Southside Blooms: An Inspiring Societal Program In Chicago

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Southside Blooms

The principal rival of Quilen and Hannah Blackwell, the proprietors of Southside Blooms, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization that employs young adults and at-risk youngsters, isn’t other flower businesses. It’s the streets’ enduring allure.

With regard to the young people who had previously participated in their program, Hannah Blackwell stated, “We heard that some of the kids in our after-school program joined a gang when they grew older.” Regarding a prior program member, the Kansas native remarked, “I don’t know if Shawn is still alive.”

With the tagline “flowers that empower,” the Southside Blooms flower shop is located in the Englewood neighborhood of South Side Chicago, which is primarily home to Black people. The Blackwells, who are parents to three children, have spent the last ten years living in an impoverished food desert that is rife with vacant lots, limited work options, and gun and gang violence. “What you see in the media is true,” stated Quilen Blackwell.

Known for being among the most violent cities in the country, Chicago recorded 617 homicides in 2023. In the same year, 327 killings occurred in Los Angeles and 386 in New York. Shootings in Englewood have decreased in frequency, according to the Blackwells. The Chicago Police Department said in February that, as compared to the same period in 2023, the city had witnessed double-digit decreases in shootings, killings, and shooting victims.

However, the son of the Blackwells is still scared and crawls into their bed at night when he hears shooting. The risks serve as a reminder to a devout couple of their necessity in Englewood. Quilen Blackwell, a Madison, Wisconsin native, stated, “I felt like the Lord was calling me to the inner city.”

The location of the Chicago Eco House is in Englewood. Through farming, flower producing, and flower sales, the flower shop’s umbrella non-profit teaches young people life and employment skills through sustainable urban agriculture. The artistic young people of Southside Blooms create flower centerpieces and arrangements for neighborhood events, such as weddings. For as long as they like, people can work in the shop or on the off-grid farms.

“It goes beyond simply teaching you some fundamental skills for ten weeks and saying, ‘Hey, good luck finding a job,'” stated Quilen Blackwell. “In our situation, we are the careers and the jobs.”

The Blackwells hope to turn vacant sites into profitable flower farms that employ young people in the neighborhood for the long run. This will allow them to develop flower sales as an anchor industry. They claim that doing this will keep them off the streets. “We want them to be proud of Englewood and ask themselves, ‘What can I do to make it better?’ rather than, ‘As soon as I can, I’m getting out of here.'” stated Hannah Blackwell.

In 2020, the Blackwells introduced Southside Blooms, and ten years ago, Chicago Eco House. Since then, they have transformed five abandoned properties in Chicago into solar-powered flower farms. The Chicago Eco House is a two-lot property. The Blackwells have permission to utilize the other three, which are owned by the county and the city. The projects turn vacant, litter-filled spaces in the neighborhood into pesticide-free gardens that draw in birds, bees, and grasshoppers.

Everyone Is Happy

Their Southside Blooms career development program, whose participants are usually between the ages of 16 and 25, has roughly 35 members. The couple says they are planning to create a second Southside Blooms flower shop on Chicago’s West Side as the organization expands. Two years after joining Southside Blooms, 16-year-old junior Armani Hopkins, who is now a team lead after advancing to the position, intends to stay on the team even after enrolling in the University of Chicago to pursue a microbiology degree.

Armani stated, “Working at Southside Blooms has had a very positive impact on my life.” “It has taught me that life has more to offer, that Black neighborhoods have beauty, and that everyone deserves respect and love from one another.”

For the previous two years, 27-year-old Dionta White has been a member of the Chicago Eco House farm team. He claims that after enrolling in the class, he has improved his ability to control his emotions and gained knowledge of how businesses operate. He recognizes the importance of dedication as well.

“Working on the farm really made me realize that if you put in the work, hard work will pay off,” White stated. “You have to envision yourself succeeding in all you do and maintaining your attention at all times. Every action you take has a goal. Before the Great Depression, Englewood enjoyed economic prosperity, and by 1930, it had the second-largest commercial center in Chicago.

During the Great Migration, which saw 6 million Black people leave the South and travel across the nation between 1910 and 1970, the city served as a hub. Among them were the maternal grandparents of Quillen Blackwell, who moved to Milwaukee during that time as sharecroppers from Arkansas. At least a few generations of White families that battled to dwell in Englewood during the 1930s redlining of Chicago communities still call it home.

Apart from redlining, racially restricted covenants implemented in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and other cities served to maintain the White population in specific neighborhoods. Englewood’s White population declined as more Black people migrated there following a 1948 US Supreme Court decision invalidating the practice.

Following the Great Depression, redlining, White flight, and disinvestment hurt small companies in Englewood and caused property prices to drop. Chicago suffered greatly during the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic. Further undermining Englewood’s economic foundation was the outsourcing of jobs that occurred in the ensuing ten years, according to Quilen Blackwell.

In the 2000s, White said, hanging out at Englewood’s parks wasn’t an option. He remembered that “they (were) always getting shot up.” According to the Illinois Policy Institute, the formerly prosperous neighborhood still suffers from drug use, violence, poverty, and prostitution, with a 40% poverty rate.

Southside Blooms Is In A Secure Area

The goal of bettering the inner city brought the Blackwells together. They discovered a reasonably priced Englewood home in 2015, had it fixed up in six months, and have been residing there ever since.

“Our first youth program was in our backyard; everything that you see today with both (Chicago) Eco House and Southside Blooms started inside our house,” Quilen Blackwell stated. According to the couple, Southside Blooms serves as a fulfillment center, and The Chicago Eco House farms the flowers.

“Our delivery model essentially involves distributing our services throughout the Chicagoland area and into the suburbs of Northwest Indiana. By doing so, we are redistributing resources from well-resourced communities back into the community,” explained Hannah Blackwell. We keep the door secured, as opposed to operating like a typical retail flower shop that depends on walk-in and walk-by customers. Everyone who is inside is in a safe place, she said.

Chicago’s winters are not very productive, but in 2023 the Blackwells started their indoor bulb-forcing operation, which allowed them to grow flowers all year round and gave the farm crew steady work. The majority of the winter flower cultivation, primarily tulips, has occurred in the Chicago Eco House basement since last year. The Blackwells want to cultivate approximately 30,000 bulbs there a year.

“We weren’t able to provide that stable, year-round employment opportunity, and I feel like that’s one reason we did lose some of those young men (who left the program),” stated Hannah Blackwell. According to the pair, the average length of time a participant stayed at Chicago Eco House was three months in 2018, but average stays were now six months, and some participants had been there for as long as three years.

Quilen Blackwell received the Director’s Community Leadership Award from the FBI’s Chicago field office in 2019 in recognition of her efforts to reduce poverty and violence through the Chicago Eco House. The organization mentioned that the non-profit co-founder’s efforts had resulted in over 30 high school students receiving stipends to finance their studies in urban agriculture.