The Chicago Eco House was birthed in 2014, but our story started way before then. Our president and founder, Quilen Blackwell, is the grandson (through his mothers side) of sharecroppers from Arkansas 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 around forced integration through busing policies were high. His parents moved to Madison, WI, soon after they were married in the hopes that they could raise their children in a much more stable situation then they experienced in Milwaukee. As a result, Quilen grew up in an ideal setting where he was given every opportunity to excel as he benefited from being a part of a prosperous dual income family, and he took full advantage of these opportunities as he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and became a United States Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand.
When Quilen returned home after finishing his Peace Corps service, he began looking for his niche as he transitioned back to American life. Ultimately, this led him to enrolling in ministry school at a small Christian school in the western suburbs of Chicago. Being in ministry school inspired him to commit to community service in Chicago, which led him to 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 among 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. Given the severity of the situation, Quilen felt like he had a choice to make: either ignore the pain he saw firsthand or dedicate his life to helping these young people. Given how fortunate he was to have a grandfather and parents make choices that allowed for him to avoid the trauma that many black people experience, he felt a sense of duty (particularly as a Christian) to go to the inner city and help his fellow black people who weren’t so fortunate to have the opportunities that he had.
This is the backdrop that inspired the Chicago Eco House. Quilen assembled a team of young adults in 2014 to help with the initial planning and preparation for the organization. During this time is when he would meet his future wife and partner Hannah Bonham Blackwell who also was committed to the inner city as she was living and serving on the west side of Chicago. Their mutual love and passion for the hood became the foundation for Eco House as they would do anything and everything to get get the organization off the ground including taking pies in the face in public places in order to raise money to pay for their 501c3 tax exempt filing. However, they had trouble raising enough money to secure a property in Englewood so they decided to use their own money and purchase a vacant two flat greystone property in the heart of Englewood. They spent 6 months rehabbing it and once complete their home became the headquarters for the Chicago Eco House as they opened their doors to their neighbors and used their space for youth programming.
As they worked with youth and their neighbors, they never lost sight of the bigger mission to use sustainability to alleviate poverty. So, they organized their neighbors to secure two vacant lots on their block in 2017 to build the first off grid commercial flower farm with the purpose of selling flowers to create jobs for local young people. This initial farm was an immediate success with youth and neighbors that word spread of their work to the point that they were invited into two other neighborhoods (Woodlawn and West Garfield Park) to replicate the model. Today, the Chicago Eco House has four farms throughout Chicago, one in Detroit, and also operates their own in house flower shop Southside Blooms where they hire local youth to make the flowers that they sell.
The Chicago Eco House is an emerging leader in sustainable urban agricultural development that is spurring bottom up economic development in the inner city, but in many ways it is a homecoming story that spans three generations and intersects with many of the biggest events that shaped African American history over the last 70 years. The bondage of Quilen’s grandfather being forced to work the land in the Jim Crow South under the sharecropper system has now led to the freedom of enjoying the colorful bounty of blooms on the south side of Chicago through social entrepreneurship!
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