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Wangari Maathai on the West Side

The Center for Neighborhood Technology recalls a 2007 visit to a Chicago school by Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai, who died Monday in Nairobi at the age of 71.

Maathai graced the Al Raby School for Community and Environment in East Garfield Park to attend the dedication of a natural garden that was named for her, one of CNT’s first green infrastructure projects.  The 1,500 square-foot native woodland garden at the school’s entrance  is “not only beautiful; it also connected the students to nature by providing a hands-on experience in landscape design, creation, and maintenance,” CNT writes.

“At the garden dedication, Ms. Maathai drew a connection between the work of the students on Chicago’s West Side to students around the world who ‘get down on the ground’ to plant gardens as a means of making the world more peaceful and just.

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Nobel Laureate to Dedicate School Garden

Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, will preside over a ceremony dedicating a new garden named in her honor at the Al Raby High School for Community and Environment, 3545 W. Fulton, on Saturday, September 22, at 6 p.m.

The native woodlands garden has replaced 2000 square feet of concrete at the school’s entrance and provided students a hands-on experience in landscape design, creation and maintenance, said Nicole Gotthelf of the Center for Neighorhood Technology, which is the school’s founding civic partner. Students, staff, and CNT collaborated with city Greencorps workers and community businesses on the garden, which was supported by a grant from the Prince Charitable Trusts.

A small school opened in 2004 in the old Lucy Flowers Academy building in East Garfield Park, Al Raby High is named for the Chicago civil rights leader and teacher who worked here with Martin Luther King and later directed the Peace Corps in Ghana. The school equips students to tackle social justice and environmental issues, and seeks to use community activism to inspire students personally and academically.

A community mapping technology called Geographic Information Systems, which helps study the impact of social and environmental issues, is used throughout the school’s curriculum; the same GIS technology is used by Maathai’s Green Belt Movement to map reforestation efforts.

Maathai is visiting Chicago as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, discussing her recent autobiography “Unbowed” at the University of Chicago on September 23.

The Green Belt Movement she founded in Kenya in 1977 has planted 30 million trees, created 6,000 nurseries and provided livelihoods to thousands of poor rural women in an effort to address deforestation and poverty.

Finding the roots of environmental degradation in government corruption and global development strategies that consume resources and promote inequality, the Green Belt Movement confronted Kenya’s dictatorship, and Maathai was jailed repeatedly and severely beaten by police; she lived in hiding at times during the early ’90s. But in Kenya’s first democratic election in 2002 she was overwhelmingly elected to parliament and became assistant minister for the environment.

The 2004 Nobel Prize recognized Maathai for “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights, and women’s rights.”

This year she is spearheading the Billion Tree Campaign of the United Nations Environmental Program, an effort to plant one billion trees in one year in an attempt to mitigate global warming.

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