Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a commitment to equity, but when it comes to trees, she isn’t following through. She supported starting a forestry advisory board that hasn’t met. She wanted to eliminate aldermanic prerogative, but many aldermen continue to remove hundreds of healthy trees. The city’s new climate action plan promotes protecting the most vulnerable people by planting 75,000 trees, but her Department of Water Management continues business as usual and removes trees without any standardized process to find alternatives to clear-cutting.
A recent Tribune analysis of the city’s selective tree planting reminds us how inequitable the tree canopy continues to be without a strategy that outlasts a mayoral administration. Wealthier, white neighborhoods continue to receive more resources while communities of color bear the brunt of exacerbating climate-driven extreme heat, flooding and poor air quality. The city’s new climate plan recognizes this historical lack of community investment in Chicago, but a tree-planting initiative without city officials aligning only provides more hot air. Read the full op-ed.
Photo courtesy of Erin Hooley and Raquel Zaldívar at the Chicago Tribune
By Openlands’ Education and Community Outreach Coordinator, Lillian Holden
It was one of those warm summer nights where my cousins and I dashed from the living room of my grandmother’s house towards the corridors of her gangway. Within her gangway sat three charcoal-colored tire pots filled with creeping thistle, crabgrass, and dandelion. The tire pots rested cozily within a demarcation line that met the earth. Our journey would guide us past my older cousin’s residence next door and we would eventually cease our running once our feet mingled within the dirt and debris that occupied the vacant lot located three houses down from my grandmother’s. Energetic from eating Vitner’s Cheese-Flavored Crunchy Curls, Now & Laters, and Boston Baked Beans purchased at the neighboring corner store, it was common for us to traverse from my grandmother’s living room to the adjacent vacant lot. Our boisterous spirits would always lead us to the heart of the lot where an oak tree stood. During those times, the oak tree, my grandmother’s concrete front steps, and the pavement in front of my cousin’s porch made up the essence of my childhood. Although we had fun running around the block playing games like cops and robbers, tag, rock teacher, bottle top, double dutch, and hide-and-seek, roaming the vacant lot and climbing the branches of the oak tree for a sunbath felt like the ultimate escape.
As age and experience snuck up on me, I began to develop ambivalent emotions toward vacant lots. I noticed that the communities that raised me looked vastly different from the ones I traveled through to get to institutions of knowledge, employment, and social gatherings. My place of play within North Lawndale juxtaposed places of play in communities like Edison Park. Oddly enough, my neighborhood vacant lot felt like a complicated oasis. Vacant lots have a negative association and reputation, yet I have so many positive childhood experiences in them. It was a place where we could foster our imagination, play with worms, and get dirty, all the while running the risk of suffering from an occasional gash from a piece of broken glass. Figuratively speaking, it felt as though my nostalgia sat in a corner grazing violin strings, sweet and sensuously, while the truth grimaced directly in my face, making dark, sonorous bow strokes on a cello. I’ve struggled (and still do) against the history of vacant lots, which is rooted in divestment, predatory lending practices, redlining, and contract selling. Moreover, I struggle with how these practices negatively affect inner city youths’ connection to nature.
Why are pockets of the West Side still decimated? Journalists Tony Briscoe and Ese Olumhense asked this question while flicking through archived stories and historic photos gathered from the North Lawndale and East Garfield Park communities after the 1968 riots. According to a 2013 land-use inventory from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, five percent of Chicago is classified as vacant and undeveloped, and approximately 14 percent of that land sits idle in the community areas of East Garfield Park and North Lawndale. These numbers show a troubling statistic that did not materialize mysteriously.
Prior to the 1968 riots and African American Migration, East Garfield Park and North Lawndale served as prime areas for employment, real estate, and sustainable livelihood for the Jewish immigrant population. It was a place for working-class families to thrive and invest in bettering their futures. Chicago’s infrastructure, similar to Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Cleveland, suffered from divestment and neglect once blacks migrated from the south to northern cities in search of job opportunities and the “American Dream.” In the 1930’s, North Lawndale had a population of 115,000 white Americans while East Garfield Park had 65,000. Blacks who moved north instilled fear in whites, who moved to the suburbs where they could find subsidized housing. By the 1970’s, 885 white residents lived in East Garfield Park and less than 1,000 occupied North Lawndale. After the riots, city services diminished considerably, leaving blacks struggling and neighborhoods deteriorating. Recovery was never expected to be a streamlined process, as the riots resulted in $10 million worth of damage. Of that damage, uninsured homes and brick and mortar businesses were included. More specifically, “260 stores and businesses were destroyed, including 116 along a 20-block stretch of Madison between Damen Avenue and Pulaski Road. Another 72 were razed within 12 blocks of Roosevelt.” Abandonment worsened after the 1968 riots as Chicago municipalities transformed into blighted areas.
Redlining and Segregation
Chicago’s mapping system has been influenced by the city’s history of redlining, segregation, and divestment. This history is apparent by simply crossing into different neighborhoods, where cultural difference and resources often vary depending on race and economic status. It is a matter of crossing underneath a viaduct, or main street and intersection. These resource discrepencies are the main reason that when it came time to choose a career, I entered the nonprofit sector.
My nonprofit professional journey began as a Public Ally with Openlands in 2018. As a Ally you’re expected to complete a 10-month apprenticeship with one of the organization’s partners. The objective is that through the partnership, a young person is able to approach employment using their organic assets (and the program’s core values) to help build the participating nonprofit’s capacity. Each ally goes through a series of interviews leading to a match that is forged between the ally and the nonprofit that interviewed with them. After researching and learning about the organization’s connection to low-income communities, specifically their involvement in establishing community gardens to occupy vacant lots in North Lawndale and East Garfield Park, Openlands sounded like the place for me.
Openlands has a deep history focused on vacant land and the the first city-wide inventory of vacant land in Chicago was made by the group. This effort led to the Community Land Use Network (CLUN), a coalition of open space, community development, and economic development organizations. CLUN was successful in getting an ordinance passed that addressed the disposition of vacant land.
The majority of my job description involves assisting with the functionalities of one of Openlands’ most prized programs, Birds in my Neighborhood (BIMN). Birds in my Neighborhood is a program that introduces students to common birds in the Chicago region through in-class lessons and field trips. When pitching BIMN, I often find the phrase “to inspire advocates for nature” confidently rolling off the tip of my tongue. It is without a doubt that the program has a unique way of doing just that. This is evident through our yearly end-of-the-program evaluation given to participating teachers. A Drummond Elementary teacher observed their students stopping a group of younger children from chasing away pigeons and explaining how important it is to leave wildlife alone.
During my time as an Ally, I had the privilege of taking two different schools through a BIMN experience from start to finish. The two schools are on opposite ends of the city; William Penn Elementary is a grammar school located in North Lawndale, one of the most architecturally eccentric and socially complex neighborhoods in Chicago, and Edison Park is located in Norwood Park, a quaint, picturesque community that lives up to the dreams of those early settlers who considered it an “ideal suburb.”
While students at the two schools saw the same birds, the surrounding environments and ecologies were starkly different. At Penn Elementary, we started the bird walk just outside the school’s primary entrance. Next to the school entrance sat five vacant lots. We were able to see a flock of European Starlings congregating on the ground, specks of American Robins grazing the short grassed vacant lots, Ringed-billed Gulls in the sky defying gravity, House Sparrows jumping and dashing from ground to tree, and a nest resting idle in a nearby tree. The students excitedly tallied what they saw on their bird checklist.
The schoolyard walk at Edison Park had a much different feel. We passed a row of houses that lined the school building and a large, well-maintained baseball field. The field and neighboring trees attracted bird species such as, American Robins, Northern Cardinals, House Sparrows, and Crows. Similar to Penn Elementary students, the students excitedly tallied the birds they saw on their checklist.
The Birds in my Neighborhood field trip component is where students truly become elated. This is where students either walk or are bused out to a local park or preserve. The locations vary from school to school and teachers are able to pick a location of their choosing. Students from Penn Elementary explored Douglass Park whereas students from Edison Park Elementary scouted North Park Village Nature Center.
A robust bird watching experience is dependent on biodiversity and habitat health, and the experiences at Penn and Edison made me wonder how the differences in environment between a child who bird watches in North Lawndale and a child who bird watches Edison Park affect the student. When considering the difference in residential landscape (with a lens on vacant lots) and viable habitat for birds, how do these experiences compare and contrast?
Research on childhood development and access to nature explores the impact of outdoor play spaces on children. A study in Norway examined the effect of different outdoor play settings on childrens’ motor coordination in three kindergarten outdoor play settings and showed that children who used a forest as a play setting performed better in motor skills tests than children who used an artificial playground. Research also suggests that even views of nature can affect children’s cognitive capacities, in particular their ability to concentrate. One study involving low-income African American children from public housing projects in Chicago showed that children living in apartment buildings with views of trees and green space exhibited superior attention capacities and impulse control than similar children living in apartments with fewer views of nature.
Prior to my apprenticeship with Openlands, vacant lots that consumed North Lawndale’s scenery seemed like graceless fragments of land created by collective self-learned helplessness. However, each vacant lot has a story. Within some vacant lots, you’ll find concrete rubble on ground surrounded by lime and olive green grass and clusters of dandelion sprouting from its resilient roots. In others, you’ll find patches of long-grassed land, twisted milkweed plants, twigs, trees, branches, broken gates, broken bottles, broken glass, leftover construction material, and other hazardous substances. The few activated vacant lots sprinkled in the vicinity are used to uplift the community, its rich soil planted to harvest collard greens, cabbage, basil, radish, cilantro, and other fruits and vegetables.
Experiences like mine are not unique, but I share my story in the life affirming hope that it will provide powerful support for unstructured play outdoors. While vacant lots may not be the best place to provide this, open spaces that are well-managed are critical for child development.
When it comes to long-term advocacy for community improvement, early education for young people on environmental issues is crucial. Before introducing society’s common value for capital transactions, environmental education influences youth to understand the inherent value of nature and that if the earth’s resources continue to bleed, money cannot replace it.
Vacant lots are a result of centuries of discrimination and devaluation. However, they now offer an opportunity for regeneration, for both children and the communities where they live. While I do not wish for children to play in precarious lots, I do hope that children in Chicago’s neighborhoods have the same wonderful experience that I did by having their own place to play and imagine in the outdoors. To make that a reality, I suggest the following:
Pressure state and local representatives to implement creative market-based changes that can attract revenue while keeping the communities’ historical integrity intact
North Lawndale and East Garfield Park can be considered a historical corridor. Why not have tours of the community greystones and highlight the Jewish and African American history? Have these tours been conducted by community members to help curve the communities’ unemployment rate.
Support local businesses that cater to the communities’ racial demographic by the racial majority. Uplift youth entrepreneurs through programs and grants.
Chicago should re-examine its $1 large program. How can it be more beneficial for low-income communities who don’t have the means to turn the land into a garden or develop real estate?
A burgeoning movement is the “forest school” movement. While I don’t know how this can apply to neighborhoods like North Lawndale, the idea is promising. Chicago should support and continue to explore “Forest Schools”
By Openlands Community Outreach Coordinator, Jennifer Idrovo
This blog reflects my own personal experience as an environmentalist of color and daughter of immigrants. I want to acknowledge that there is no singular immigrant or BIPOC experience and that every journey is multidimensional. I am using my personal experience to explore one piece of the complex immigrant experience.
In the 1980’s, my parents left their home country with the hope of pursuing a better life in the United States. My parents are from the Andean region of Ecuador, a rich landscape where agriculture is the biggest industry. My parents learned to harvest hominy, beans, and fruit from a young age. Millions of families from Latin America and all over the world have migrated to the United States leaving their loved ones and homes behind. Some leave escaping poverty or violence and others migrate to pursue more opportunities. In 2017, more than 44 million people living in the United States migrated from another country. Immigrants have settled all across the United States, particularly in urban areas where there is more opportunity for employment. In this blog, I explore how some immigrant families redefine their connection to nature when adapting to a new country.
As an environmentalist of color, it’s important for me to understand the origin of redlining and how communities are continuously impacted by it. It’s also important for me to respect a community’s historical connection to nature and think about how I can incorporate that knowledge into my work as the Community Outreach Coordinator at Openlands. When I meet with community members, I make it a priority to ask them about what nature means to them and their families. I use this understanding to develop unique opportunities for them to interact with nature in ways that are meaningful for them. In my role, I engage communities on the Southwest Side to create open spaces and build advocates for nature. Collaboration with community leaders is a vital part of my engagement plan.
To my conservation colleagues working with immigrant and BIPOC communities, It’s important to recognize the following:
The conservation world can feel intimidating for folks who don’t fit the white, wealthy, and able-bodied stereotype of the outdoors
Give community members the opportunity to discuss what nature means to them and use this understanding to frame a program. Folks will be more invested in a program if the content is centered around their experience
Community engagement is not a one-size-fits all approach and it takes time. Be patient and flexible with your approach to engaging communities.
I’ve attended meetings that weren’t accessible for community residents and not much was accomplished. In contrast, I’ve attended meetings that were centered around community participation. In these conversations, folks felt comfortable to share their priorities and goals for their neighborhoods. I’ve found that people are more connected to the work if they have been involved in the planning process and have a sense of ownership in a project.
Walking down the street of my childhood home, I see many immigrant and Latinx neighbors planting gardens and harvesting their own food. They tell stories of how their parents taught them to harvest food in their home countries and how they’re passing this knowledge to their children and grandchildren. When I travel to Ecuador, I visit the countryside and I think about my grandparents teaching my parents the agricultural knowledge they’ve passed down for generations. I’ve reclaimed my ancestral connection to nature by honoring my family’s history with the outdoors and recognizing that nature is a deep part of my culture.
By Danielle Russell, Openlands School Garden Coordinator as part of a blog series, Race, Equity, and Justice: Lessons for Climate Resilience
“Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.”
– Malcolm X
What is the power of land?
Land itself is power. Land is the source of both material and spiritual wealth and stability. Connecting to land boosts our mood and has physical benefits. From food, to minerals and fossil fuels, access to land and the ability to manipulate and extract from it is a great privilege and gives those that wield it power.
When Europeans came to the Americas and other lands around the globe, they just decided what land was “theirs.” They looted the land to find riches and disrupted the rhythm that had been in place for millennia. We can’t talk about the current uprising that we see as a response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and too many others at the hands of the state, without talking about the history of capitalism and slavery in this country. While some just see protesters “looting” and “rioting,” others see an uprising in response to centuries of oppression. The “looting” we see is nothing compared to the continual looting of Indigenous land and Black, Brown, and Indigenous bodies. The current uprising is a direct response to the legacy of wealth built by the exploitation of land and Black and Brown communities by way of capitalism that is protected by the state. In America, capitalism is rooted in and thrives on the intersection of racial injustice and a degraded environment, and to effectively combat climate change, we need environmental justice.
America, Built on Stolen Land, by Stolen Labor
Given that the wealth of America is built on the oppression of enslaved Africans, and Indigenous people to America, there is an incalculable debt to pay. One necessary step in progress is for African Americans and Indigenous people to get reparations. Reparations are forms of allocating resources to repair harm of injustice directly to the people that have been harmed. Reparations can take many forms, and can, and should, take the form of direct payment and land-based wealth redistribution. Soul Fire Farm has a reparations map that curates a list of BIPOC ( Black, Indigenous, and people of color) farmers to donate to. As a form of reparations, land trusts should help BIPOCs acquire land for their own land sovereignty, to grow food for their own communities, for economic stability, for protection against racism – environmental and otherwise, and really to do what they see fit with that land.
The people Indigenous to America have endured, in the past and the present, an unimaginable amount of violence at the hands of our nation. The United States Government violently displaced Indigenous people so that they could have access to fertile land. Injustice against Indigenous people isn’t something of the past. The construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline not only violates treaties, but it degrades the land Indigenous people are on, and puts their water at risk. Indigenous land loss is not a thing of the past. Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Trump administration recently revoked the reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, taking away their sovereignty over their land.
After the Civil War, when the 13th Amendment abolished slavery, with the exception of being convicted of a crime, Black folks did not have the legal right to own land, so many folks rented land from White landowners to sharecrop. Share cropping was slavery by another name. It continued the economic foundation of slavery by obstructing share croppers from getting paid for their labor, and only being allowed an allocation of the crop they were growing. Similarly to slavery, it was a degrading experience that many people risked their lives to flee from. People think sharecropping is something that happened long ago, but it is not. I personally know people who are in their 60’s that sharecropped with their families by picking cotton as children. While some Black folks were able to own their own land to do what they wanted with it, because of ongoing discrimination, between 1910 and 2007 Black farmers lost 80% of their land.
Fortunately, there are land trusts that are working to help BIPOC acquire and access land. I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Stephanie Morningstar from the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust (NEFOC), one of the land trusts that are doing this work. NEFOC functions through conservation and farmland preservation. The organization was founded by a board of BIPOC farmers in the Northeast. NEFOC is unique in that it functions as a traditional land trust while also facilitating relationships between BIPOC farmers and land trusts who want to help them acquire land.
NEFOC’s work is not only in conserving land, but in facilitating healing and solidarity. “Healing and truth telling are just as important as our conservation work.” Morningstar says, “Conservation is often a practice of trying to return the land to a fictional idea of what it used to be – untouched by humans. We can’t separate the land from its history with people, and even if we were trying to return it to a pristine state, we’d return it to Indigenous stewardship. In our work we listen to our ancestors, listen to our elders, and listen to the land for guidance.”
One mechanism that NEFOC and other land trusts are using are cultural respect easements and agreements. These emphasize building relationships between land trusts and BIPOC groups to come up with an agreement of what access to that land will look like. It involves centering needs and voices of Indigenous people whose land you’re on, consulting the community before you do work on the land, and working with the community to decide how land will be used. The Dennis Conservation Trust in Massachusetts worked with the Native Land Conservancy, led by folks from the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, to establish a Cultural Respect Agreement on Dennis Conservation Trust lands. This allows for Indigenous people to engage in traditional practices on their lands, such as ceremonies and harvesting, which isn’t allowed on other public land. Reciprocation is a large part of what the Native Land Conservancy does, so they offer public education programs on their site for being able to use the land. Relationships and building trust are the most important part of this process.
Some recommendations from NEFOC for white-led institutions that want to collaborate in this way with BIPOC:
Don’t jump in without doing a justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion audit of your organization. Who makes up your board and staff? What are you doing to reduce harm of white supremacy?
There’s no fast way to do this. Don’t jump right in. This is a listening journey. Just be in a listening space.
Ask for consent at every turn.
A few land access policy changes to consider:
Reform Chicago’s $1 lot program to prevent land speculation by non-resident developers and subsequent displacement of community residents
Stop and assess Chicago’s disproportionate enforcement of laws against property owners, like the Weeds Ordinance, in majority BIPOC neighborhoods
Help property owners to build financial equity in their land by offering support through incentives like the Urban Agricultural Areas Program, which can abate property taxes, utility fees, and other economic barriers to productive land ownership
Level the playing field for economic opportunities between rural, suburban, and urban areas – channel adequate resources into brownfield remediation, support (and enforce) industry compliance with environmental laws, and dedicate fines from noncompliance to benefit affected communities
A few things the conservation community could be doing to improve land access opportunities:
Partner with BIPOC farmers through buy/protect/lease-to-own arrangements through which farmers build equity in the land while protecting it and earning a living from it
Seek out, embrace, and support the land-based visions of non-traditional partners, like housing cooperatives and places of worship
Bend traditional notions of land protection to include models of communal ownership, intensive community management, and combination conservation-housing projects
Extend legal services and support to prospective BIPOC property owners for the acquisition, protection, maintenance, and estate planning of their land at low or no cost
It is known that climate change is rapidly changing American neighborhoods and the built environment. America’s most vulnerable populations, historically and systematically under-resourced communities of color, are more intensely affected by the environmental effects of climate change. With recent reports showing the staggering disparities in COVID-19 deaths in African Americans and other communities of color, the veil has been lifted to illustrate how environmental injustice can have monumental effects on entire populations.
To that end, one of the organizations we highlight below is fighting hard for justice at this very moment. In recent days, a cloud of dust from the demolition of a smokestack of a defunct coal plant covered a section of the Little Village neighborhood, endangering thousands of residents. LVEJO is calling advocates across the region to hold industry partners responsible for this very clear and deliberate display of environmental racism.
Openlands stands together with LVEJO and encourages our supporters to sign the petition to compel key stakeholders, including the State of Illinois, Hilco and the City of Chicago, to provide immediate relief to the Little Village community. This is one of many examples that illustrate the environmental challenges facing urban areas, and especially black and brown communities.
We know that in urban areas there tends to be more asphalt and pollution, and less grass, open space, and trees. This contributes to the urban heat island effect that disproportionately affect communities of color. These higher temperatures actually create more air pollution, especially harmful ground-level ozone from fossil fuel burning and volatile organic compounds from farming and manufacturing.
Moreover, a recent study found that air pollution is disproportionately caused by the non-Hispanic white majority, but disproportionately inhaled by black and Latinx minorities. This is primarily because of systemic institutional practices, such as redlining, that pushed members of these communities to live in undesired urban neighborhoods by the white majority, and these areas have tended to have higher levels of pollution. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing how the federally sanctioned rollbacks in air pollution regulations will only further adversely affect this communities.
We understand that there are other causes to segregation, not just redlining, including panic peddling, contract selling, the refusal of the government to approve of loans to People of Color, the GI Bill after WWII only being offered to white veterans, and more recently predatory lending practices. Although these discriminatory practices are no longer legal, the effects are still being seen today as the climate changes.
While these populations are vulnerable, they are also resilient in many ways. Many neighborhood groups form long lasting action networks and task forces led by community members and leaders to demand changes to their areas. These communities are putting environmental justice efforts at the top of their list of justice issues to tackle. As Openlands continues to advocate for nature-based solutions to climate change, we want to also look to and support our counterparts who have been doing this place-based work and serving these resilient populations for decades. This is the first part in an ongoing series at Openlands, and I hope you’ll check back to learn about other great organizations and work being done soon.
Below are two organizations rooted in undeserved neighborhoods in Chicago (and statewide) that are addressing climate change issues on a grassroots level.
Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO)
For over 25 years, LVEJO has championed healthy environmental practices in Little Village (a historically Mexican-American neighborhood). They have been at the forefront of large opposition to air pollution by industrial companies in their neighborhood, and its effect on residents. In fact, Openlands’ branch office located in Pilsen is across the street from the Fisk Generating Station – a source of fossil fuel pollution that LVEJO led the successful fight to close down. In relation to climate justice specifically, LVEJO has committed to a campaign with a specific goal to develop a local climate adaptation plan and create a climate vulnerability and assets index and mapping system. The community centered approach LVEJO takes allows for its residents to feel a deep connection to the work of the organization, and contributes to its success for all these years.
Faith in Place
Using mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship as anchors, Faith in Place empowers these already intact enclaves to lead a plethora of environmental justice efforts. This is an interfaith, statewide approach that taps community and faith leaders to entrust their congregations with programming ranging from addressing climate change community impacts to advocacy campaigns that challenge harmful environmental policies. In fact, Faith in Place has dedicated 2020 as their “Rooted in Climate Justice” year. For them, this means unpacking environmental racism and its roots in climate degradation and exploring possible solutions.In the past, Openlands and Faith in Place have partnered on the southwest side of the City to advance urban forestry efforts, tree planting, and skill building in relation to community greening to directly address neighborhood climate change concerns.
We recognize the climate change fight is not going to be won in a vacuum and supporting the historically marginalized in our region only strengthens the endeavor. We’ve had relationships with both organizations in the past and believe our constituents should too. Support LVEJO here and Faith in Place here to sustain the collective effort for environmental and social justice.
There are others in the region doing impressive work as well that we hope you dig deeper to learn more about:
Founded in 1963, Openlands protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help balance and enrich our lives.