The Chicago Eco House was birthed in 2014 when the founder, Quilen Blackwell, was tutoring at a high school in the South Side of Chicago neighborhood of Englewood. Through this experience, he encountered the challenges of hardcore inner city poverty and how it directly affects the young people who live there. In Englewood, there are hundreds of vacant and blighted properties and the unemployment rate is 22 percent and the poverty rate is 44 percent. Furthermore, the unemployment rate amongst black youth ages 16-24 is 50 percent. It became obvious that developing a new economic solution to stem some of these economic problems was a huge need in the community.
After spending months of organizing local residents and community groups, we successfully launched the Stewart Street Farm, which provided 32 high school students with stipends to learn about urban agriculture. The farm occupies over two city blocks, and includes vegetables, flowers, and a fruit orchard. The Eco House worked with the local alderman’s office (Willie B. Cochran), TEAM Englewood and Urban Prep Academy high schools, and neighborhood advocates to secure the vacant land from the city in order to build this farm that benefits the local community.
However, we learned some valuable lessons in building out this first farm. The most important lesson is that we need to incorporate a more entrepreneurial model as the funding that pays the high school students stipends came from a local foundation’s grant and is not a long term sustainable solution. So, we decided to focus on building a flower farm business where the youth could be the business leaders. They would learn business skills in building and maintaining the farm operation and it would be able to grow more organically. In 2017, we built a second flower farm (shed, rainwater irrigation, flower beds, etc.) in the neighborhood and we partnered with Windy City Harvest (a nonprofit that trains urban farmers) to rent out our flower farm space to their urban farmer graduates. We recently secured our first urban farmer tenant and we are on track to generate $20,000 for the 2018 season with an agreed upon 70/30 revenue split (we would get 30 percent).
In terms of this project contributing to the green economy, our flower farm design uses two freely available resources (rainwater and sun) in order to be fully independent and sustainable. Urban farming requires thousands of gallons of freshwater every season and most urban farms in the city uses the city’s water supply. The city gets most of its water from Lake Michigan, a precious freshwater resource that must be preserved, so urban agriculture actually places an additional strain on Lake Michigan by using the city’s water supply. Our flower farm design uses a 1,100 gallon rainwater catchment system that collects rainwater off of the neighboring property’s roof. We have a 300 watt off grid solar panel system to power a pump that pushes water through over 750 feet of irrigation hosing. The Eco House flower farm model contributes to the local green economy by being a true manifestation of the triple bottom line: planet, people, and profit.
We also added our 3D printing in 2017. This program teaches youth how to operate the physical 3D printing hardware, use the slicing software, and create 3D printed models. Through this process youth are exposed to a hands on, immersive educational experience where they learn STEM skills in a real world setting. Furthermore, we use this educational model to enhance our youth’s job readiness skills since we run the program as a small business. Youth create 3D printed jewelry that is sold in retail shops on the South Side of Chicago and they receive a monthly dividend out of the net profits. This teaches youth valuable business skills to help them leverage their STEM learning in the marketplace.
Today, the Chicago Eco House has three sites in Woodlawn, Englewood, and West Garfield Park where we work with 60-70 youth a week.
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