millerspotlight.blogspot.com.
Mandy Burrell Booth
Mandy Burrell Booth is communications senior at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, which leads the development of northeastern Illinois’ comprehensive regional plan. She also chairs the communications working group for the Calumet Collaborative. She grew up in Hammond and Munster, Ind., and currently lives in Beverly on the southwest side of Chicago.
What do you love about this region? Honesty is the first word that comes to mind for me when I think about the Calumet region. The people who live here aren’t afraid to be real. Past and present challenges are confronted with eyes and ears wide open, and sometimes a healthy dose of skepticism. Yet folks in this region never abdicate their hopes and dreams for a great life for themselves and their families. On the contrary, they show up at community meetings and write letters and speak their desires until they see change.
I think that same honesty is reflected in the region’s landscape. The rise of industry and cities created compartments: Business happens here, nature happens over there. But here in the Calumet region, where Lake Michigan meets our national railroad and highway systems, industry and nature were and remain today interspersed. That a panorama can include both a blast furnace and a sand dune is an honest reflection of this region’s rich assets and heritage.
What is your vision for the future of this region? I know some people prefer to keep good things a secret; crowds can be trying, and changing dynamics require wrapping our brains around what’s new. But I’d like to see more families move to this region, more businesses open in this region and more people visit this region.
The communicator in me feels strongly that it starts with telling a more cohesive story about who we are and what we have to offer. Too often people drive right by Chicago’s southeast lakefront and straight on through northwest Indiana, en route to Michigan’s sandy shores. Why? For starters, they’ve nailed their story. “Pure Michigan” is pure gold.
We have an equally compelling story to tell. Sure, it will be no small feat to capture our essence in a tagline, but in today’s 140-characters-or-less world, it’s imperative. How are we starting to work toward this vision today? We’re exploring and cataloguing our collective story through a number of initiatives—to name a few: the designation of the Pullman National Monument, Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Commission, Calumet Heritage Partnership and the work of the wayfinding committee of the Calumet Collaborative. Common themes are emerging that point to a region that is equal parts ancient geography and modern industry, a landscape preserved and forged both by Mother Nature and American grit. I think that’s a fascinating jumping off point, and I look forward to helping hone the story even further.