Flowers and futures bloom in Chicago as sustainability-focused nonprofit helps keep youth away from guns and gangs

Apr 1, 2024, 7:30 AM | Updated: Apr 15, 2024, 1:48 pm

The Southside Blooms floral shop – with its slogan of “flowers that empower” – rests in Sou...

The Southside Blooms floral shop – with its slogan of “flowers that empower” – rests in South Side Chicago’s majority Black-populated Englewood community. (Courtesy Southside Blooms via CNN Newsource)

(Courtesy Southside Blooms via CNN Newsource)

Originally Published: 31 MAR 24 08:30 ET

(CNN) — For Southside Blooms owners Quilen and Hannah Blackwell, who run the Chicago floral nonprofit staffed by at-risk youth and young adults, their biggest competition isn’t other flower shops.

It’s the constant draw of the streets.

“(There were) kids that were in our after-school program that we heard joined a gang when they got older,” said Hannah Blackwell of the young participants once involved in their program.

“I don’t know if Shawn is still alive,” the Kansas native said, referring to a former program participant.

The Southside Blooms floral shop – with its slogan of “flowers that empower” – rests in South Side Chicago’s majority Black-populated Englewood community. The impoverished food desert plagued by vacant lots, few job opportunities and gang and gun violence is where the Blackwells, parents to three children, have lived for a decade.

“There’s truth to what you see in the media,” said Quilen Blackwell said.

Chicago, with its reputation as one of the nation’s most violent cities, reported 617 homicides in 2023. That same year New York saw 386 homicides, while Los Angeles witnessed 327.

Englewood’s shootings have become less frequent, the Blackwells say. By February, the Chicago Police Department said the city had seen double-digit drops in homicides, shootings and shooting victims this year compared to the same period in 2023.

But the sounds of gunfire still send the Blackwells’ frightened son crawling into their bed at night. The dangers remind the faith-driven couple why they’re needed in Englewood.

“I felt like the Lord was calling me to the inner city,” said Quilen Blackwell, originally from Madison, Wisconsin.

Englewood is where they’ve established the Chicago Eco House. The umbrella non-profit of the flower shop focuses on sustainable urban agriculture to teach young people life and job skills through farming, and growing and selling flowers.

The creative youth at Southside Blooms design floral arrangements and centerpieces for local events, including weddings. They can work on the off-grid farms or in the shop as long as they want.

“It’s not just, you come in for 10 weeks, we give you some basic skills and then ‘Hey, good luck finding a job,’” Quilen Blackwell said. “In our case, we are the job, we are the careers.”

The Blackwells want to establish flower selling as an anchor industry by transforming abandoned vacant lots into productive flower farms that create long-term jobs for the community’s youth. This, they say, will help keep them off the streets.

“We want them to have pride in Englewood and to not think, ‘As soon as I can, I’m getting out of here,’ but like, ‘What can I do to make it better?’” Hannah Blackwell said.

The Blackwells launched Chicago Eco House a decade ago and Southside Blooms in 2020.

They’ve since converted five vacant lots into solar-powered flower farms in Chicago. The Chicago Eco House owns two lots. The three others are city and county-owned, used by the Blackwells with permission.

The projects transform the neighborhood’s abandoned and trash-riddled lots into pesticide-free gardens that attract birds, bees and grasshoppers.

“It makes everyone happy,” Quilen Blackwell said.

They have about 35 members in their Southside Blooms workforce development program, where participants are typically between 16 and 25 years old.

As the nonprofit grows, the couple says they’re working on opening a second Southside Blooms flower shop on Chicago’s West Side.

Armani Hopkins, a 16-year-old high school junior who has been promoted to team lead since joining Southside Blooms two years ago, plans to stick around even after heading to the University of Chicago to study microbiology.

“Working at Southside Blooms has had a very positive impact on my life,” Armani said. “It’s helped me learn that there’s more to life, there’s beauty in Black neighborhoods (and that) we are all worthy of love and respect from each other.”

Dionta White, 27, has worked on the Chicago Eco House’s farm team for the past two years. Since joining the program, he says he’s become better at controlling his temper and has developed an understanding of how a business works. He also appreciates the value of dedication.

“Working on the farm really showed me that hard work will pay off if you actually put in the work,” White said. “You’ve got to see yourself in a position of, like, you making it, and always staying focused on everything you do. Everything you do has a purpose.”

Englewood: From prosperous to poor and violence-plagued

Englewood prospered economically prior to the Great Depression and boasted the second-largest shopping district in Chicago by 1930.

The city was a hub during the Great Migration, which saw 6 million Black people move across the country from the South between 1910 and 1970. Quillen Blackwell’s maternal grandparents, Arkansas sharecroppers who migrated to Milwaukee during that period, were among them.

Today, Englewood is home to at least a few generations of families who fought to live there among White residents during a period of redlining of Chicago neighborhoods in the 1930s.

In addition to redlining, racially restrictive covenants enforced in cities like Washington, DC, Chicago and Los Angeles worked to keep certain neighborhoods White. After a 1948 US Supreme Court ruling struck down the practice, more Black residents moved into Englewood while its White population decreased.

Englewood’s small businesses suffered after the Great Depression, and redlining, White flight and disinvestment led to a decline in property values.

The crack cocaine epidemic ravaged Chicago in the 1980s. And the following decade saw an outsourcing of jobs that further undermined Englewood’s economic base, Quilen Blackwell said.

Hanging out at Englewood’s parks in the 2000s wasn’t an option, according to White. “They (were) always getting shot up,” he recalled.

Drugs, violence, poverty and prostitution still plague the once thriving neighborhood where the poverty rate is 40%, according to the Illinois Policy Institute.

‘It’s a safe space’

The Blackwells bonded over a desire to improve the inner city. After marrying in 2015, they found an affordable Englewood house, fixed it up in six months and have lived there ever since.

“Everything that you see today with both (Chicago) Eco House and Southside Blooms started inside our house; our first youth program was in our backyard,” Quilen Blackwell said.

The Chicago Eco House farms the flowers, while Southside Blooms works as a fulfillment center, the couple explained.

“We basically have a delivery model where we deliver all across the Chicagoland area into the suburbs in Northwest Indiana, because this way, we’re pulling resources from well-resourced communities and we’re bringing it back into the community,” Hannah Blackwell said.

“Instead of having a traditional retail flower shop that depends on walk-in traffic and walk-by traffic, we keep the door locked. It’s a safe space for everybody that’s in there,” she said.

Not much grows in Chicago during winter, but in 2023, the Blackwells launched their indoor bulb-forcing program to cultivate flowers year-round and provide ongoing employment for the farm team.

Since last year, most of the wintertime flower growth – mostly tulips – has happened in the basement of the Chicago Eco House, where the Blackwells want to grow nearly 30,000 bulbs per winter.

“I feel like it’s one reason we did lose some of those young men (who left the program), because we weren’t able to provide that stable, year-round employment opportunity,” Hannah Blackwell said.

Chicago Eco House’s retention rate has increased from an average of two weeks in 2018, with the longest-remaining participant staying for three months, to an average of six months, with some participants now involved for around three years, the couple says.

In 2019, the FBI’s Chicago field office honored Quilen Blackwell with the Director’s Community Leadership Award for helping alleviate crime and poverty through the Chicago Eco House.

The agency pointed out that over 30 high schoolers had received stipends to support their urban agricultural studies thanks to the non-profit co-founder’s efforts.

‘I can change the community’

The biggest Chicago Eco House success stories come from those who remain involved for two or three years, or more, the Blackwells say.

“They come in and maybe (have) two kids that they’re trying to support, and now you see that they’re able to get their own apartment or their first car,” Quilen Blackwell said. “You see stability.”

White says he’s interested in security work but plans to stay with the Chicago Eco House for a long time.

“I feel like there’s room to grow,” he said.

Farming, growing roses, making bouquets and crafting centerpieces aren’t activities White ever saw himself doing before he met the Blackwells. Once a victim of gang-related gun violence, White had gotten into trouble when he was younger.

He spent six months in jail for involvement in a burglary. The charge was later expunged from his record, he said. After time behind bars – and seeing friends shot and killed – he wanted to turn his life around.

“I need to do something for the next generation because I know my friends wouldn’t want the next generation to go through the same thing we’re going through,” White said.

A friend of White’s who worked at Chicago Eco House introduced him to the program two years ago, but White hesitated.

“At first I said no, because I was like, ‘a guy working with flowers?’ I didn’t want anybody to get the wrong idea,” he said.

White eventually gave the program a try, and the tasks of planting, harvesting and watering soon grew on him. He says he’s remained out of trouble since joining the program.

“It feels good to work outside with flowers, going to the events, seeing different people from different communities,” said White, who has found working in the gardens both relaxing and rewarding. “Seeing my work grow for itself is really motivating. It’s really opened my eyes to see, like, I can change the community.”

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Flowers and futures bloom in Chicago as sustainability-focused nonprofit helps keep youth away from guns and gangs