Lloyd DeGrane / for the Energy News Network
A partnership with utility ComEd has helped Blacks in Green expand its mission with a community gathering space it calls the Green Living Room.
Blacks in Green has spent 12 years promoting energy efficiency, green jobs, and sustainability in Chicago’s African American communities — a mission that has recently expanded with a partnership with utility ComEd.
The Green Living Room in the West Woodlawn neighborhood is the group’s first fully public community gathering space and headquarters. Naomi Davis, Blacks in Green (BIG) president and founder, says the facility will accelerate positive transformation and community building, fueled by energy initiatives, in an area of Chicago where citizens say their environmental ambitions are largely neglected.
“We were volunteer-run, enormously productive, and had hundreds of programs over the last 12 years. But this is a big break for us,” Davis said.
Visitors to the Green Living Room encounter a coffeehouse atmosphere, complete with couches and a snack bar selling food and beverages. One section houses a cultural retail area where visitors can purchase home decor and books. Videos related to African American culture and environmental issues are projected across a far wall.
A row of computers provides free WiFi and printing; the home screens are set to ComEd’s website to encourage visitors to learn more about the benefits of energy efficiency, free home energy efficiency assessments, and green job postings. ComEd energy efficiency fliers and learning stations are positioned throughout the community space and in BIG’s events room in the adjoining property.
“Part of our mission is they’re going to learn about energy efficiency by any means necessary,” Davis said.
ComEd provides the lion’s share of the funding for the 2,000-square-foot space and BIG’s next stage of initiatives via a contract through which BIG brings energy efficiency information to citizens in the neighborhood. Other partners have provided smaller grants. Davis stressed how appreciative BIG is of ComEd’s year-long financing, but she noted that the group will be without a sustainable funding source if the contract does not renew.
“We have to re-up and reboot where our cash flow is concerned. … We don’t want to have to dog paddle for our next-level funding,” she said. BIG aspires to continue and expand its initiatives by using “public funds in a way that we are taking care of the needs of those who have been denied the longest, who have been overburdened the most,” she said. “We’re looking for equity in every sense of the word, starting with doing the math.”
The new funding allowed Davis to transform the volunteer organization into one that employs about 10 part-time energy efficiency team leaders and coaches. The employees facilitate community outreach and guide the implementation of BIG’s programs that balance environment, economics and equity.
“Our neighborhoods are pretty much looked over when it comes to renewable energy sources, jobs, green living, anything of that sort. What this establishment is doing is wonderful,” said Timothy Williams, a BIG energy efficiency coach.
For more than a decade, BIG has focused on achieving social justice by connecting underserved communities with green jobs and sustainability programs. This summer, for example, the nonprofit partnered with solar company Sunrun to increase South Side Chicagoans’ access to solar energy at home and to jobs in the industry. The group continues lobbying for the passage of Illinois’ Clean Energy Jobs Act.
BIG coaches teach residents about the cost savings and other benefits of energy efficiency. Communities of color frequently are left out of these conversations, yet they “are hit first and worst” by the effects of climate change, Davis said.
The nonprofit’s work stretches into numerous seemingly discrete sectors that actually are interconnected. It touts the holistic approach to driving community progress, with environmental and economic issues at its core.
“We have what we call a ‘whole system solution’ for the whole system problem common to black communities everywhere,” Davis said.
A main tenet of this approach is to increase black neighborhoods’ household incomes while building sustainability. That should serve as the new metric for economic development initiatives’ success, Davis said.
“In this new epoch of equity, we’re saying, ‘Stop doing what hasn’t worked.’ The thing we have not seen as a measure for what makes a difference in the programs that are being funded is if they increase household income,” she said.
BIG considers energy efficiency and jobs-driven development the building blocks for growing and circulating wealth within black communities. Its strategy requires accelerating the rate at which neighbor-owned businesses are created and sustained; building neighbors’ capacity to own, develop, and manage property in their community; and fostering the conservation lifestyle.
Each BIG employee is an entrepreneur with their own small business idea, most of which are in some way tied to nature or the environment. Suzanne Waddell spearheaded the recent dedication of the Mamie Till Forgiveness Garden, a community garden from which colleagues Patrice Patterson and Tanisha Kilpatrick will source ingredients for their respective all-natural, hand-crafted skin care line and spice line. The horticultural theme extends to the outdoor area behind the Green Living Room where BIG created a pollinator garden housing a variety of herbs and other plants.
“We understand the role that pollination plays in life — in our diet and in everyday ways that people don’t even recognize. We need this place in our urban environment,” said Asadah Kirkland, BIG consultant and founder of the Soulful Chicago Book Fair.
The Green Living Room champions one of the key ideas in the 8 Principles of Green-Village-Building, which BIG developed years ago. The principles guide the creation of a “sustainable square mile” where residents can walk to where they work, learn, shop and play. Each walkable village is to be anchored by a Green Living Room, in line with the seventh principle of green village building: fostering lifelong learning through hubs. These hubs serve as epicenters for green training, development, and lifestyle transformation that boosts the entire community.
BIG wants the sustainable square mile concept to spread to communities throughout Chicago and the country. “Our founding vision is self-sustaining black communities everywhere,” Davis said. Even prior to its energy efficiency work with ComEd, BIG’s founding vision involved striving for energy efficiency and independence within a green village.
“Our second principle of green village building is that each village creates its own energy for light, heat and transportation. So we have been really on the leading edge of what it means to have renewable energy at the community level since we were founded in 2007,” Davis said.
The Green Living Room offers a positive environment where neighbors can “come in and get everything done” without traveling to other neighborhoods — such as wealthier communities on Chicago’s North Side — to complete daily tasks, Kirkland said. “I know this … because I like to do things in my own community,” she said.
Such spaces are rare in West Woodlawn and surrounding neighborhoods, the team said.
“It is hard to find those spaces that welcome you and allow you to do connecting on a local level,” Patterson said.
More than 1,200 people have visited the Green Living Room since its official opening in October. BIG has hosted nearly three dozen events there, including green job education and hiring sessions.
BIG has a three-year lease for its neighborhood hub and hopes to find a place to purchase in the future. The group intends to franchise the Green Living Room concept. Already, four other Chicago communities have sought BIG’s help with establishing their own Green Living Rooms. Team members also are assisting a black-run nonprofit in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with advancing six sustainable square mile walkable villages that each would have a Green Living Room as their centerpiece.
“This is my calling. It is my joy,” Davis said. “A lot of people hate their work or tolerate it … I consider it a great blessing to have a calling.”