by Jillian Melero
Paula Robinson has been president of Bronzeville’s Community Development Partnership, a neighborhood advisory group, for 29 years. She co-founded the Urban Innovation Center, a business incubator focused on tourism, technology, and transportation, with Bruce Montgomery in 2006.
Between her roles in community development and technology innovation, Robinson has been a key figure, advising on pilot projects that utility company ComEd is launching in Chicago’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood. The Community of the Future initiative is integrating smart city data collection, monitoring, and response technology throughout Bronzeville. And ComEd is installing a new microgrid, a community-based power grid, that will give the area more energy flexibility and security, providing opportunities to collect, store and transmit solar and wind energy.
Medill Reports spoke with Robinson about the community’s awareness of these initiatives, the opportunities they may offer, and how they are being received. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: As far as the microgrid, is there an awareness in the community that this project is happening?
A: There’s an awareness on a variety of different levels. We have a whole effort around education and community engagement. And so, that engagement is showing through this advisory group meeting. I don’t even know how many people are on that team, it’s probably about 25-50 people, and they are very much the ambassadors and oversee this with community interest.
So, this is one example of outreach, where these meetings happen throughout the community. It’s community-based, education, faith-based, leadership, all the folks are involved and able to integrate their ideas and their self-interest.
There’s kind of a collaborative self-interest that’s going on here, and that’s a lot to navigate. In my capacity with the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, I’m a part of that advisory group, but I’m also a consultant. Sometimes I might even be at the meeting trying to see what’s in it for my church.
Q: – You just got out of a meeting before this interview?
A: Yes, our advisory group meeting for “Bronzeville, Community of the Future” was well attended. It was held over at my community church, Quinn Chapel, which is a very historic church here in Bronzeville. It’s Chicago’s oldest African American church. It was built before the city was incorporated.
Our pastor comes and attends those meetings. He’s making sure that that’s coming back to his congregation, and all of the other networks that he’s also involved in.
We have another pastor, for example, that’s also the president for the local school council. So, there’s never a meeting that is gonna go by that he’s not going to say, ‘What else can we do for young people, or youth, or STEM or STEAM?’ So that’s happening.
Q: It seems like there’s a lot of community involvement on the front end and some cutting-edge initiatives involved in all of this.
A: Absolutely. And that’s probably where ComEd gets a lot of engagement as well as grief from my organization because we are in some new territory. We are looking at opportunities where the community, beyond advising, can also be innovators. Where we’re co-creating in this new space as well.
This whole net-zero economy is very new. In this area of smart tech and sustainability, so many of the jobs that are going to be created don’t even have names yet. So as we are trying to do more to involve our schools and [initiate] programs for STEM and STEAM, we also have to recognize that many of these new opportunities have yet to be developed.
Q: What are some of these science, technology, engineering, and math initiatives?
A: We have something going on at one of our local high schools that’s called the Dunbar Energy Academy. We just kicked this off. This is brand new, it just started in September, and we have 23 freshmen students that are participating in this energy academy.
This is where we are developing and piloting a whole new curriculum.
The teachers had to attend workshops and conferences Dunbar has identified a number of industry speakers who are addressing these students. We’ve been going on field trips. The students that are involved are really excited, and I’m excited because a very nice number of these students are young African American girls who, you know, think this is great and fun, and they’re excited about it.
“This is creating that net-zero tech talent pipeline. It’s not about saying, ‘Well, how are you going to do this? Are the teachers trained? How can you start with a group of students and then they can integrate into their curriculum places?’ — we stepped right in. We started.” Paula Robinson
Something we’re doing again that we tried for the first time last year was really successful. We call it an Ideathon. Basically, we’re looking for mentors to work with all of the high schools involved in Bronzeville.
Initially, ComEd said, ‘We’ve got X number of science and math schools that might be interested in this type of Ideathon,’ but the community said ‘No, we want it to be in all the schools.’ This is another area where the community has to push. There were over 12 high schools present, so all of the high schools were involved.
The winners from last year ended up being from [King College Prep High School]. King has a strong curriculum in these basic math and science curriculum, but it’s not necessarily a specific tech or STEM school. So, I think that proves the point too, they won, they had never done anything like that. Really did not necessarily have any exposure to it, beyond this.
They also had to learn how to really do a pitch. And so, their skills, of being able to stand up, communicate, answer questions, communicate their whole project in the same way that you see professionals do it at these pitch contests — they were so excellent in their presentation. But it was really a sidebar of them being introduced to the science, to trying something new, saying now they think even want to look at these kinds of careers.
Q: What are some of the other components of this initiative that people can benefit from?
A: The city is doing smart lights. They’re on these polls that have a little solar panel and wind turbine as well [to power them]. And we began testing some of these around State Street off the IIT campus and some other housing developments and all kinds of data sets to make decisions on where these smart lights, with wind and solar can go. Then we realize, we can also add some sensors, for environmental and health data. Our community, we are dealing with issues like asthma. Recently someone was telling me, ‘Look, we had to move out of the city because my kids’ asthma does so much better in the suburbs.’ And I certainly know people who have asthma, but I hadn’t thought about that.
And then, as much work as we have done on the data set, figuring out where to place these polls or for testing, something that came up in terms of the deployment, is that we realized, ‘Oh, we’re doing this and we see this sign and this is actually one of the walking paths for school safe zones.’ So where we’re putting these polls that have wind and sensors and all of this is also along a [Chicago Public School] safety zone.
I think that now, the community is starting to recognize how all of these things can integrate and becoming more interested in the data collection and results for other uses. Yet to be determined in some cases.
Q: From the community’s perspective, is there a perception that the microgrid, or smart grid, or clean energy is going to lower their bills or raise their bills?
A: I would say, in honesty, what people probably understand the best, and not just from ComEd, but from a variety of things, is that solar as a backup source and potentially [for energy] savings, a cheaper source. They get that.
When we say, “Oh, they’re deploying the microgrid.” It’s like, well where is it? Is it in the ground? Where is the controller switch? What does this ‘resilience’ mean?’ What people can see, is solar panels on roofs, people having jobs to install panels, understanding solar as clean energy.
The broad majority has an expectation from the standpoint of solar energy, that whole sense of this is something that’s an investment that’s going to, make available a clean, renewable energy source, I think that that is really our strongest point of entry.
Q: What do you think ComEd’s responsibility is to the community and how can they meet that responsibility?
A: As a public utility, I think that they are meeting that responsibility and I think that they are doing something that we don’t necessarily — I didn’t have an appreciation for what they were doing until I attended a microgrid conference.
I went to the microgrid knowledge conference, this year out in Rosemont. I was on a panel talking about the Bronzeville microgrid, and a number of people came up and said, ‘We are really watching this, you know, this is so unusual for a utility company to be doing this.’ And I don’t think that I had an appreciation for that. It wasn’t until several people, and I sat in on some other panels, that I had an appreciation that this really hasn’t been done this way. Not only is this Department of Energy contract for having a clustered microgrid new, the fact that a utility company is focusing in on this pioneering aspect is different as well.
I’m in a session with, [National Renewable Energy Laboratory] NREL, and they throw up this map of all the microgrids around the country. And on the map, I would say there was like eight of them. There’s only eight microgrids? I’m thinking, ‘That can’t be right.’
They’re like, “Well, there may be some energy [storage sites, some research sites.] But there’s two full microgrids in Illinois and this is one of them.” I’m thinking there’s hundreds of microgrids. But again, we’re in Bronzeville, we’re in between two major research universities. IIT [Illinois Institute of Technology] has had a microgrid. We have a Bronzeville sustainability tour, which showcases the IIT microgrid, and smart homes. So sometimes you don’t have an appreciation for it.
“I didn’t see it as all that until I got to the microgrid conference, and people outside of Chicago started making me appreciate how closely they were watching this to make a case. It’s a case study in itself, not just being the nation’s first clustered microgrid, but that a utility company is saying, ‘Yeah, this is for off-the-grid strategies, and yes, we’re investing in that.’” Paula Robinson
So I think that what is happening that we’re not appreciating, is that is not necessarily a utility’s responsibility. It’s not legislated or mandated, ComEd is seeing the future, saying ‘Hey, here is our responsibility as a public utility company, to be a part of innovating these alternatives and to educate, and engage the public.’ So, I think, in fairness, that ComEd has gone above and beyond.