A South Chicago Educational Eco-Activist

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

I grew up in a very gritty Southeast Chicago, when the mills and related industries were thriving. Shops along Commercial Avenue, while not large (except for Goldblatt’s Department Store), appealed to a wide range of incomes. It was easy for young men to quit school and find work in the mills that paid enough in regular and overtime wages to earn more than their teachers were paid. Education was not a top priority, but the churches and the parks and the civic organizations made it possible to live a fairly full life and face the future with optimism. Whole new residential areas were developed in former swampland and industrial dumping areas.

In the 1950s, the high school curriculum reflected the factory model. Like a product coming off an assembly line, it was a fixed body of knowledge, unchangeable for decades. By the mid- to late ’60s, the concept of inquiry took hold. Rich hands-on materials flowed from universities and professional organizations into high school classrooms. Use of original sources and varying points of view became the norm. Teachers inspired each other. It was a very exciting time to be in the teaching profession.

Between 1980 and 1992, the steel industry died in Southeast Chicago, and the area experienced a horrendous unemployment rate. To date, no significant economic revitalization has occurred. What has happened is that community leaders have formed networks to promote recovery and address the needs of area residents. I have been able to enliven my teaching by connecting students with these networks.

In the late ’90s, I was Bowen High School’s Service Learning Coach. Jon Schmidt of Chicago Do Something contacted me to involve our students in ecological stewardship and restoration in our region through the Calumet Is My Backyard (CIMBY) Program. Work sessions were combined with hiking and bird-watching under the guidance of experts in the field. Area eco-activists, such as Hazel Johnson from Altgeld Gardens and Marian Byrnes from the Southeast Environmental Task Force, were invited to share their stories with the students. The impact of this use of the local environment as a living classroom was not wasted.

In 2002, with generous funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Bowen Environmental Studies Team (BEST) High School was formed as a small school on the Bowen campus. Classroom activities were to include community involvement in all those areas. Students would be learning from community activists as well as about 20 partner organizations, most of them in our area, to provide hands-on experiences for our students. An English teacher inspired a writing class with a brief video of deer at Cedar Park Cemetery. Students touched by the story of frogs deformed from polluted waters had to give up the idea of a frog pond on campus, but worked with Green Corps to design and build a garden with benches for an outdoor classroom.

In 2004, at age 65, I retired and, with my husband, looked to local agencies for volunteer opportunities. We became members of the Calumet Stewardship Initiative’s education team. CSI’s thirty-plus members (environmental, civic and cultural organizations, primarily from Chicago’s Southeast Side and Northwest Indiana) have become involved in two recent annual 10th Ward Green Summits, in conjunction with Claretian Associates, an organization that builds affordable green housing in South Chicago. Our members brought to the mix the concept of green open space and community involvement through local schools and agencies. We designed the Green Summit Tour which covers “green” initiatives in all four of the area’s communities (South ChicagoSouth Deering, the East Side and Hegewisch). Members have also taken an active role in celebrating both Chicago Artists’ Month(October) and the Burnham Plan Centennial.

A few years ago, 60 city lots in South Chicago that had been sitting vacant for many years were given to a handful of residential developers. At the same time, a city ordinance required such recipients to build green. No building plan submitted was taller than three stories. The housing bubble burst before these plans were implemented, so the project, like the USX redevelopment, has been delayed. Despite that, new and retrofitted buildings in the area are including green elements in their design. Both private and not-for-profit affordable green housing already exists on the Southeast Side. Southeast Chicago is a classroom for sustainable development and the green economy, very hot topics despite the economic slowdown. The community brings together green buildings, green gardens, and green open space in a unique way close to Lake Michigan’s shoreline. The opportunity for economic recovery exists. The challenge is in preserving the community’s character and cultural assets as the changes move forward. ◊

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