The Chicago Eco House was born in 2014, but our story started way before then.
Our president and founder, Quilen Blackwell, is the maternal grandson of Arkansas sharecroppers who moved to Milwaukee to secure a factory job as part of the Great Migration. His father grew up in the inner city of Milwaukee during the immediate aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement when racial tensions were high. His parents moved to Madison, WI, soon after they married in the hopes they could raise their children in a more stable environment.
As a result, Quilen grew up in an ideal setting in which he was given every opportunity to excel as part of a prosperous dual-income family. He took advantage by earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and becoming a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand.
After finishing his Peace Corps service, Quilen began searching for his purpose while transitioning back to American life. In 2011, he enrolled in ministry school at a small Christian school in the western suburbs of Chicago. This inspired him to commit to community service and tutor at a high school in the Englewood neighborhood.
Through this experience, he encountered the challenges of hardcore inner-city poverty and its effects, specifically on the young residents. In Englewood, hundreds of vacant and blighted properties can be found. The overall unemployment rate is 22 percent, and the unemployment rate among black youths (ages 16-24) is 50 percent. The poverty rate is 44 percent.
It became obvious that developing a new economic solution to stem these problems was needed in the community. Given the severity of the situation, Quilen had a choice to make: either ignore the pain he saw firsthand or dedicate his life to helping people. Given how fortunate he was, Quilen felt a sense of duty (particularly as a Christian) to go to the inner city and help his fellow Black people.
This is the backdrop that inspired the Chicago Eco House.
In 2014, Quilen assembled a team of young adults to help with the initial planning and preparation for the organization. During this time, he met his future wife and partner Hannah Bonham Blackwell. She also was committed to the inner city and was living and serving on the West Side.
Their mutual love and passion for the ‘hood became the foundation for the Chicago Eco House, as they would do anything and everything to get the organization off the ground, including taking pies in the face to raise money to pay for their 501c3.
However, the Blackwells struggled to raise enough money to secure a property in Englewood. They didn’t give up and decided to use their own money and purchase a vacant two flat greystone in the heart of Englewood. The Blackwells spent six months rehabbing it, and once complete, their home became the headquarters for the Chicago Eco House. As they worked with their neighbors, the Blackwells never lost sight of the bigger mission: to use sustainability to alleviate poverty. In 2017, they secured two vacant lots on their block to build the first off-grid commercial flower farm to grow and sell flowers and create jobs for local residents. This initial farm was an immediate success and word spread.
Today, the Chicago Eco House has four farms throughout Chicago (Englewood, Woodlawn, West Garfield Park, and Washington Park) and one in Detroit. Additionally, they operate an in-house flower shop, Southside Blooms. While the Chicago Eco House is an emerging leader in urban agricultural that spurs bottom-up economic development in the inner city its story spans three generations and intersects with many of the biggest events that shaped African-American history over the last 70 years. The suffering his grandfather endured working the land in the Jim Crow South led to the freedom Quilen now enjoys as a social entrepreneur on Chicago’s South Side
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