One Woman’s Path to Pesticide Freedom: An interview with Kim Stone, Councilwoman, Highland Park, IL

Kim Stone

Kim Stone has been a long-time advocate for the elimination of pesticide use on and in public and private lands and structures.  She provided instrumental support in Highland Park’s move to adopt pesticide-free policies and practices for public lands. We had a chance to catch up with Kim and learn from her experiences.

MPAC: Many of our supporters ask how to start moving their city, town, or village toward more sustainable practices.  What would you say is a good way to begin engaging institutions – such as municipal governments – to make change?

Kim: If you have a specific issue that you want to impact, it’s helpful to not only bring information about the problem, but also provide suggestions of solutions to the attention of your municipality. It’s important to know the process for making change in your community, and to try to follow that process. In Highland Park, most environmental policy ideas at the City level go through our Natural Resources Commission, so that’s the place to start. With other governmental bodies, there may be an Advisory Committee that works on environmental issues, or a staff person who leads these efforts. Attend a few meetings of these groups to see how they work.

MPAC:  What has the overall reaction to your efforts been from community members?  It must be fairly positive if you were elected as councilwoman.

Kim: The community has been very supportive of pesticide reduction efforts in Highland Park. I know of at least two other elected officials in the area who, also, started out advocating for pesticide reduction prior to being elected to office.

MPAC:  What was the biggest challenge or frustration you faced in your efforts to move Highland Park toward pesticide-free policies?

Kim: Lack of coordination between different governmental bodies. A group of us were working with one of our school districts to stop using pesticides on school grounds. It started when several parents saw someone spraying the playing fields at our neighborhood school. When I called the school district about the spraying, no one knew what I was talking about or who had authorized it. The schools have an intergovernmental agreement where the Park District maintains school grounds. However, the School District didn’t have expertise on staff about pesticides at the time, and didn’t know what the Park District was doing in terms of maintenance. In addition, notification wasn’t provided as required by state law. It was a classic case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing.

In Highland Park alone, there are at least six different local governmental agencies that manage public lands and buildings. Each of them operates under different guidelines and policies and has a separate elected leadership, even though they serve the same residents. If we are to move our communities to reduce pesticide use, we either need to work with each of the different agencies separately, or put together a coordinated effort to align their policies. We did a little of both in Highland Park.

MPAC: Was the transition to pesticide reduction a smooth one or did it happen in fits and starts?

Kim: It happened in fits and starts. We had an end goal in mind – eliminating our families’ exposure to pesticides – but didn’t initially realize all the places where we used pesticides. We started with the School District and Park District, and expanded our efforts to also include the City and the Library. There is a learning curve to this, and over the years we have educated residents and staff not only about the health risks and environmental impacts of pesticides, but also about natural lawn care. Some school staff even attended MPAC’s lawn care workshops, and many of MPAC’s factsheets have been useful in educating our community. Staff changes often set us back, as we spend years educating someone on these issues. When they leave, we need to educate new staff members.

MPAC:  What setbacks arose during the process?

Kim: There were times along the way when we thought we had finished the job, but then ran into a part of the process that we didn’t expect. For example, we passed policies restricting the use of pesticides on City property, but then a contractor sprayed the lawn around a City building. I reviewed the contract with the landscape contractor, and found that it did not restrict pesticide use in keeping with our stated policy. As a result, I obtained the request for proposals for landscaping and suggested language to include so that our contract would be consistent with our policies. When the contract went out to bid the following year, that language was included, and our new contract is consistent with our policy.

MPAC was an important resource in the process, providing me with sample contract language from other municipalities that I was able to provide to the City.

MPAC: What do you think will be the biggest challenge going forward to make sure the policies are followed?  Are you confident that without your influence the policies will be followed?

The biggest challenge will be to keep individuals informed about why we don’t want to use pesticides on our public lands. This includes residents, elected officials, and staff. We can do this by codifying the practice in our policies and contracts. Someone needs to be watching, however, to make sure that these policies are enforced, and that we continue using natural lawn care practices to maintain our landscapes. Until it is not the alternative, but the mainstream approach, it will require resident watchdogs to enforce.

MPAC: We always like to ask our interviewees if there was one thing you could change in your community right now, what would it be?

Kim: I have a list of environmental issues that I’m working on right now. Climate change is the big one, and reducing carbon emissions is crucial to reducing the impacts. Some of the other issues I am working on are making it easier to install renewable energy, reducing light pollution, providing incentives for environmentally sustainable methods of stormwater management, and increasing biking and walking as modes of transportation in the suburbs.

MPAC:  I know you have been a great help and inspiration to other activists as they attempt to duplicate your success in their communities.  What’s the best piece of advice can you give someone who wants to take on similar change in their community?

Kim: I would encourage MPAC supporters to get involved by joining their city’s Environmental Commission or Advisory Committee. The best way to make change is to be part of the group that sets the direction for your community.