What will end the violence in Chicago? For Robbin Carroll, the answer is relationships.
Carroll is the founder and president of I Grow Chicago, a nonprofit dedicated to providing a safe place for kids and at-risk community members in Englewood, one of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Chicago.
It began one day when Carroll was dropping her kid off at school in Hyde Park. She looked around and saw a neighborhood wracked with crime and little community development.
“I got simply sick of hearing all of the shooting on the south side and couldn’t understand it,” Carroll told Everyday Heroes. “I just couldn’t wrap my hands around it … we send money all over the world, why don’t we do something in our own backyard? This was me doing something in my own backyard.”
Initially Carroll wanted to start working in Hyde Park, another segregated Chicago neighborhood known for its populations of the immensely wealthy and poverty-stricken living side by side. However, when she contacted the alderman to see what she could do, she found him uncooperative. Instead, she looked to nearby Englewood, where a community farmer began teaching her about urban farming.
One day the farmer suggested Carroll share her passion for yoga and mindfulness practices with the kids in the community. She began teaching yoga classes in the streets and in abandoned lots. At first she was unsure that what she was doing was having an effect on the kids, but then one of the boys she taught came up to her and thanked her.
“He said, ‘My mom is a crack addict and every day I have to get my brother and sister ready for school. Doing mindfulness helps me not be mad at her,’” Carroll recalled.
Encouraged, she continued her work. One day, Englewood’s alderman approached her as she taught the youths and told Carroll she wanted her help in the community.
That’s when Carroll had the idea to buy a house and rehabilitate it. In March of 2012, she paid $6,000 for a house that was about to be demolished, hired a contractor to fix it up and asked him to employ members of the community to do the work.
Carroll said that at the time, the police-community relationship stood at zero. That changed once the house renovations began. As community members and the contractor worked on the property, police would stop by. They were amazed to see the same men who often gave them trouble building the fence, helping with the house and planting the garden. Carroll believes the officers seeing the men in a different light helped bridge a gap, as did providing men who typically would be hanging on the streets with something constructive to do.
The following year, Carroll bought two of the abandoned empty lots next to the house for $1 each, thanks to Chicago’s dollar lot program. I Grow Chicago now hosts events, yoga classes and gardening hours on the property. The house, which they call the Peace House, is open every day for people to gather, do laundry or pick up donated food, clothing or supplies. Tutoring sessions and after-school programs also are available.
Carroll wants to make sure people know that I Grow Chicago isn’t about rescuing the neighborhood from itself. She’s there to build community. That’s why all of the people who work at the organization, other than Carroll, are from Englewood itself.
“We’re not coming to help anyone,” she said. “We’re not coming to save people. We’re coming to connect with the community.”
Before Carroll started I Grow Chicago, neighbors on the block holed up in their houses and didn’t know one another because they were scared of crime and stray bullets, she said. Bringing the community together has had a resounding healing effect, not just neighbor-to-neighbor, but between the guys on the street and neighbors.
“What I love about the restorative effect is that today we all come together and host events — the same guys that robbed my neighbors or shot my neighbors up — and we’ve all healed and we all take care of each other now,” she added.
Despite being a white woman in a predominantly black neighborhood, Carroll said she’s never felt estranged.
“I know I’m white, but I’ve never felt that I was not accepted — ever,” she said. “A lot of that depends on whether or not [the kids] know you’re genuine.”
Carroll so genuinely wants to support the neighborhood that she funds 50 percent of the charity herself. She only recently started receiving donations.
So, what’s next for I Grow Chicago? Carroll wants to buy more of the abandoned and foreclosed houses that line the street near Peace House, refurbish them and use them to teach trades to community members. She hopes to call this the Peace Campus.
If you’re in the Chicagoland area, Carroll hopes you’ll consider coming to Englewood and spending time with the community. That way, you too can help bridge the gap between communities in one of the most segregated cities in the nation.
Learn more about I Grow Chicago at igrowchicago.org.