How Grow Greater Englewood is Creating Community-Led Solutions in Chicago's South Side


String trellises are created to support the garden's vegetables. (Photo credit: Grow Greater Englewood)

Tucked away in the streets of Chicago's dynamic South Side sits Englewood, a community steeped in history and resilience, its story intricately woven into the tapestry of Black America. Originally settled by German and Irish immigrants, Englewood’s demographics shifted through the decades eventually transitioning to a predominantly Black neighborhood. During the 1950s it boasted a vibrant commercial district and an increase in Black families moving to the area.

But the commercial district reached its peak in the late 1960s. After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Englewood’s economic power declined.

Over time, the community continued to grapple with economic struggles, disinvestment, fallout from predatory contract sales, declining businesses, and rising crime rates, all stemming from historical factors including racism, redlining, and white flight.

These systemic injustices perpetuated deep-rooted inequities in the community. Despite these adversities, Englewood's spirit persevered – a testament to the unwavering strength of its residents.

In 2014, amid these challenges, Grow Greater Englewood emerged as a dynamic grassroots organization committed to revitalizing the Englewood community through urban agriculture, environmental development, and community empowerment.

Empowering Englewood Through Community-Led Action

Founded by Anton Seals Jr. and Sonya Harper, Grow Greater Englewood (GGE) embarked on a mission to redefine the community's trajectory. Their vision went beyond mere revitalization; it aimed to empower residents to shape their own future.

"What started as a coalition really grew based on what the community told us they wanted to see, especially at this intersection of Black farmers, regenerative agriculture, and nature," says Seals Jr., Lead Steward of Grow Greater Englewood. "We had a preponderance of vacant lots in Englewood and a vision of the beautiful and productive spaces they could become."

The Englewood Village Plaza's old design has been reconfigured and new trees are being planted. A new agricultural pod has also been installed to enable year-round growing of food for the community. (Photo credit: Grow Greater Englewood)

This commitment to community-led action was in perfect alignment with the goals of the Greening America's Cities initiative – a bold effort to address urgent environmental and economic justice priorities at the local level.

Launched in July 2023 as a multi-year $400 million commitment through 2030, the Bezos Earth Fund’s Greening America’s Cities initiative directs funding to community organizations like GGE.

"This innovative new initiative puts the power and the money in the hands of communities who know best what type of green solutions they need to address,” states Dr. Cecilia Martinez, Chief of Environmental and Climate Justice at the Bezos Earth Fund. “It is a model of how to build an ecosystem of support – to create these green spaces whereby no community is left behind.”

The first round of funding, totaling $50 million, supports 30 organizations in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Wilmington. These groups are at the forefront of land reclamation, native plant and tree cultivation, green workforce development, and urban farming.

Community members review plans during a meeting. (Photo credit: Grow Greater Englewood)

The Transformative Englewood Agro-Eco District

At the heart of GGE’s efforts lies the pioneering Englewood Agro-Eco District – the first of its kind in the nation.

This project involves the transformation of polluted industrial spaces into vibrant green areas for recreation and farming. The district serves as a resiliency hub for Englewood residents, offering workforce training programs for local youth. The goal is to establish a sustainable community development project that seamlessly integrates agriculture, climate solutions, and regenerative farming practices.

Artist rendering of the Englewood Nature Trail. (Courtesy of Grow Greater Englewood)

Anchoring the Agro-Eco district is the forthcoming Englewood Nature Trail – a two-mile linear park that will reconnect residents with nature. The trail project also addresses a spectrum of environmental issues, from repurposing old railroad embankments to mitigating soil pollution and seasonal flooding.

“The connector rail was abandoned 60 years ago, but nature did its thing – it reclaimed this space on its own. But we can’t just have a greenway, surrounded by vacant lots,” notes Seal Jr. “The answers are already there in the community. Using an asset-based approach we can listen to the people who live closest to the problem and provide a platform to take on the problem – that’s the role of Grow Greater Englewood.”

The Englewood Nature Trail embodies a unique approach to revitalizing the community. Beyond its environmental benefits, the project creates green jobs and drives economic stability for residents. It also creates powerful engagement initiatives such as community gardens and communal spaces, strengthening social ties within Englewood.

Community members greet visitors at a booth next to a sign that states, "Welcome! Englewood Nature Trail."
Community members greet visitors at a booth. (Photo credit: Grow Greater Englewood)

With the $3.8 million grant from the Bezos Earth Fund, GGE can expand its work. This support helps advance GGE's mission to empower residents, ushering in a future where environmental equity thrives alongside community resilience.

"What the Bezos Earth Fund is modeling, which is funding directly to frontline organizations, is not being driven by bureaucrats or a philanthropy’s board of trustees – it’s using their coffers in a way that really partners with communities," says Seals Jr.

Community-Led Solutions for Environmental Justice

Community engagement is at the core of GGE's approach. More than 500 residents have been actively involved in project discussions and decision-making processes, ensuring that initiatives reflect the needs, aspirations, and wisdom of the community.

By centering this approach, GGE is not only creating tangible improvements in Englewood, it’s also fostering a sense of ownership and pride among residents. As other communities across the U.S. seek solutions to their own challenges, they can draw inspiration from GGE's remarkable journey.

(Photo credit: Grow Greater Englewood)

True systemic change, however, also requires commitment and collaboration among government officials, philanthropies, and grassroots organizations. Breaking bureaucratic bottlenecks and addressing funding shortfalls are essential steps to support transformative initiatives like those pioneered by GGE in Chicago's South Side.

“Philanthropies and city governments need to lean into co-governance and power sharing with frontline communities,” adds Seals Jr. “You have to include people who are in these spaces, from these communities, helping make the decisions.”

Only through this level of collaboration can we truly create a future where environmental justice and urban greening flourish in communities nationwide.

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