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Chicago residents turn a neglected house into a thriving community center

Six years ago, Robbin Carroll stood on a street corner in Chicago’s turbulent West Englewood neighborhood. She handed out sandwiches and asked anyone who walked by, “Do you want to take back your community?”

The resounding answer: “Absolutely, yes.”

When she returned the next day, residents came out asking, “When are we starting?”

More than 2,100 people have been shot this year in Chicago. West Englewood in particular, on the southwest side of the city, has been plagued with violence and trauma.

“It’s a locked-out, isolated community,” said Carroll, who had taught yoga to public school children in neighboring areas.

In 2013, she decided to go see for herself what was going on in the neighborhood. She saw the empty lots, the boarded-up houses, people not coming outside. But that wasn’t all—she saw potential.

“I saw the community’s light within and … space for hope and healing,” Carroll said.

So, she created an organization embedded right in the community, run by the community. It’s called I Grow Chicago and has since worked to transform the neighborhood from surviving to thriving, one block at a time.

They started by acquiring a foreclosed home on the block and joined forces with community members to renovate it. The result was the Peace House.

“We’re an open-door policy,” she said. “We serve everyone in the community.”

At the Peace House, people of all ages find an array of resources and support. There’s tutoring and afterschool programs; yoga and meditation classes; laundry and meal programs; and assistance with things like writing a resume or getting an ID.

Community members and volunteers run all the programs which aim to combat the traumatic effects of violence and poverty.

“We will work through all of what is holding you back to becoming the person and potential that you have to be,” Carroll said.

Quentin Mables was one of the first community members to get involved. A lifelong resident of Englewood, he lost many friends to gun violence and knew his community deserved better. Now he’s an executive director of the organization, which has helped families feel safer and hundreds of residents improve their lives.

The group is now in the process of building a Peace Campus. Already, it installed a basketball court along with a garden that provides fresh food for neighborhood residents. The Family Wellness House recently opened, and a Nature Play Lot will be completed later this fall.

For Carroll, the goal is to continue fostering connection and belonging, and from there come opportunities for growth.

“Until you start to heal, you can’t have agency for yourself or your community,” Carroll said. “We see change, and we do it one breath, one seed, one family at a time.”

CNN’s Laura Klairmont spoke with Carroll about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.

CNN: Chicago remains a very racially divided city. What does that look like, and what effect has it had on communities?

Robbin Carroll: Chicago is a very divided city. I live downtown and (it’s) beautiful. We have parks and you can walk to any restaurant. There’s access and opportunity and exposure to hope and life.

The South Side and the West Side are communities that have been very disenfranchised. The obstacles that people living in Englewood face is probably every single oppression that is possible. Health care is a privilege. Wellness, just even thinking about it, is a privilege. Access to education, transportation, food, opportunity, resources — it’s a desert of all those things.

Every Monday morning, there’s the news of how many people were shot and killed. And I could not wrap my head around that this was the city I lived in and that I wasn’t doing anything about that. Violence causes a great deal of trauma that actually has a huge rippling effect. The people getting shot—that’s somebody’s father and mother and brother.

If you want to understand a problem, get close to it. So, I started coming out to the community and volunteering. The first thing I thought about was, this was six miles from my house, and this was unacceptable. The violence had just really taken over.

CNN: What is the wisdom council and the significance of their role?

Carroll: It came about because we were thinking that the community needs to (be the one to) solve conflict. So, we ended up getting an elder from each block—they came together and then we spent the next year doing trainings.

The wisdom council shares with us how they would like to see the community, and we go to them with our problems. If someone steals and gets caught, the community will go to the wisdom council and say, “How do you want to handle this?” They share all their knowledge because we’ve been fortunate enough that they’ve lived through it.

The elders wanted to be able to tell the alderman [city council member] what is going on in our community and what we need to be fixed. So, they started a walking club. They walk around and check on each other; they make sure that they stop and share. And they write down every single thing they want fixed in their community. They meet with the alderman once a month and tell him what they need.

CNN: What are you trying to accomplish at the Peace House, and how have you ensured that the local community leads those efforts?

Carroll: I Grow Chicago started from the crazy idea of community taking back itself and healing in the process. We’re just like grandma’s home. You can come in for anything. We’re an open space for you to explore who you want to be next. I always say, “You get a hug.” If we have food, you can have food. And we’re a place where you can come and say, “I can’t read. Or I am in a really bad place.” We help people find meaningful employment.

The community really helped us build it and form it; everyone had a part in putting the house there. We respond and grow with community. The community wanted us to buy other houses and more lots. The community really wanted a place to play. And so, we listened. This year it was a playground for our kids, so we’re putting in a playground. We needed a wellness house so our women and families have a safe space to go and be quiet.

Our mission is to go from surviving to thriving. My hopes and dreams for this community are whatever they hope and dream comes true.

Want to get involved? Check out the I Grow Chicago website and see how to help.

To donate to I Grow Chicago via CrowdRise, click here

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