EFBL backyard brings justice-focused gardening to Evanston

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As community gardens and urban farming projects spread across the Chicago area, Evanston organized Fight for Black Lives open West End Garden, a community garden in Adam Perry Park in Evanston’s 5th District.

Organizers said they want the garden to be both a joyful common space and a center for education and activism on issues of racial justice, food accessibility and sustainability. Volunteers and organizers built raised beds at an event on May 15 and plan to plant produce and native wildflowers on an upcoming Grow Day on May 29.

“Gardens can be some of the most intimate spaces and do some of the most basic work,” said Emma Barreto, an EFBL organizer who co-directs the gardening project with EFBL organizer Nia Williams.

Barreto said gardening could be a therapeutic way to address the complex historical relationships between agriculture and black Americans, but she thinks it could also be a source of community loyalty and empowerment.

At an April event hosted by Citizens’ Greener Evanston, EFBL organizer Maia Robinson said the garden could address this story while also helping the community.

“In the past, the environment has been used as an instrument of repression by us,” said Robinson, referring to racial injustices such as slavery and growing crops. “Now we are looking for a way to understand this story while relearning how to use the environment for our own benefit.”

In the long term, said Barreto, the organizers hope to start a mentoring program that will focus on agricultural training.

Once the garden is up and running in the coming weeks, they also schedule workshops to educate community members about gardening techniques they can use at home or in farming professions.

“It’s really powerful to have a garden in your own yard and not have to rely on grocery stores that are … kind of far (from home),” said Barreto.

This independence is necessary in some parts of Evanston. According to 2015 US Department of Agriculture census data, residents in four of the 18 census areas in Evanston’s 1st, 5th, 7th, and 8th parishes do not access to a supermarket within half a mile of their residence. Barreto said inaccessibility can make grocery shopping especially difficult for people who don’t own vehicles.

In addition to workshops and mentoring programs, the organizers hope to give away products grown in the West End Garden to help fight food insecurity.

Volunteers at Semillas y Raíces tend vegetables and native wildflowers. Semillas is an indigenous-run community garden on the west side of Chicago. (Courtesy Semillas y Raices)

Sustainability is also an important part of the organizers’ vision. Barreto said they plan to plant native wildflowers in the garden support Pollinator species. Native plants can mitigate climate change by absorbing atmospheric carbon dioxide, while pollinators that have suffered species loss in recent years can play a key role in supporting ecological stability.

In addition to Evanston, several community gardens in the Chicago area work to build community and address social justice issues.

Semillas y Raíces, a community garden on the west side of Chicago, uses gardening to create spaces for indigenous agricultural practices and focus on social justice and local community.

Tomas Ramirez, organizer at Semillas, said the goal of the garden is to build a sustainable community where people are “in the right relationship” with nature, their cultural background and their colleagues.

Organizers sometimes refer to Semillas as “the glass garden” because the ground was littered with broken glass and rubbish when they started planting a few years ago. Since then, they have cleaned the space and built healthy, organic floors that can support products, mushrooms, and herbs.

Xavier Colon, a Semillas gardener, said he planted native species because they are resilient and support ecological stability. Since adding native plants, Colon has noticeably increased the number of birds, pollinators, and butterflies.

“It’s a huge restoration project to do that,” said Colon. “(We) are rebuilding this soil and bringing in our culture.”

Sam Arechiga, organizer and student at DePaul University, said the events in Semillas were central to the overall mission of building community through indigenous practices.

In addition to gardening, Semillas hosts restorative justice circles where parishioners can speak about conflict and violence, as well as barbecues, indigenous ceremonies, and workshops that focus on traditional cooking techniques.

Gardeners at Growing Home work in a tire store. Growing Home is an urban farm in Englewood opening a community garden in June. (Courtesy Growing Home)

“I’m from the southwest, so it was very important to me to find this room because I felt like I had so many people with whom I could identify in such a big city,” said Arechiga. “It’s just a really nice thing to be part of such an integrative and intergenerational space.”

In Englewood, not far from Semillas, an urban farm called Growing Home plans to create its own community garden in June.

LaQuandra Fair, the community engagement coordinator at Growing Home, said families who sign up for garden space will receive seedlings, tools, and any assistance they need to start their own garden. Fair said the community garden will deal with the inaccessibility of food in the neighborhood.

“Everyone deserves a good job and good food,” said Fair, “and that’s part of that – making sure people … have a space to grow their own food.”

According to Fair, Growing Home also offers a 12-week professional training program that includes courses on environmental literacy, mental and emotional health, and work readiness, especially in the green and agricultural industries. The program is designed to set goals and overcome structural barriers, she said.

As part of the professional training program, Growing Home also works with legal aid firms to provide free assistance to employees who need help clearing criminal records to secure employment.

“We just really want to provide people with the tools and knowledge we have,” said Fair.

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @ willsclark01

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