The setting for the photo shoot for 2009 Green Awards, the feature celebrating six Chicagoans’ eco-friendly work, was a freight elevator at Brickermade, a furniture maker on the Near West Side. Erika Dufour, the photographer, loved the elevator’s recycled wood paneling and incorporated fun props for the subjects to interact with. “I was pleasantly surprised at the openness of each person,” she says, citing their willingness to play around in front of the camera and become more than mere photo subjects. “I wanted to go have coffee with them,” she says, “—to learn more about how they got to where they are.”

Charter schools are like microsurgery, says Dennis Rodkin. They’re founded in response to a specific community’s need, instead of trying to address it with a systemwide solution. “It’s finding exactly what the wound is right here and fixing it,” says Rodkin, a contributing editor at Chicago. This month, in Charting a New Course, he examines the history, founders, and successes and failures of Chicago’s charter schools—which do have a commonality: “Every charter school is run by some sort of educational entrepreneur with a very practical vision,” Rodkin says. “They serve kids who [school heads say] were not served by their neighborhood schools.”

Soliciting some perspective on the sixties radical Bill Ayers as a professor of education turned out to be more difficult because of his recent high profile, says Debra Pickett, the writer of What Bill Ayers Wants. “There were a number of people who still—months past the election—who still just didn’t want to touch his name with a ten-foot pole,” she says. Ayers’s contributions to Chicago school reform, she says, show there are second acts in some American lives. “Literally to go from being wanted by the FBI, an underground fugitive, to the mayor’s handing you the key to the city,” she says, “—how is this the same person?”

When Jennifer Tanaka, a senior editor at Chicago, was trying to schedule an interview with Arne Duncan, the U.S. secretary of education and former head of Chicago Public Schools, she missed a key call. On her voice mail, instead of Media Relations offering 20 minutes two weeks in the future, she heard: “Hey, Jennifer, it’s Arne. Give me a call when you have a minute.” That familiarity and practicality, it seems, define Duncan’s personality. “He’s not an ideologue; he’s a pragmatist,” says Tanaka, whose interview turned into What Arne Learned. “Everyone wants to improve schools, but in fact you need to win over constituencies when it comes to executing actual plans.”

This issue’s 2009 Green Awards, coedited by Cassie Walker (above, right) and Nora O’Donnell, recognizes six workers all engaged with finding green solutions to society’s ills. “Hands-in-the-dirt kind of people,” Walker says. “Literally,” O’Donnell adds, referring to the urban farming and beekeeping projects honored this year. Over the three years of the awards, green has woven its way deeper into the mainstream. “The world is catching up with us,” Walker says. “Someday we won’t even have to use the word ‘green’ anymore,” adds O’Donnell.


Photography: (Dufour) Erika Dufour, (Rodkin) Kim Thornton, (Walker and O’Donnell) Megan Lovejoy