Greetings, cousins!” Naomi Davis’s voice booms across the crowd seated on folding chairs and hay bales at the Green Village Pavilion, a space of calm tucked into a corner of the African Festival of the Arts in Washington Park. Out on the festival’s pathways, women double-dutch in the shade. Reggae music floats over from the booth down the lane.
Davis is the founder and leader of Blacks in Green (BIG), a West Woodlawn-based organization that focuses on sustainability, economic development, and land stewardship in African-American communities. BIG was sponsoring both the Green Village Pavilion booth and Circle in the Grove, an arts-focused gathering circle made of hay bales thirty yards away.
Over the course of the festival’s four days, Davis led an impressive program of discussions, demonstrations, performances, and speakers ranging from mayoral candidate, education specialis, and lawyer Amara Enyia, to Kelsey Taylor, a civil engineer involved with the campaign to bring the Obama Presidential Library to the former Michael Reese Hospital in Bronzeville (a bid which did not make the short list of sites). Over the four days, Davis brought energy, kindness, and undeniable passion to the issues she unpacked.
Between panels, I sat down with her to discuss her reasons for starting Blacks in Green, what makes a viable walkable village, and the future of community-vetted land development in and around Woodlawn.
In BIG’s parlance, what is a village? What does a village have that a Chicago neighborhood doesn’t?
The first thing to recognize when we’re distinguishing things, is that a village is a walkable unit. In our parlance, we’re looking at sustainability, one square mile at a time. For example, where BIG is headquartered, we have a green village building pilot that we launched in 2007. We are an almost literal square mile—we go from King Drive to Cottage Grove, from 60th Street to South Chicago. That almost-square mile is the southernmost tip of Bronzeville. It is a Great Migration community. It is Chicago’s first black middle-class neighborhood. It is a blighted community.
Our rule of thumb regarding the walkable villages: say you’re in the middle of your workday and you need a quart of milk… How far are you willing to walk to get that milk and come back in a round trip?
Here in Chicago, like many cities that are planned on the Platt system, they would have a commercial corridor every few blocks. A lot of times in the black community, those commercial corridors have become taken over by blight—there are many vacant lots, there are many abandoned buildings. The vibrancy of the merchant class…that’s gone.
Where we talk about a village, we talk about a self-sustaining whole, we talk about self-sustaining black communities everywhere. We talk about sustainability one square mile at a time. We talk about whether every household can walk to shop, walk to work, walk to learn, walk to play, and in that context we talk about the local living economy.
From what I’ve gathered, a lot of community organizations on the South Side target very specific issues like violence or school closings. How do you see BIG addressing those issues with its more systemic approach?
We believe that only a whole systems solution can transform a whole systems problem. We have identified…the whole system problem common to black communities everywhere. And when we mean everywhere, we mean if you are this color [points to self], wherever you live, if you’re brown, it turns out you have certain common problems.
When I first started researching this in 2000, I was in despair about the condition of the black community. I found out I’m what they call a systems thinker—that I look for how everything connects to everything else. So the eight Principles of Green Village Building emerged out of my inherent nature of looking at what could combat that cluster of whole system problems.
The approach to fixing something needs to take into account all of the factors that are sourcing that symptom—violence is a symptom of despair, anger, frustration, hopelessness. It’s strange for me…to think that many of these young men and women do not believe that they are going to live past twenty-five years old. They figure they’re going to go out guns blazing—that’s what they know, that’s what they do. That level of despair, of ignorance, really, starvation, is a systemic product of a society that has predetermined they have no worth in the first place.
You said at a presentation yesterday that African-American communities have been hardest hit by climate change, first and worst. Why is this?
It’s not just African Americans, it’s communities of color all around the world. For example, the extreme weather associated with climate change is drought, flood, drought, flood. People [who farm] the land, growing crops and feeding their families, are hit by these drought-flood sequences that are no fault of their own. Millions of people of color around the world are being forced out of their homelands because the land has become unusable, infested, they don’t have the water that they need to grow anything.
They argue that the heat wave that killed people in Chicago a few years back…was a result of climate crises. If we don’t have local living economies where we’re inventing, investing, manufacturing, merchandising locally, we’re waiting on the truck to come. Increasingly, in these days of climate crisis, the truck ain’t coming. So we’ve got vulnerable communities with a lack of relationships, they cannot afford to stockpile anything, they contribute the least to global warming: they don’t mine resources to make new things. We’re not caught in that vicious cycle. There’s a lot of thrift, there’s a lot of reuse, there’s a lot of passing down going on, which is the conservation lifestyle.
Can you speak to some of the successes that you’ve had as an organization?
One of the successes that we’re really very excited about is that we’re going to be doing real estate development. We have been talking about place, studying place, we’ve been teaching place, we have been advocating place. We’re delighted to have reached this phase in our organizational evolution where we’re developing land, a new style for living in the urban center. It’s called the homestead and we have five different styles of that homestead development. We had our first annual South Side homesteader’s fair back in April where we began to frame the concept of what it meant to live in a twenty-first-century climate crisis environment. What were the new styles of living? What were the new structures we’d be living in? How would they be built and financed?
Our sustainability teaching garden, on the corner of 60th and St. Lawrence is our first work. We’re going to be continuing the work of the West Woodlawn botanic farm and garden association, which is a land use planning vision that we brought through the green and healthy neighborhood process. It is about a food enterprise system, where we are taking things from seed to production and really working through the process with the community’s support, creating a master plan around the cultural legacy of West Woodlawn—it cannot be lost. It is alone in the history of Chicago. We have a unique cultural legacy that we are committed to preserving.
At the end of the day, BIG came with interest in what the people have to say, with support for what was already happening, we came with an established system and hypothesis of what could work, and we have been consistently at work since then. We are inviting people to come to 6011 South St. Lawrence, ring the bottom buzzer, meet with us, to garner with us the resources that we need, the organizing strategies that are necessary. Let’s get organized for this next phase where community-controlled development decides the future of the walkable villages of the city of Chicago.
Blacks in Green, 6011 S. St. Lawrence Ave. (773)678-9541. blacksingreen.org