Rashanah Baldwin is perhaps the busiest person in Englewood. She is the co-founder of the Residents Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.), a group of residents who work to further civic engagement, development, and education in the neighborhood. She also runs Shop Talk, a monthly speaker and town-hall series based out of an Englewood barbershop, and What’s Good in Englewood, a brief weekly radio show that highlights positive happenings in the community. All this work has recently culminated in a flurry of citywide and national media attention for both Baldwin, who goes by Shanah B, and her neighborhood—a place with more positive stories to tell than what, in most places, gets heard. I recently sat down to talk with Baldwin at Englewood’s Kusanya Café about her work.
In May, you and What’s Good in Englewood were featured in the Tribune and the Huffington Post. What was getting that attention like for you and the community?
It’s been good. It’s fascinating to see that the media is now paying attention to what we do. When I say “we,” I mean all current residents who’ve been at the forefront of changing the perception of the community. So that’s all good. The Tribune was a big deal because I didn’t think that would happen. The front page. So that really shook things up a bit. Helped to clean up the media’s perception of the community. Gave residents a chance and a hope to actually go out and see things differently from the perception the mainstream media has been putting out on TV—that there’s nothing but gunshots and violence and poor people and vacant lots. If you just watched the news, you would think that was our entire community. So I’m happy to make them pay attention to what we’re doing.
How would you describe What’s Good to people who haven’t listened in yet?
It’s a five to ten minute segment that I do on the show at 2pm (every Tuesday). It’s just snapshots of good things happening in the community. Just a minuscule portion of what is really happening that no one talks about—that the media doesn’t care to talk or report about. I’m always coming across programs for kids, interesting people, and asking myself, “Why isn’t the media covering this? Where is the headline on this event? Where is Channel 2 on this?” Well, we know what’s in the papers. We know what drives coverage there.
So you come across these stories…
Just by living in the community. I hear it, I talk about it. I mean, I talk to people in different meetings I’m at with R.A.G.E., and now people will actually send me a lot of stuff. So you can never run out of good things to talk about. Just as much as there’s bad stuff, there’s good stuff. This café is a good story. The market is a good story. At my old school the principal is having top black men come to the school and mentor kids. And no one’s talking about that. No one’s hyping that. No one’s making a big deal out of it. So if no one else is going to make a big deal out of it, then why can’t it be me? I’ve been here thirty years. I’m thirty. Why not?
You also do a regular town hall at a local barbershop?
Shop Talk at Powell’s Barbershop. That’s another good story—a barber who’s from the community, who is a business owner and a community leader. But it’s a speaker series where we talk about solutions. Not anti-violence. Not peace walks. Not the marches. I’m not about that. To create peace, you have to have peaceful events that change perceptions. So this solution-based speaker series is about important things happening in the community and is titled things like “Who Owns Englewood?” Do we own Englewood? We have so many people coming in here—we’ve got a Whole Foods. There are folks out there trying to displace our homeowners. Who really owns the Englewood community?
I’m still trying to see where I want to go with it. I want more solutions to come out of it, not just huffing and puffing. Yeah, we’re all riled up about this and that, but what’s the action? That’s always my goal. What’s the action? What are we doing? Are we just talking and pointing fingers about violence, violence, violence? What are we committed to doing?
Is that why you don’t like peace walks and anti-violence rallies? Because you feel they’re cathartic and not based in the need for action?
To be anti-violence—to have a poster with a kid saying “Don’t shoot, I want to grow up”—is, to me, like saying “Shoot me.” That doesn’t create peace. That’s not stopping the violence. The marches, the rallies, okay. Then what? The next day, you’re gone. The next day, you go back to your regular job. Okay, you rally, you put on the shirts—then what? What action is coming out of that? In order to create peace, you must have peaceful events, mindsets, and spaces.
We, here in the community, want organizations to raise Englewood by talking up the resources in the community, instead of marching in the streets and saying put the guns down. Did you know about this café? Did you know that we have an organic garden? Did you know about the reentry services available for people trying to get back into society? Did you know? Here are some positive things, instead of talking about violence. You’re bringing violence up! You’re creating it. It’s like you’re stuck in the mud.
Do you consider yourself more a journalist than an activist?
Yes. You won’t catch me down there at City Hall rallying and arguing and debating. I don’t have time for that. You don’t get paid to be an activist. To be an activist, you have to be full time. But I work for residents who live in the community and say, “Wait a minute, what I see on TV is not the same community I live in. My mother wasn’t on welfare. My dad wasn’t on drugs. I’m not a bastard. My father lives across town. I know where my father is. So what the hell are they talking about?” I’m tired of seeing all these nice, fluffy stories—they’ll go to Lincoln Park and highlight little, stupid fundraisers. But I’m like, come down to Englewood or the South Side in general and do some stories here too, because there are good things happening. It’s not us, it’s not them, it’s all of us. ‘Cause if good things happen in this community, you’ll be affected as well. Lincoln Park and Hyde Park, everywhere.
[Laughs] Everyone seems to think that I’m an activist and wants to label me as an activist. And a lot of my mentors, you know, came up in the era of the rights movement. They say, “I see it in you! You just need to go ahead and be the mayor of Englewood.” I’m like, no, I’m not doing that.
When journalists come to Englewood, who should they talk to, to find out about the other, more positive things happening in the community?
Well who are you talking to, right now? People like me. Not the ones who are at home, who’re asleep, who’re on the corner selling drugs. That’s all you see on TV or in a headline. They’ll get the typical ones who are on the street, who are not working, who are uneducated, who are a poor representation of the community. And, again, I’m not dumb enough to think that violence isn’t out here. Unfortunately, someone’s going to get killed whether I do anything about it or not. That’s a bigger issue and a bigger battle that I can’t fight. But, if anything, what I’m trying to do is hold a candle in the dark and say, “You know what, there is hope here.” If anything, with this segment, I hope to get others inspired, or maybe reach a mom who’s looking for somewhere to take her child or find some fun event or someone who didn’t know about this café or someone who didn’t know about the great programs that happen in the community.
Are there positive things about Englewood today that are unique to it?
The beautiful homes, the park, the beautiful gardens, the booming agricultural community that’s happening now. The fact that we have Chicago’s only U.S.-certified organic garden here in Englewood. That’s another thing. We have the beautiful Kennedy-King College, which harbors a sit-down, upscale restaurant—student run. This café. [Gestures above]
With your work and the work of others that you report about, how do you see the perception of Englewood—and Englewood itself—changing within the next few years?
If this momentum keeps rising, I think it’ll be a great place. We just need the residents already here not to get pushed out. It makes a difference to say, “You know what, I’m going to stay here too, I want to be a real part of the community.” So I think that’s definitely a change for the better. People start appreciating things, start wanting to be at the table. Before doing these interviews, I was one of the people who was like, “Yeah, this place sucks.” Or, “I’m scared.” And, you know, I could have been somewhere else. I could have gotten my degree and said I’m better than the community. But would I feel comfortable? Would I get those same friendly folks that I see when I sit there and engage with them? And I was like, “Well what am I leaving?” My home.