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When Robbin Carroll bought a home in Englewood with plans to turn it into a center for promoting peace, she was met with skepticism from some in a community that had been hit hard by poverty and violence.
Was she trying to be a "white savior?" Or was she trying to take advantage of a neighborhood that had seen disinvestment? Was the move into the neighborhood by the nonprofit she founded, I Grow Chicago, the first step on the way to gentrification?
Erin Vogel, a co-executive director at I Grow Chicago, recalled those questions this week as the organization celebrates the fourth anniversary of its purchase of a rundown home at 64th and Honore. The home, which had been scheduled to be bulldozed, is now called the Peace House, and has provided thousands of meals and other donations to the community and helped residents cope with crime and joblessness. The group later added two vacant lots to its center through the city’s Dollar Lot program.
"That was never Robbin's intention to be the savior of Englewood. She only wanted to make an impact on one block," said Vogel.
She did that in part by hiring a local contractor not only to fix up the house but to train Englewood residents in carpentry.
"We trained the young men who were a part of the destruction in the construction of the Peace House. They were able to learn a trade on their own block, which is important," Vogel said. "They took ownership of the Peace House and its success."
It took time, but Carroll, a River North resident, was able to earn the faith of the community, Vogel and residents said.
"She kept showing up. She built trust in a community that didn't trust [her]," Vogel said.
Carroll has stated that she wants to "transform" lives in Englewood.
"I couldn't sit back and watch people in this city be OK with poverty and violence day after day," said Carroll, who worked in jewelry sales before becoming a yoga teacher and starting I Grow Chicago. She said she was inspired to work in Englewood after hearing Liberian Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee talk in Chicago a few years ago.
She believes that the community members have done more for her and I Grow Chicago as an organization: "I’ve learned more from them than they've learned from me," Carroll said.
Through I Grow Chicago and the Peace House, Englewood residents within a five-block radius of the center have access to yoga classes, mentoring workshops, support groups for women and mothers, a community pantry, laundry services, and training in restorative justice practices. The organization has also helped the community build a relationship with local law enforcement.
In total, more than 24,000 residents have received meals from the organization, along with 2,000 winter coats and 3,500 Christmas gifts, the group said. The group has taught yoga to 3,000 neighborhood children. The group is funded largely through grants and individual donations.
More importantly, the violence on the block and the community is trending downward. In 2014, the police beat that includes the Peace House saw four murders, police data shows. While that spiked to ten in a very violent 2016, there have been no murders in the beat in 2017 or 2018. The larger Englewood Police District overall saw a similar trend, with murders down from 86 in 2016 to 49 last year. There have been nine so far this year, data shows. While there have been no murders on the block since it opened, there have been shootings, including one last month.
To cope with the violence, the Peace House serves as a safe space where community members who "have faced some awful and traumatic things" can share life experiences, Vogel said. "The amount of healing we've inspired has been incredible to witness. The Peace House helps the community to bring those issues to life and to show they aren't alone."
Marilyn Kincaide, who's lived in Englewood for 50 years, has seen up close what I Grow Chicago has accomplished. She's a member of a women's support group there.
"They do great things for the community. When you walk in, they give you a hug and ask you how you're doing. It's something good to see in our community instead of violence," Kincaide said. "It's a nice place to be for people who are in need of friendship. Someone is always there."
While some have said the group's leadership needs more representation from the neighborhood, Quentin Mables, a co-executive director at I Grow Chicago, says the community is active at all levels of the organization.
"I grew up here [in Englewood], and I'm not going anywhere. People should come to the Peace House and see how we've helped people," Mables said.
To bring in more voices from the community, I Grow Chicago hopes to establish a "Wisdom Council" made up of Englewood residents who can work along with the board of directors.
"It's been practiced for thousands and thousands of years in indigenous cultures. This is our way to listen to our elders," Vogel said.
That kind of input could be helpful, said some longtime community members and activists.
Resident RaShanah Baldwin, who owns the communications firm Baldwin Media Group, says newer groups in the community should learn from places like the Peace Center at 65th and Peoria, which is run by longtime activist and community leader Hal Baskin.
Baskin "laid the groundwork for a lot of these nonprofits that you see in 2018. His organization was responsible for negotiating and ending a lot of gang wars" and often gets called before police do, she said.
Baskin said I Grow Chicago and other groups working in Englewood should make sure to take a "holistic approach" to solving problems. He said he hasn't heard from the group's leaders. "They've never reached out to me. When you come into our hood, [you should] let us know what you’re doing," he said.
Still, he welcomes the group.
"Any help we can get, I’m all for. I applaud the effort," Baskin said.
I Grow Chicago is now looking to expand its presence. Plans include building a basketball court—a request from Seventh District police commander Kenneth Johnson—and rehabbing two more homes on the block while building a women's home that will serve as a base of operations in the neighborhood.
Just as when Carroll bought the first home, the group has hired a local general contractor who will train residents in construction work.
"Anyone who has the means to make a difference can," Vogel said. "People who don't understand the violence in Chicago need to be in close proximity to it. If people want peace, they have to invest in peace."
Contributing: Tanveer Ali