Through our Neighborhood Network Initiative, we help neighborhoods solve their most pressing problems by developing community- specific strategies. Working with a lead partner in the community, United Way funds and guides the work of the Neighborhood Network toward achieving its collective goal. South Chicago is one of the 10 Neighborhood Network communities where we are working to bring stakeholders together and determine a bold goal for change.
Claretian Associates is the lead agency for the South Chicago Neighborhood Network. They’re committed to collaborating with deeply-rooted organizations to impact the neighborhood as a whole. Some of us from United Way spent a day in South Chicago recently, getting to know the people and the programs a little more intimately.
On a hot July day, Claretian Associates Executive Director Angela Hurlock, Senior Program Director Dr. Jacqueline Samuel and Program Director Graciela Robledo showed us their impact–the result of over 25 years of service to this community. Since 1991, Claretian Associates has worked with the South Chicago community to build 53 units of senior apartments; they have opened up 137 vital units of affordable housing. One of Claretian’s current initiatives is centered around the development of a safe corridor on 91st Street, which will help families access South Chicago schools, libraries, and community centers.
At the corner of Houston and 91st Street, the neighborhood YMCA is alive with summer programs. There, Hoops in the Hood coordinator William Pettis leads a three day basketball camp. This program is crucial to neighborhood building for youth across South Chicago. While some of the youth may be affiliated with gangs, tensions are dissolved on the basketball court as they build personal relationships and understanding through the game. Mr. Pettis and his staff play a critical role in the program’s retention rates, and enrollment is as high as ever. This year, several program participants have landed summer jobs as well.
The YMCA also provides a space for creativity—Grant Buhr tells us how he began “Story Squad”. Mr. Buhr tutors youth in audio production skills, which they then use to create audio, performance or visual stories to share their voices and amplify their story within the larger Chicago narrative. That’s a narrative, Mr. Buhr says, that these youth aren’t always included in. Through storytelling with “Story Squad”, they can process trauma and offer expertise on their experiences.
Across 91st Street at the Public Library, a wide bookshelf houses South Chicago: USA. Its pages are filled with blown-up photographs: Wisconsin Steel Mill, demolished 1986; US Steel, demolished 1984; South Works Steel, demolished 1984. The library itself is humming with a quiet energy—even in the height of summer, a bank of computers is full of young people researching and browsing the web.
On the other side of Houston Avenue, SkyArt offers up visual arts programming for youth from age 7-24. Years ago, Sarah Ward, the executive director, laid down the seeds of Sky Art with only 18 kids in her first class. Now, SkyArt serves more than 500 kids a year, and they’re expanding their staff as they build out a ceramics program and a digital art lab. One employee actually found his start at one of the first SkyArt classes—and now he’s teaching his own class, mentoring the next generation of South Chicago artists.
Just a few blocks over, The Laquan McDonald Community Garden sits at the very center of the South Chicago neighborhood, nestled in a lot at the corner of 85th and Escanaba. If you have the chance to stop by while urban farmer Gregory Bratton tends the potato and onion plants, be prepared for several eager neighborhood youth to show off the fruits of their labor. They are proud of the work they’ve put into this garden. They are especially proud of their banana tree. And that banana tree is looking great—despite our cruel Chicago climate. It has the community youth (and Mr. Bratton’s guidance) to thank for that.
Mr. Bratton ushers us over to the garden’s chickens, which they feed with slightly expired lettuce. The rest of their harvest will go to feed community members and people facing food insecurity throughout the city at various events over the next year.
Walking over to the chicken coop, Mr. Bratton tells us it’s our lucky day: Wanda has laid an egg.
You might know Mr. Bratton’s work from one of his 74 urban gardens, or from his advocacy work to plant Buddha sculptures—symbols of peace—in gardens and parks across the city.
But when Dr. Samuel brings up these accomplishments, Mr. Bratton only says, “I’m told I’m the top urban farmer in the city. I don’t think so.” He cracks a smile. “I just think I’m the only one.”
It comes across as both a joke and a challenge: a challenge for more community organizers to get on his level, to join in partnerships and to impact Chicago’s neighborhoods. And United Way of Metropolitan Chicago is more than happy to join this movement, now just hitting a growth spurt, in the neighborhood of South Chicago.
In South Chicago, you can see and feel how programs like Claretian’s safe corridor on 91st Street, Hoops in the Hood, Story Squad, SkyArt and the Laquan McDonald Community Garden work together to provide support and enrichment for the residents. Our staff at United Way is excited to bring even more people and programs to the table to talk about what big goals we can set together in South Chicago.
Post submitted by: Michaela Voit / Community Impact Intern / United Way of Metropolitan Chicago