WOODLAWN — The Green Living Room, a new coffee shop and community gathering spot in Woodlawn, aims to transform the way black people connect with the environment — and each other.
The goal of the Green Living Room, 6431 S. Cottage Grove Ave., is to be a “green hub” in the neighborhood, said Naomi Davis, president and founder of Blacks in Green, the nonprofit that opened the cafe.
Visitors can pick up coffee and food at the snack bar, buy African American cultural home goods and clothing, lounge and socialize on the couches and use the free wi-fi, computers and printers. During warmer months, an area behind the building will be home to a garden with pollinator-friendly plants.
ComEd stations where visitors can learn about the benefits of energy efficiency and request free home energy efficiency assessments pepper the coffeehouse and the events space next door.
Blacks in Green employees said the Green Living Room is important because it fosters a sense of community in West Woodlawn and it brings together various services so residents don’t have to travel to other neighborhoods for errands.
“Going north to find a nice place? Nobody wants to do that,” said Asadah Kirkland, a consultant for Blacks in Green and the founder of the Soulful Chicago Book Fair. “This creates an environment where you can come in and get everything done.”
The Green Living Room is the 12-year-old nonprofit’s first fully public gathering space and headquarters. Blacks in Green — also known as BIG — has worked from the start to boost environmentalism and economic development in black communities, and energy efficiency and sustainability are at the heart of its vision. The group hopes to create self-sustaining black communities everywhere.
“I’ve always had this dream since I was a little girl to live, work, play and thrive in the community in which I reside. I truly believe in the power of community,” said Patrice Patterson, a Blacks in Green energy efficiency coach.
Blacks in Green was previously a volunteer-run organization, but funding and partnerships with organizations like ComEd allowed the nonprofit to establish the Green Living Room and hire about 10 part-time employees as energy efficiency team leaders and coaches.
“What it means to work here is to bring jobs to neighborhoods. That’s one of the things we’re doing — employing our black and brown people,” said Timothy Williams, an energy efficiency coach for the group. “And we’re educating a community on renewable energy sources because there’s a huge transition coming.”
Williams echoed a problem other Blacks in Green employees cited: Communities of color suffer the worst from the effects of climate change, yet they often are overlooked for environmentally-focused initiatives and jobs.
Connecting underserved people with green jobs and energy efficiency strategies achieves a key Blacks in Green goal of increasing black communities’ household incomes. Davis said that type of equity is what economic development groups should focus on rather than pouring money into other initiatives that don’t work.
“For the last 50 years, through trillions of dollars, untold man hours and bleeding hearts, the outcome has been black metrics that are worse than ever,” Davis said. “We are not thriving and it is not funny. We are not playing.”
The Green Living Room officially opened in October. About 1,200 people have stopped by since then, and Blacks in Green has hosted about three dozen events there. Blacks in Green sponsors numerous green job learning, skills-building and hiring sessions. For example, solar job hiring events occur twice a month at the cafe.
In addition to promoting the conservation lifestyle, a Blacks in Green core tenet is to grow and sustain the number of neighbor-owned businesses. Helping residents own, develop and manage property in their neighborhoods prevents the community from further losing its voice and longtime residents, Davis said.
“Woodlawn is about 85 percent investor-owned,” Davis said. “That means we’re extremely vulnerable to price hikes that could throw families out of the neighborhood — otherwise known as gentrification.”
This nonprofit’s holistic approach to community advancement has helped grow the entrepreneurial ambitions of its own employees. One, Tanisha Kilpatrick, intends to launch a spice line with products sourced from the cafe’s pollinator garden and from the Mamie Till Forgiveness Garden, a newly consecrated community garden at the corner of 64th Street and St. Lawrence Avenue. Colleague Patrice Patterson also will source ingredients from there for her small business: an all-natural, handcrafted skincare line.
Blacks in Green wants to franchise the Green Living Room in black neighborhoods across Chicago and the country. Employees are in talks with other Chicago communities as well as a black-run nonprofit in Grand Rapids, Mich., about the possibility of expanding and creating walkable, green villages.
“We all pull together to make this one synergy, to make it big, to make it profitable, to make an impact on the community so people can see … we’re putting action behind the words we are saying,” Kilpatrick said. “We’re all pillars holding this up. We are at the ground level of making BIG big.”
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