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Organic oasis in a food desert

Englewood residents and food justice activists will celebrate “the death of a food desert” when a new food market featuring local and organic produce opens for a community dinner and fundraiser Friday.

Graffiti and Grub, a project of urban farm pioneer LaDonna Redmond and “hip-hop educator” Wil Seegars, will open on June 19 for a healthy soul food dinner and a program of performances to celebrate Juneteenth. They’re raising funds to complete renovations of the store, with a full-scale opening planned for later this summer.

The store has been ten years in the making for Redmond. In 1999, after her son was diagnosed with severe food allergies and she couldn’t find organic produce in her own neighborhood, she and her husband Tracey began their own food garden.

A former organizer with the North Austin Coalition and co-director of Sisterhouse, Redmond took up the issue of access to healthy food more broadly, developing urban farm sites and a farmers market on the West Side, and operating Organico, an organic market at the Garfield Park Conservatory, for three seasons.

Today six farm sites in Austin and West Garfield are part of her legacy, along with a program in which 175 teens will be learning about green technology and installing urban farm sites and individual home gardens this summer. But her longterm goal was always to open a year-round grocery store.

Graffiti and Grub is “a community-based solution to the issue of food deserts,” she said. “Just bringing in an outside major chain grocery store isn’t enough” to address broader issues of health disparities for African Americans. “In addition to choices, people need a support system,” and Redmond describes the store as a “wellness center” providing information and education on food and health issues.

“There really does need to be local ownership in order to get businesses that are responsive to the community,” she said.

Seegars’ role is to foster creativity and entreprenuership among young people.

Local chefs are preparing meals — with and without meat, and vegan as well — and d.j.s and entertainers will be performing late into the night at Graffiti and Grub’s Juneteenth Celebration, Friday, June 19, starting at 5 p.m. at 5923 S. Wentworth.

At the book fair

“Expressions from Englewood,” an annual journal of essays, fiction and poetry, will be available at the Printers Row Lit Fest on Saturday and Sunday — and also at the Bronzeville Cultural Festival, June 19 and 20 at the Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies, 700 E. Oakwood.

Also appearing at Printers Row will be Michael Gardner, a Ceasefire worker in Roseland who’s worked in community outreach for 15 years, talking about his new book “American in a Sense,” which is described as a crime thriller and a collection of historical stories depicting Chicago’s various ethnicities and treating corruption, poverty, youth violence and organized crime.  He’ll be at space GG-1 from 12 noon to 2 p.m. on Sunday.

Promoting early education in Englewood

Early education slots in Englewood are filling up, Catalyst reports.  It’s the result of a collaboration of groups brought together at a forum this spring, co-convened by Catalyst and building on the work of POWER-PAC parents who went door-to-door to learn about obstacles to enrollment and help parents overcome them (covered by Newstips last December).    

Urban Earth Day

An Urban Earth Day event April 22 will establish Kennedy-King College as a “green hub” for the South Side, part of the greening of Englewood and the “green village building” strategy of Blacks In Green.

Naomi Davis of BIG envisions the college offering training in green trades and, beyond that, establishing a “green business school” to help build sustainable communities that will heal violence and alienation.

An “eco-fest” starting at 11 a.m. will feature family activities promoting ecological awareness — recycling activities, healthy cooking demonstrations, and workshops on energy conservation, urban gardening and bicycling.

Douglas Farr and Orrin Williams will speak at a closing program at 5:30 p.m. Farr is a noted local green architect whose new book, “Sustainable Urbanism,” argues that environmentalist need to move beyond an enthusiasm for green buildings to build sustainable communities.

Williams is a long-time environmentalist who directs the Center for Urban Transformation, aimed at creating ecologically sustainable communities and economic development projects in communities of color. He also directs employment training for Growing Home’s Wood Street Urban Farm at 58th and Wood. He’ll discuss models for the greening of Englewood.

“It’s important that the people of Englewood and other people of color tune into environmental issues, particularly as related to the emerging green economy and green jobs,” Williams said.

Fresh food in corner stores

He’s been working with Teamwork Englewood, whose quality of life plan identified access to healthy food as a community priority. He talks about a range of strategies, from a new farmers market to establishing produce markets and installing produce kiosks in corner stores, and even re-establishing the hand-pushed produce carts once common in the city.

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Direct action against foreclosures

Most advocates for families with troubled mortgages say some cases are unsalvagable. Not Action Now.

“We accept anyone, even the most difficult cases,” said Madeline Talbott of Action Now, a grassroots membership organization of low-income families based in Englewood, West Englewood, Austin and Little Village.

Calls to the group about mortgage problems “are increasing dramatically,” Talbott said. Action Now refers homeowners to counseling if it’s an option; if not they take a busload of members to the loan servicer’s office and “sit in and raise hell,” she said.

“Sitting in works,” she said. “It gets results.”

If there’s no local office for the loan servicer, the group encourages the Illinois Attorney General’s office to take action.

“Homeowners think it’s a matter of humilitation and shame; we think it’s a huge scandal brought on by lenders,” Talbott said. “We help people see it’s not a personal problem, it’s a public issue.”

Rather than being embarrassed, she says, homeowners in trouble “should be outraged at the injustice.”

The crisis stems from predatory lending, and Talbott lays much blame on the Bush administration, which “opposed any efforts to clamp down on predatory lending” and “completely opened the floodgates. It’s a systemwide failure.”

“You buy a house once or twice in a lifetime,” Talbott said. “How are you supposed to be an expert on all the scams they can run on you?”

“When we started organizing in Englewood in the ’80s there was a huge number of abandoned buildings.” Redlining meant there was no access to credit and it was very difficult to transact real estate deals. “We fought for CRA [the Community Reinvestment Act] and established lines of credit. Things changed and you could start buying and selling property through normal channels.”

Then “the subprimers found loopholes in the regulations, and nobody stopped them. The predatory lenders came in with the line than anybody could get a house.

“Now we’re back to just as many abandoned homes as ever.”

“What we need is an across-the-board solution,” Talbott said, with new federal legislation and regulation. “But for that we may need a new president and Congress, and we’re going to lose tens of thousands of homes in Illinois this year.”

In the meantime, the state should require mandatory mediation before foreclosure. “If you can get to mediation, you can often resolve these issues,” Talbott said.

Action Now has also prepared language for a city ordinance requiring owners of empty properties to pay fines and fees and acquire a license. That would give lenders an incentive to negotiate a resolution with homeowners.

Sit-ins also provide such incentives, and Action Now plans to continue with direct action.

“We really think this is a problem that was caused by bad guys, and we’re going to go after them,” said Talbott.

Healthy food in Englewood

Chitown Daily News reports on efforts to develop a “community food system” in the food desert of Englewood, with Teamwork Englewood and Growing Home among those talking the lead.  Growing Home operates an urban farm at 58th and Wood; Teamwork Englewood is including access to healthy food as part of the community’s “quality of life” planning process.  Plans include an Englewood Farmers Market — run by students at Lindblom Academy and opening in June — and a “kiosk project” to provide fresh produce in corner stores.

Recruiting LSC candidates

“The community here takes LSC elections very seriously — just as seriously as Hillary and Barack,” said Darryl Bell of Teamwork Englewood.

The group is one of a dozen around the city working with “minigrants” from the CPS Office of LSC Relations to recruit candidates for April LSC elections. The deadline for candidates to file is March 12.

PURE recently posted an updated guide to LSC elections (pdf).

Bell reports enthusiasm among community residents for the elections — in part motivated by concern over the consolidation of the Miles Davis Magnet and Vernon Johns Middle Schools. He said the change could create trouble by requiring students to cross gang boundaries.

Bob Vondrasek at South Austin Coalition reports a bit more difficulty in recruiting candidates. Organizers have encountered some negative attitudes toward LSCs, he said.

“Some go bad. Some are controlled by the principal,” he said. “But even with all the flaws, they’re still doggone worth having. They’re the only way you can have some kind of voice in the school.

“At it’s best, a good LSC and a good principal are the two key things. You get more parental involvement and more community involvement.”

“It’s extremely difficult motiving parents to run for LSCs when the board continues trying to close or turn-around schools” — acting unilaterally, without consulting their LSCs, said Wanda Hopkins, a parent advocate at PURE and LSC member at Lewis school who’s working with SAC on candidate recruitment.

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Going Door-to-Door for Early Learning

For over a year, a group of parents and grandparents in  low-income communities have been going door-to-door, doing surveys, outreach, and home visits, researching and promoting early learning.  They’ll discuss their work Monday as part of a symposium celebrating the accomplishments of the Chicago Early Learning and Literacy Project.

In the course of a year, members of the parents group POWER-PAC and allies surveyed 2500 families in Austin, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Logan Square.  As interest in their work grew, they were asked to conduct outreach for Head Start, and began working with Illinois Action For Children on a home-visiting program for CHA families with small children.

They’re trying to identify barriers to early education in low-income communities and come up with ideas to overcome them, said POWER-PAC organizer Kelly Magnuson.

Issues range from mobility and transportation to security concerns to “a huge lack of awareness” of the importance of early learning as well as of early learning opportunities.  Some 40 percent of families they contacted did not know of any resources for pre-school children in their community, Magnuson said.

For those who might wish to enroll their system, a vastly complicated preschool system is difficult to navigate, she said.

Despite the state’s Preschool For All program, an estimated 15,000 low-income children in low-income Chicago communities aren’t enrolled in preschool, Catalyst reported in September.  Some preschool sites have long waiting lists; others have trouble fillling their slots.  Early education has been shown to have a major impact on children’s success in school and beyond.

Maryann Plummer is an Englewood grandmother and POWER-PAC member who has gone door-to-door doing surveys and home visits.  Many young mothers she’s encountered “have too many problems of their own,” she said.

“They’ve got problems finding a place to stay or putting food on the table, finding a job or staying off drugs,” she said.  “We heard a lot of [young parents say they’re] not worried about early learning — their kids will go to school when they’re five — they’re worried about how to pay rent.”

In home visits she brings learning games and books and explains the importance of early education.

“You have to get through to the parents first and let them see the importance,” she said.  She tells them: “You want to give your child the opportunity you didn’t have.  You want to see the best for your child.

“And they’re buying it.”

Magnuson, an organizer with Community Organizing and Family Issues, said having  community members doing surveys and outreach is crucial to getting through to new parents and caretaking grandparents.

Leaders from POWER-PAC will present results and recommendations from their work (one idea: add funding for transportation to the state’s Preschool For All program) at Monday’s symposium on the Chicago Early Learning and Literacy Program, an 18-month effort administered by Illinois Action For Children to bring early education opportunities to at-risk children.  Other workshops will discuss collaborations with city agencies and schools as well as parks, libraries and clinics which incorporated early literacy activities into their programs.

Also on display will be “Big City, Little Learners,” an exhibit documenting the project’s effort to bring state-of-the-art teaching methods to 11 schools and child care centers. Teachers and young students explored the city and used activities like mailing a letter, riding a bus, or going to a candy store to develop topics for investigation.

The symposium takes place Monday, December 17, 3 to 7 p.m. at the Chicago Cultural Center, 77 E. Randolph.  Info at 773-564-8801

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