Building Blocks

I Grow Chicago is taking back West Englewood one block at a time by empowering its neighbors with peace, love and a sense of community.

By Marissa Nelson

June 17, 2019 10:00 AM

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Cece Dixon grew up near the corner of 64th and Honore in West Englewood on the Southwest Side of Chicago. “I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly,” says Dixon in reference to the many barriers she and her neighbors have had to face over the years, from vacant houses being demolished and public schools closing to violence plaguing the streets. “It was nothing but abandoned houses and parking lots. I honestly didn’t think that my community could ever come back from that.”

But it has. And it all began five years ago when Dixon and her neighbors met Robbin Carroll, a yoga teacher in Englewood determined to make a positive impact on her community, in particular by reducing crime and the violence that so often comes with it. (West Englewood is the third most violent community in Chicago.) “She turned to us and asked, ‘Do you want to take back our community?’” says Dixon. “We did.”

So, in 2013, emboldened by the support of her newfound friends, Carroll founded I Grow Chicago, an organization dedicated to taking one corner of West Englewood from surviving to thriving through community connection, skill building and opportunity. In 2014, she bought a rundown house at the corner of 64th and Honore and set to work restoring it with help from her neighbors, whom she hired to helm the repairs. Today, that home is called Peace House, and exists as I Grow’s safe haven for growth and healing to take place. 

The I Grow Chicago Peace Garden

“Our target area of impact is a five-block radius extending from our corner at 64th and Honore,” says Erin Vogel, co-executive director of I Grow. “While we do serve everyone, and we’ll never turn anyone away, we are hyper-focused on West Englewood—individual by individual, family by family, house by house, block by block, and really making an impact that way—before growing from there.”

I Grow Chicago’s mission statement is straightforward, but citing exactly what the nonprofit does on a day-to-day basis is nearly impossible. “We’re not just one thing, program or service,” says Vogel. “I Grow is a dynamic community of neighbors working together to address the needs of the block as they arise, however that might take shape.” And its success is in its flexibility to do just that. For example, at Peace House iGrow is currently running a weekly women’s group led by Dixon that covers topics such as food insecurity and body positivity. And there’s a parenting group and an after-school program for kids happening now, too. And I Grow’s Strive to Thrive program is in place to provide job mentorship and skill building to help prepare neighborhood residents for reentering the workplace. And, yes, there are yoga classes, too.

Community is the cornerstone of I Grow Chicago. The organization simply wouldn’t exist without it. Programs are led by community leaders, and community members weigh in on decisions about the nonprofit’s programming. Together, they evaluate the barriers that are preventing West Englewood from moving forward and focus on breaking them down. “Everything we address—poverty, unemployment, education, safety—begins from a framework of healing,” says Vogel. “We work to heal through the trauma first. Only after the healing begins can we take our community from surviving to thriving.” 

I Grow Chicago Founder Robbin Carroll (left) and Family Wellness Coordinator Karen Clark connect at the grand opening celebration of their first Peace Campus project, an NBA-sized basketball court.

I Grow’s impact, outside of the praise from its community members, can be heard loud and clear via its accomplishments. Currently I Grow is running roughly 15 programs (the count varies depending on the time of year as many take place outside), and helping approximately 170 families, or 3,000 people, each year. And since its founding, the organization has served more than 25,000 meals, most of which were grown in I Grow’s urban garden adjacent to Peace House, and hosted 32 police-healing community events. And last year, I Grow placed 59 community members in jobs and provided 435 hours of mentorship. 

“Peace House has opened up a lot of doors for a lot of different people,” says Ora Bradley, whose family has owned a house on the block since 1971. She, like Dixon, has witnessed the positive community shift since I Grow’s inception. “In the summer of 2014, despite the fact that the Peace House had yet to be completed, I Grow hosted its first summer camp for kids right on South Honore Street,” remembers Bradley. “The street and its neighbors opened their doors to 45 day campers. One house was the I Grow Chicago bathroom, another was for activities storage, and my home was the camp’s kitchen.”

The IGC Peace House, which opened in April of 2015, was built by Englewood residents.

Five years later, among the many hats she wears at Peace House, Bradley serves as notary, notarizing community members’ applications for their State ID card, which is necessary for employment.

“Intergenerational, inclusive and community-driven, we meet our community’s needs in thoughtful, human and practical ways to create long-term change,” says Vogel. And now, with Peace House pushing maximum capacity, I Grow Chicago has expanded its footprint, unveiling an entire Peace Campus last month, complete with a family resource center and basketball court—and it’s still growing. “It’s going to take time,” adds Bradley. “One step at a time, one day at a time. I promise you, Peace Campus is going to be magnificent—a peace-filled, rainbow-colored block. All it takes is one seed, one step, one chance to change a person’s life.”

I Grow Chicago’s Summer of Hope camp engages students ages 5-12 in six weeks of art, yoga, nature play and weekly cultural field trips outside of Englewood.