Lightfoot launches ‘Grounds for Peace,’ an anti-violence plan to clean up 50 vacant city lots

The city partnership with Urban Growers Collective will train 50 young men in landscaping, planting and property maintenance who will then beautify vacant lots in North Lawndale, Woodlawn and Englewood.

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot (from left), Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th) and Erika Allen,

Mayor Lori Lightfoot is joined by (left) Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th) and Erika Allen, co-founder of Urban Growers Collective (center right), to kick off a program to beautify city-owned vacant lots. Also attending was Cmdr. Gloria J. Hanna (right) of the Chicago Police Department’s Grand Crossing District.

Fran Spielman / Sun-Times

As a student at the University of Michigan, Lori Lightfoot spent one summer leading a crew of young men cleaning vacant lots in her hometown of Massillon, Ohio.

“It’s hot, difficult work. I can tell you that. But, it makes a difference in neighborhoods when people who are walking their dog, walking on the street see that somebody has taken the time and effort to actually make the area around them look beautiful,” she said.

On Tuesday, Lightfoot reflected on that sweaty-but-enriching summer experience as she launched “Grounds for Peace,” the city’s new plan to clean and beautify 50 city-owned vacant lots in North Lawndale, Woodlawn and Englewood that have been magnets for gang violence.

The $250,000 city partnership with Urban Growers Collective will train 50 young men in landscaping, planting and property maintenance. Those chosen for the program are at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of gang violence.

It’s all part of the READI-Chicago, a Heartland Alliance program. READI, which stands for “Rapid Employment and Development Initiative,” aims to reduce gun violence by providing therapy, jobs and support services to over 500 men from South and West Side neighborhoods plagued by gang violence.

“It actually makes a difference in reducing the violence. This is based upon information that we gleaned from other cities across the country. We’ve imported the idea, put our Chicago spin on it,” Lightfoot said.

During a news conference at a vacant lot at 6351 S. Saint Lawrence Ave. in Woodlawn, Lightfoot noted she had a “family garden every year of my growing-up years” to produce “fresh vegetables for our table.”

“When you till the land, as I continue to do, based upon my experience working with my mom and dad in our garden, you love and appreciate your surroundings. And I hope that these young men really get that experience. Maybe some of them will go on to be growers or urban farmers, because this tradition in the black community is strong and deep,” the mayor said.

Lightfoot acknowledged there is “a lot of hard work to do in our city to reclaim our streets from the terror and the violence that is plaguing way too many communities” on the South and West Sides.

The vacant lot program, she said, is yet another piece of the puzzle.

“We’re doing a lot of hard work. We’re pushing our police department to think pro-actively. But ultimately, the responsibility for making sure that we keep our communities safe lies with us,” she said.

“We all have to take responsibility and think about what thing more can we do to be on our blocks, to claim ownership of our territory, to report the things that are going on, to build relationships with our police department. We all have to be in this together.”

Mike McCann said he’s been working for READI Chicago-Greater Englewood for the last 16 months. He wasn’t called. He didn’t apply. He was chosen.

“I never knew that cleaning up trash would help me in the future. I met important people. I know how to resolve situations I get into. I know how to turn the other cheek. I know how to lead,” McCann said.

“Me and my men right now — we’ve got businesses. We’re out here today and we’re cleaning up the lots. We’ve got 50 more this summer. We’re gonna give back. We’re gonna do what we’ve got to do and work hard.”

Marlon Chamberlain, community project manager for READI Chicago-Greater Englewood, described the “intensive, relationship-based” program as “building the community up from inside out.”

“We fully support our participants during this 18-month program, even if they have setbacks. The relationships we form support these young men, recognizing that their progress is not linear. We meet these individuals where they are,” Chamberlain said.

“Violence can only be solved with the help of employers like Urban Growers Collective, who are committed and invested in this population to … remove obstacles for people who are formerly incarcerated. This collaboration really represents a model to the city of what violence solutions can look like.”

Urban Growers Collective co-founder Erika Allen said she views the program as a form of “restorative justice” — both for the young men involved and for the neighbors who have endured the vacant lots and the crime that they breed for far too long.

“It’s literally planting a seed of hope,” Allen said.

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