When Asiaha Butler told us, “this is community development of the mind,” I saw nearly everyone in the room spontaneously nod, smile, and start scribbling in their notes. Urban planner and data mapping extraordinaire Steven Vance even bolded it in his notes on our shared Google Docs Agenda… twice.
I think this statement impacted us so strongly because it concisely captured the essence of Englewood’s unique problems and Asiaha’s unique solutions; throughout her talk, she illustrated the interconnectedness of emotion, thought, and the physical environment of her neighborhood.
Asiaha’s conviction to help Englewood began at a time when the news reported nothing but violence and chaos and ignored anything positive. Asiaha didn’t deny that there were loud parties, stray bullets, and gangbangers, but she also pointed out that there were good people, rich culture, and opportunities to live happy lives. At one point, she considered selling her home and moving her family to Atlanta but, when she looked out the window and saw kids playing around a vacant lot covered in trash, she decided her family wouldn’t be like all the others that had already given up and abandoned the neighborhood. She wanted to stay and make a difference.
Asiaha began volunteering wherever and whenever she could. Soon, she noticed the volunteers she worked with were mostly older, leaving the younger generations underrepresented. In order to include a broader range of voices, they needed people with enough skills and experience to understand the complex issues at hand, but still be able to connect with the youth. She recruited other young people like her with a wide variety of backgrounds and expertise to help some of the neighborhood organizations but later decided they would be more effective if they become their own group. So, in 2011, she founded the Residential Association of Greater Englewood (R.A.G.E.)
The first 13 members of R.A.G.E. lived in all 6 wards of Greater Englewood. Those six aldermen didn’t have offices in Englewood and they weren’t coordinating with each other; close neighbors would often find themselves battling the same issues through different, distant people. So as their first major action, R.A.G.E. decided to hold a candidate forum for the Aldermanic elections that year. This forum enabled a new level of transparency between the aldermanic candidates and the neighborhood and it highlighted the community’s desire for improved collaboration. They asked each candidate if they would open an office in the neighborhood. Six candidates affirmed they would, and now two aldermen (Toni L Foulkes and Raymond Lopez) run their offices locally. These offices both improve residents’ representation, and they signal that the neighborhood is, in fact, a perfectly fine place to set up shop.
Those two offices are a great start, but R.A.G.E. would still love to see many more people and businesses move in. Englewood has suffered a perpetual cycle of vacant land leading to more vacant land. Vacant lots create holes in the neighborhood that fill with trash, enable crime, and diminish Englewood’s image. These effects drive more people to leave the neighborhood which creates more vacancies and the problem builds on itself.
At the time, Chicago had only a few resources to help residents buy vacant land. Asiaha tried to use the Adjacent Neighbors Land Acquisition Program (ANLAP) to buy a vacant lot but inflexible rules made her ineligible even though the lot was just across the street from the property she already owned. R.A.G.E. rallied, negotiated with the city, and ended up pioneering the Large Lots Program. Through this program, Asiaha bought the lot and R.A.G.E., with help from Chicago Cares, created a park with planter boxes, benches, painted fences and more (Chicago Tribune Video). They took this project on to clean up the neighborhood and deter violence but it also built community pride.
In their continuing effort to improve the neighborhood’s reputation, R.A.G.E. established a marketing campaign called Englewood Rising to humanize the neighborhood. Photographer Tonika Johnson captured portraits of Englewood residents and placed them on posters, billboards, and banners around town with phrases such as, “Englewood Rising,” “I am Englewood,” and “We love Englewood.” The residents feel pride when they see themselves displayed around town and it portrays the rich culture and character of the neighborhood rather than the negative aspects that the media typically broadcasts to the rest of the city.
It was during Asiaha’s explanation of Englewood Rising that she said my favorite line, “This is community development of the mind.” Without a doubt, R.A.G.E.’s community development efforts have changed the physical environment of Englewood, but their most impressive impact is on the mental environment. If you want to change a neighborhood in a positive and meaningful way, you also have to change how people feel about it. After all, nobody wants to invest in a place nobody loves. Thanks to Asiaha Butler -- aka Mrs. Englewood -- and the Resident Association of Greater Englewood, it’s clear that there is a lot to love about Greater Englewood.
These few brief descriptions of Asiaha’s inspiring (and funny) stories barely cover a fraction of what she discussed at our last City Open Workshop. Luckily though, you can view our shared notes via Google Docs, including Q&A, and R.A.G.E. maintains a solid online presence through their website and social media so you can stay connected and hear more about their work.