In this episode, listeners will hear from the Executive Director of the Garfield Park Community Council, Mike Tomas and Wellness Coordinator, Angela Taylor.
Garfield Park Community Council (GPCC) is a community-building organization made up of residents and allies. GPCC is working to meet the needs stipulated by the West Side of Chicago: housing, wellness, business development, and resident leadership. GPCC integrates these priorities into planning efforts to increase the adaptability and resilience to climate impacts in Garfield Park. Based on community feedback, GPCC developed community garden networks to increase local food options in the neighborhood and increase community ownership of spaces. Building a network of community gardens will improve green infrastructure in the area and create the opportunity to increase the urban tree canopy – the number of trees in a given space.
Both of these benefits reduce flooding from water run-off after heavy rain events and lower heat to reduce the impact of urban heat islands. GPCC educates community members on utilizing community gardens to increase environmental resilience and social resilience, supporting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP and other food justice initiatives. GPCC has started the Garfield Park Resilience Project. This project focuses on working with residents to build out a resilient planning process to address climate impacts in Garfield Park. One of the main focuses is increasing community education of zoning, or how land is identified and used. GPCC continues to connect with residents to offer ownership in projects that reduce energy costs through renewable energy like community solar, increase access to affordable and green housing, and increase access to healthy foods. GPCC works as a bridge between residents and other organizations and government officials in Chicago to help achieve the resilience plan that Garfield Park Community Council members have developed
Angela Taylor [00:00:00] My name is Angela Taylor. I’m from Chicago, Illinois, and I’m currently living in the Garfield Park community on the west side of Chicago. Well, as a young girl, I kind of had a sense of…a call to leadership. I work with the young girls on the block. We would have bake sales and we created a cheerleading squad and we were in parades and just trying to build community and provide exposure for the kids that lived on my block. Not that it was a big age difference, but you know, when you’re 16 and your friends are 11, that gives them the opportunity to present some things differently to those young people. During that time living in community, I was able to learn about the Garfield Park Conservatory, which I was not afraid to walk a few short blocks from where I live and open up those doors and go in and experience nature in growth, which is this what the conservatory is. They get plants from all over the world, and my father was a farmer from Mississippi, and as a girl, we always had a little garden patch in the yard where he would go grow greens and cucumbers of squash for my mom to cook. In the moment of being a young girl at home, watching my father grow, it was not an aha moment. It was like, What is this? Why? Why us? We were made fun of. Kids on the block, they call us farmer kids because we had to turn soil. We had to plant in seedlings and studd of like that. But there was a benefit because mom was a great cook. But I think the aha moment came when I
moved to my house and I had this garden space available as my father was declining in age. It created a space where we could really intersect and meet minds. My father had dementia, but when he would come to my house and spend time in the garden, that was so wonderful how he told me you got tomatoes in the wrong place. They need to get more sun. You need to plant more squash because it’s good for you. So in those moments, that’s for me when that aha moment came and then even like beets, every year, mom would cook beets out of the garden. We went around the house because we didn’t want to eat em, beets now or one of my favorite dishes because of the municipals that it provides to the well-being of my health, my…my and everything. So I’ve always been of the mindset of thinking that. If we eat healthy, we’ll think healthy and then we can build healthy, and now I actually grow food on Three City Lights here in the community and we have a neighborhood market, but our market is now 10 years old this year. We’ve been providing a source of low cost, fresh, local and local grown produce to our community.
Mike Thomas [00:03:38] Yes. My name is Mike Thomas. My family’s from the northwest suburbs outside of Chicago, there are migrant farm workers from Crystal Springs, Texas, and then moved to the Chicagoland area. I grew up in Chicago at the Chicagoland area and then moved to California and lived in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and I too currently live in the Garfield Park community on the west side of Chicago. Yeah, I mean, I think kind of I got involved with this work that really crystallized the moment for me was in college senior year trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. And so I went on and did some research and found out about the Center for Third World organizing CTWO out of Oakland, California, and on my spring break, my senior year. Instead of going to Cabo or down to Florida, I went out to Denver, to an organizing training and I really enjoyed it. I really liked the the systematic approach to the work, their ideology. And so I applied to their apprenticeship program upon graduating and was accepted and and so I just fell in love with the work. And I just love the idea of direct action of communities of color. Coming together, organizing themselves, developing their own leadership come with a systematic approach.
Angela Taylor [00:05:08] Well, Mike knows how to quote the mission and the vision statement of the organization, I can quote the name of the organization, which is the Garfield Park Community Council.
Mike Thomas [00:05:23] I mean, to be honest with you, I could repeat the mission. I believe so. But I think more importantly for me, I think about I mean, the mission and vision in the neighborhood is building as a community building organization, a comprehensive approach to the work and then really focused on leadership development, trying to identify indigenous local leaders and building their capacity. And I think that’s at the core of community organizing is not just a bunch of activists who parachute in and then parachute out, right? But really trying to develop those local leaders. So as we think about our mission of our organization is how are we supporting local leadership development? How are we building that capacity? And I think too, as well as just as important for us, is developing a strong, sustainable organization for us. You know, we’ve been around, we’re celebrating 10 years this year. So for us, we want to be a strong, sustainable organization so when residents come to us about ideas, dreams, possibilities that we’re in a position that financially we’re stable, organizationally, we’re stable and that we could potentially help support their goals and their desires.
Angela Taylor [00:06:40] The main climate issues that we’re currently working on is around water and flooding that we have in our community. I also specifically work toward our food security because there is none here. And of late here, we’ve had some changes in the community. It’s really got to get me walking the floor at night. But I trust that we’re going to keep our shoulder to the wheel, put our backs in it, put sweat equity and make those changes happen as well. But we have quite a bit of flooding here in our area. So our project is to create a fruit orchard with water retention. The water system system will be planted underneath it and we will put indigenous fruit trees and that trees and berry bushes to our regions so that we will be able to offer more of a fruit platter to our clients that come to our neighborhood market.
Mike Thomas [00:07:42] Yeah, I think there’s several climate issues that we’re focused on. And I think we weave it into our various works. So first and foremost, I think it’s education around health and wellness. You know we have the lowest life expectancy, one of the lowest life expectancies in the city of Chicago, 69 years of age for our residents in Garfield Park on the west side. If you were to take the elevated tracks, the train just to downtown, a 10 minute train ride, the life expectancy is 84 years down there and downtown Chicago. So really, health and wellness is at the core of our work. I would also say travel is another important climate issue that we’re focused on specifically around that is just trying to develop transit oriented developments, trying to develop around our transit stops where we are transit rich on the west side of Chicago, which is predominately an African-American neighborhood. We have bus lines. We have train lines that run 24 hours, but unfortunately, we don’t have around those train lines is development. And so we need to work on bringing development to the neighborhoods so people don’t have to travel outside of the neighborhoods for other goods and services and we’re also reducing our impact. I think for us, the number one thing we heard from residents is we need free public transportation. I mean, when the COVID first hit, public transportation was free, we held them. Our two train stops retained the most ridership. Our residents are low income workers are reliant on public transportation. So we need more affordable public transportation. Our city of Chicago, they reduce the monthly pass by over 30 percent during COVID. So we are seeing a reduction in costs that residents have to bear. And then, in addition to more public transportation for low income workers, we need better service. That’s the second thing that people do hear from as customer service is bad on public transportation. Cleanliness is an issue. So people are relying on public transportation, and we’ve just got to keep making it affordable for our working families.
Angela Taylor [00:10:01] My feeling in relationship of BIPOC folks being involved is that’s what our original duty was. We came here to be stewards of the Earth. I think in our cultures, you will find that that’s what we did. We knew how to create medicine when there wasn’t medicine. We knew how to heal our selves. We knew how to grow food so we could feed our family. And we were workers. So having that resilience trait in our history, cultural history, that’s the avenue to now be in a position to organize and use our voice collectively to resonate a sound of accomplishment to this work, because that’s how it actually gets done where we all come together, agree, and then use our voice to move things forward. Whereas the cliché that I’ve heard and learned, we have to agree to disagree. We can’t expect for everything to land smack dab on the same square all the time. We are created by nature to have our own minds and our own thoughts. And so that’s OK. But we still have to compromise and find that happy medium. Best for the greater good. For me, a lot of this work I do is not directly for me, but is for the lineage of my family and for the building up of my community. This is why I do this work. I’ve been retired and I’ve been in mix here for a long time. Let’s do this. Let’s do this, let’s do this. And I think I get on his nerves so badly. Just go ahead, get it done. Hey, give me the support. I need to rally folks to get the capacity of this needed and the way we make things happen.
Mike Thomas [00:12:05] Well, I think the specific role that people of color have in addressing climate change. I mean, they’ve got to be at the center of…of the effort of the approach to..to bring about change, I mean, they’re the most impacted people of color, low income folks are the most impacted. So they really need to help define what the problem…the problem is. I mean, it’s really interesting when you’re in the neighborhood. We live in the neighborhood. Our offices are in the neighborhood. All of our staff are from the neighborhood. And we define the problem one way. And then we’ll go downtown to City Hall, and they define the problem a totally different way by having people of color helping to address the climate change. We’re really it would really ensure that there’s accountability and action. And you heard Angela talk about action and accountability is important for us and our community. We get a lot of lip service, alot of things, people making promises–but having people of color at the table helping design policy will also ensure that there’s some accountability and then to action is actually taken.
Angela Taylor [00:13:17] You know, we’re not a big organization, it’s not many of us. So in our small numbers that we have, our grassroots projects were able to get through this process. So to me, that’s the the biggest wow to be able to open up a fresh produce farmer’s market when everybody is sheltered in place cannot gather together. But to be able to offer something of that nature to the community and hear the community say, “We’re so glad you’re here”, made it worth it. OK, yeah, we had to scurry, got to get some protocols put in place. We got to figure out how logistically we’re going to work this market to stream people in and stream people out and hope they’re not angry that this is not their Saturday social outing. But we’re still here to be a staple for our family during this time. That was the greatest thing. I’m still dancing in the closet, but it’s not easy. We’ve been trying to get the fruit orchard in here for…my granddaughter wasn’t born, and she’s eight…okay? But it’s got to happen because of a steady working through the pipeline because we remain at the table and we continue to tell you all told it to us before, but we’re coming back because it’s been a couple of months. You all need to tell it to us again. We need to see movement community has invested time, energy and effort. And there’s the need. So when is it happening? So it is challenging, but you have to just get there and stay there and keep things moving.
Mike Thomas [00:15:04] Yeah, I think organizationally, our challenges and successes over the last year have been that we’ve we’ve we’ve lost our eye on the prize and the things that we were working on prior to March 10th, 2020. I mean, we had just finished up an affordability plan. Hundreds of residents participated in that process. We had some great momentum. We…we wanted to focus and we will focus again and preserving affordability for legacy residents. So looking at affordability, addressing gentrification issues, acquiring property, keep it affordable. These were things that we had in the pipeline and we were working towards. And then COVID hit and you know, we did focus on, say, a safety net issues. We did rental assistance. We’ve done rental assistance now for over a year with the city, with the state. We were doing direct payments. Angela helped oversee that to direct payments. We were making direct payments to residents. So we did a lot of important safety net issues and we were committed to that. We’re committed to our neighbors. But I think one of the challenges is that we haven’t been able to get back to the other work that’s so important to us. Community wealth building. We’ve been trying to buy into developments that are coming into the neighborhood. So making sure that the residents and our community owns some of these developments that are coming into our neighborhood, we got to get back focused on that work. Also, as a city and as a region looking at issues around equity and who benefits, who’s burdened and making sure there’s racial justice at the at the center of our work, I think, is something that is a success. The city of Chicago is taking more seriously. I think the advice I would give is actually something that someone came to the neighborhood that Angela invited. I think Angela was a family member who was very successful in basketball at our local high school. And Angela invited her one of our neighborhood markets and we had families there, young people were there and she…this…this woman went on to be very successful, went to college, traveled the world with with her, her basketball career. And she was sharing with folks is just take a chance, you know, don’t listen to people as I just don’t leave the neighborhood. You’re going to fail if you leave. And she was like, take a chance and you can always come back to the neighborhood, but at least take that chance. Find a mentor. I have a picture in my office of my two first bosses. I was blessed. I had a great boss in L.A. and a great boss in San Francisco. I have a picture in my office. I look at it every day. Take care of yourself. I think that was something I didn’t start doing until recently, like going to bed at a reasonable hour. I mean, I would work all night and be real, cranky in the morning, and so just try to take care of yourself. I do think young people get that more than we did. You know, before it was like: be tough, work long hours, work late hours..you know, you’re not working hard enough, injustice doesn’t take a vacation, you know. And I think younger people get that more than than we did. So there’s a few things I’d like to share.
Angela Taylor [00:18:29] I would say it’s a younger Angela know yourself. If you say it, be it, do it. Don’t wait on somebody else to come and be your hero, be your own hero. This is how communities can will be rebuilt, trusting in yourself and not throwing blame on somebody else. The elder man, the mayor, they did. Well, what did you do? You live here. These are your issues, just like theirs. And I’m being honest here. I did not know myself. This work came to me. I did not go to it, and I’m happy in the way that it happened because it helped me to see myself. And this is what I share with the young people that I’ve worked with each summer is to know yourself in this. This is a…The gardening work that I do is a historical work it our culture has done with the author of food. Why can’t we take it and make all the wonderful things that we know can happen? We can grow it. We can sell it. We can prepare it. We can cook it. We can do all these things and be at the top of an industry that because of the equity. Sometimes we get shed out or we don’t have exposures to realize that there is room for us at that table.
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