According to the United Nations, the global urban population will grow to almost 5 billion by the year 2030 (UNFPA 2007). With this rise in populations in urban centers, there has also been a rise in poverty in urban centers worldwide with cities having disproportionate rates of poverty. Furthermore, urban areas are facing a range of environmental health challenges including contamination of air, water, and soil (Vardoulakis 2016).
Chicago Eco House was established in 2014 to create innovative educational programs to tackle both high poverty rates and improve environmental health in urban areas, with a focus on Chicago’s inner city.
The Chicago Eco House was birthed when the founder, Quilen Blackwell, was tutoring at a high school in Englewood, in the South Side of Chicago neighborhood. Through this experience, he encountered the challenges of inner-city poverty and how it directly affects the young people who live there. Among the issues exacerbating the issues related to poverty in Englewood are hundreds of vacant and blighted properties and a disproportionately high unemployment rate amongst black youth ages 16-24t.
After spending months of organizing local residents and community groups, Quilen and his team successfully launched the Stewart Street Farm, which provided 32 high school students with stipends to learn about urban agriculture. The farm occupies over two city blocks and includes vegetables, flowers, and a fruit orchard. The Chicago Eco House worked with the local alderman’s office, TEAM Englewood, and Urban Prep Academy high schools, and neighborhood advocates to secure the vacant land from the city in order to build this farm that benefits the local community.
Out of this work, valuable lessons learned fueled ongoing programming. A more entrepreneurial model was required after grant funding paying the students was not a long-term sustainable solution. A flower farm business was therefore incorporated into the farm, allowing youth to not only learn about sustainable farming practices but also provide them with an opportunity to learn about business management skills through the development of a flower sales business.
In 2017, a second flower farm (shed, rainwater irrigation, flower beds, etc.) was built in the neighborhood. Chicago Eco House partnered with Windy City Harvest (a nonprofit that trains urban farmers) to rent out our flower farm space to their urban farmer graduates, and recently secured their first urban farmer tenant! They are on track to generate $20,000 for the 2018 season with an agreed upon 70/30 revenue split, securing Eco House with 30 percent. The Eco House flower farm model contributes to the local green economy by being a true manifestation of the triple bottom line: planet, people, and profit. In addition to the flower farms, 3D printed jewelry is made by students and sold in retail shops on the South Side of Chicago. Youth who create and print the jewelry receive a monthly dividend out of the net profits. Through this process, youth are exposed to a hands-on, immersive educational experience where they learn STEM skills in a real-world setting. Eco House uses this education model to enhance youth job readiness skills – as they run the program as a small business.
“My passion is focused on the west and south side of Chicago, those local communities and the Indigenous people that live there, at Eco House we care about the people. To help preserve these people we’ve adopted the idea of restoring the abandoned homes and adjoining lots. This gives people the opportunity to choose – to choose to stay in the neighborhood and take care of it and themselves.”
The Education and Outreach team at Underwriters Laboratories was introduced to Chicago EcoHouse in 2017 when the organization was chosen as one of the winners of the UL Innovative Education Award (ULIEA). Chicago Eco House embodies the key concept in this first-of-its-kind educational award program, to use the environment as a pathway to STEM learning. The ULIEA award recognizes Eco House for their outstanding advancement of environmental and STEM education (E-STEM) through youth empowerment and sustainable community development, with a mission to inspire the next generation of engineers, business leaders, inventors, scientists, and researchers.