In Woodlawn, Naomi Davis planted a seed that now will help find green solutions to help Black communities
Her Blacks in Green organization is getting $10 million from the Biden administration to help build on her efforts and expand them across the Midwest.
Naomi Davis has been taking her message to South Siders for more than a decade about the need to be more mindful of climate change, sustainability and clean energy.
Save the planet, and save Black neighborhoods, Davis tells people. That will improve Chicagoans’ lives as well as their kids’ health and economic future.
It’s the conclusion she came to 16 years ago, which led her to create Blacks in Green, known as BIG, an environmental and social justice organization that envisions rebuilding Black communities while responding to the climate crisis.
In Woodlawn, where BIG is based, Davis is working to create what she calls a “green village,” starting with a “sustainable square mile” in Woodlawn that’s just south of Washington Park and only a short distance from the future Obama Presidential Center.
Black historical tourism also is in her plans, pushing for Emmett Till’s childhood home to become an environmentally friendly museum.
One day, she hopes to help build a revitalized, sustainable community that draws electricity from a renewable power microgrid. Davis has been a vocal critic of electric and other utilities for their rate hikes and shut-off policies and has worked toward policy reforms.
She sees her plan as a possible model for reviving Black neighborhoods across the United States.
“My vision is self-sustaining Black communities everywhere,” Davis says.
That vision is winning broader support. President Joe Biden’s administration has now awarded her $10 million over five years to help environmental justice communities across the Midwest tap federal funding.
That comes after years of a much more personal level of activism on the South Side. After working in government, politics, retail and even theater, Davis began her research more than 20 years ago to understand why Black communities fell apart. That led to BIG.
Determined to improve the lives of Black people, she took no pay for the first dozen years.
Now 67, and after years of struggling to make BIG a viable organization and one that makes a difference, Davis says she is thinking bigger. Buoyed in part by the federal money, she talks of building more programs and of possible expansion on a regional and national level.
If the sustainable square mile becomes a reality, it can be replicated across Chicago and the United States, she says.
She’s hoping to get more political support, particularly from City Hall as new Mayor Brandon Johnson promises policies promoting equity.
Among its efforts, BIG creates educational programs, job training and community gardens.
Davis says the aim of all of this is to rebuild Black neighborhoods through environmentally sustainable means, and in the process, harness the emerging green economy. That’s how this effort can succeed where a half-century of white-led initiatives failed to help the lives of African Americans, she says.
“Our metrics of health and wealth are as bad as they ever were,” she says.
Population loss in Chicago’s Black-majority areas has been followed by more violent crime, unemployment and economic despair, an analysis this month by WBEZ found. That report follows a grim analysis of life expectancy among Black Chicagoans released by City Hall last year, in which city health officials said white residents outlive Black residents by a decade, on average.
Woodlawn, which has seen a significant population loss, is where Davis is starting. The South Side community, more than 80% Black, has a median household income of about $28,000 — less than half of household income citywide. Unemployment is 17%, and that doesn’t include the more than 40% of residents who are not in the labor force, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.
Davis sees the green revolution as a path out of poverty after decades of failed government and private programs aimed at helping Black people — policies she calls the “Save the Negro industry.”
“There has never been the wholesale solution that would’ve been possible if those dollars were seriously committed to solutions,” Davis says.
She’s rapidly building her organization. Donor revenue last year came to about $1.9 million, Davis says, after steady growth for several years. BIG reported $1.2 million in revenue in 2021, more than double what it raised in 2019 and nearly 20 times the $6,400 raised in 2014.
BIG’s financial supporters have included the Builder’s Initiative, Chicago Frontline Funder’s Initiative, Walder Foundation, Crown Family Foundation and Chicago Community Trust. It also has gotten money from the city of Chicago.
Now increasingly in a national spotlight, Davis has been invited by groups in other cities to talk about her ideas.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced it was awarding BIG $10 million over five years to help communities in six Midwest states and almost two dozen tribal areas tap into funding available under the federal Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to advance environmental justice, clean energy and related initiatives.
Under the grant, BIG will get assistance from academic centers, including the University of Illinois Chicago, and other organizations. What’s unusual about the arrangement is that BIG is calling the shots, overseeing the much larger operations.
“To be an organization that can truly serve a region and a nation, you have to be an organization that is first locally legitimate,” says Kyle Whyte, a University of Michigan professor who is a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
Davis’s organization fits that description, says Clem Balanoff, a former Illinois state representative who is on the board of her organization.
“She’s always two steps ahead of the next four or five steps,” says Balanoff, who describes Davis’ work as visionary. “Nobody has worked harder for her community.”
In Woodlawn, Davis envisions a revitalized neighborhood that resembles the community where she was raised, St. Albans in the New York City borough of Queens. The sustainable square mile, she says, will be the “gold standard for Black community development.”
Davis says she got involved in this work because she wanted to better understand why Black communities like St. Albans and Woodlawn deteriorated and was trying to find ways they might be revived.
“I was just really unwilling to accept a world in which the kind of place where I grew up had been replaced by blight, and the new normal was what you see here — vacant lots, corroded corridors and boarded-up buildings,” she says.
She found that Black communities around the world shared similar problems. Among the issues were that efforts to help them typically were overseen by white-led organizations from outside those communities, and much of the money that was invested was short-term rather being put into sustainability and long-term economic growth.
She says what she’s doing has a foothold in the practices and values she grew up with — what she calls Grannynomics. One of the elements of Grannynomics is that, by 10, you’re an apprentice in some trade. For Davis’ mother, it was sewing. Her mother grew up attending Rosenwald schools, established for Black children in the rural South. Davis says she grew up in an “Afrocentric” household in which she was taught to love her African American identity.
“I am a child of the ’60s and a child of the Great Migration,” she says. “When I say I’m a child of the ’60s, I mean to say I’m very much caught up with a narrative of justice, movement, community and economics.”
Davis says she studied the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s boycotts that pushed for economic justice — efforts fundamental to his racial and social justice mission.
She also was influenced by the death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old from Chicago who was tortured and killed by whites while visiting relatives in 1955 in Mississippi. Davis was born a day before Till was killed. Davis’ mother, Juliet, was born miles from Money, Mississippi, where Till was visiting before he was abducted, killed and mutilated — a brutal death that was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement.
Davis raised money to buy Emmett Till’s childhood home at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave. and restore it to operate as a museum. It’s expected to open in 2025 with a path connecting it to the Mamie Till-Mobley Forgiveness Garden, named for his mother.
Davis took a house that was neglected and helped ensure it would become a showcase, says Woodlawn resident Elizabeth Gardner.
“That’s part of what her vision is really — to take our neighborhoods and bring out the beauty and the history that once was and share that with the world,” Gardner says.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.