Imagine Englewood If: Group grows community through garden

April 20, 2012 3:34:37 PM PDT
Sometimes a community garden is much more than just a community garden.

In the Englewood neighborhood, it turned out to be an awakening to a major environmental issue. Now, residents are hoping federal and state resources will help them to live green.

Students are learning the basics of urban farming through the community group Imagine Englewood If.

"We learn about the plants and what we eat and how we grow them and the steps that it takes for the garden to grow," Khadijha Clements, youth worker, said.

The community garden did not start with raised beds or organic soil. It started nearly a decade ago in a vacant lot that sounded an alarm.

"We wanted to have a garden on a lot near Nicholson school and the Board of Education had the lot tested because the children were going to be in the garden and they found lead and it was very high," Jean Carter-Hill, co-founder, Imagine Englewood If. "So then we moved to another lot. We found lead on that lot."

High lead levels in the soil sparked Jean Carter-Hill to start raising awareness among residents and to lobby government for help with remediation.

"We know we can turn this community around," Carter-Hill said.

At a recent community meeting, the chief of the toxic section for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a job-training program that would teach Englewood residents safe construction practices where lead may be present. He says the need is critical.

"In the United States, approximately 1 out of 120 children had elevated levels of lead. In Chicago, it's about 1 in 80 and in Englewood it's about 1 in 40," Tony Martig, U.S. EPA Chicago Regional Office, said.

Lead-based paint and the lead-tainted dust from wooden windows in Englewood's older housing stock are primary causes for the problem. The Illinois General Assembly recently approved $2.5 million in funding to replace wooden windows with new vinyl ones free to residents. The goal is to prevent lead's brain damaging effects on more young children.

"It can make difficulties for their behavior because they can become aggressive. All of that is a part of the brain that controls impulses and helps a child to see the consequences of her actions. That is damaged with lead," Mary Burns, Lead Safe Housing Initiatives, Loyola University, said.

Carter-Hill believes reducing lead poisoning could also help stop the violence.

"I've known some of the children who've been involved in some of the killing in Englewood and knew they were having serious problems when they were children and it is never addressed. So, we're saying take a look at the lead. Test these children before they become adults and teenagers and cause problems. They need help," Carter-Hill said.

Carter-Hill would like to see lead testing become mandatory in the schools like immunizations so more children can be helped. If you'd like more information on either of the new programs to help reduce lead levels, visit and