Twelve years ago, Chicago resident Naomi Davis launched Blacks in Green after coming to understand communities of color are most negatively impacted by climate change, but also primed for job training in the emerging green economy.
She wanted to tackle these issues in her own community, the West Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. Davis spent ensuing years on local green initiatives that include tree inventories and solar energy job partnerships. And on October 1, she opened the organization’s first official headquarters, the Green Living Room, to serve as a home base for envisioning West Woodlawn as a walkable village uplifting and empowering people of color in the midst of a deepening climate crisis. The headquarters will offer meeting space, training and job opportunities in service of the mission to support neighbors and fight climate change.
“I’m reconstructing, remembering and re-inventing the walkable village here in the age of climate crisis,” Davis says. “It’s a local, living economy as a greenhouse gas reduction strategy.”
Davis grew up in her own “walkable village” of St. Albans, Queens, an enclave for the African-American middle class. She majored in English and theater before moving to Chicago to attend law school, eventually settling in West Woodlawn. That neighborhood, too, was known for its African-American middle class following the Great Migration.
In West Woodlawn, Davis started thinking about the benefits of dense, walkable neighborhoods to both its residents and the environment. The vision of sustainable, utopian communities was often reserved for white Americans, she believed, but it could become a vision for black neighborhoods moving forward from the devastation of urban renewal. West Woodlawn, for example, is home to boarded-up homes and vacant lots — three of which Blacks in Green are revitalizing into green space.
In the Sustainable Square Mile Handbook, a guide for “green village building” Davis wrote with the Natural Resources Defense Council, outlines her vision: “Walkable neighborhoods [are] where neighbor-owned businesses, neighbor-owned properties, and the conservation lifestyle harmonize to circulate neighbor dollars, build neighbor wealth, and promote neighbor culture while supporting ecosystems and acting to surmount disruption.”
One critical part of that ecosystem — particularly for marginalized populations — is a safe, central community hub. “We’ve gotta have a network, a way for us to take care of each other so far as employment, careers and opportunities,” Davis says. After years of organizing, she secured enough funding from an energy efficiency pilot contract through Illinois utility company ComEd, alongside smaller grants, to open the Green Living Room on the main drag of South Cottage Grove Avenue.
Davis doesn’t take the “living room” title lightly; the muti-purpose space is open to the public and designed to feel like a second home for West Woodlawn residents. Given Davis’ background in theater, she added a stage for performances, live broadcasting, mini concerts and film nights. The Green Living Room also holds a cafe with free wi-fi, computers with low to no-cost green economy curricula, and information on resources and job opportunities.
“People need a place to go and be,” explains Asadah Kirkland, Blacks in Green’s operations consultant and founder of Soulful Chicago Book Fair. “This is a facility that actually houses a mindset, a place to learn about energy efficiency and green living.”
The Green Living Room will in many ways amplify existing work of Blacks in Green. In 2018 the organization trained its first cohort for the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition, a group creating clean energy jobs across the state; now, the Green Living Room will host a rotation of professional trade training courses with industry certifications and hiring events.
Blacks in Green has long engaged in community outreach — in 2010 the New York Times profiled Davis passing out energy efficient bulbs and eco-literature inside a nightclub. The grant from ComEd will support the organization’s next evolution of outreach, complemented by a central headquarters. An energy coach, for example, will be on hand to help residents reduce their electricity bills.
Davis’ goals are ambitious. “I’m committed to creating a Green Living Room in every black neighborhood in America,” she says. The work feels more pressing as dire climate change reports have spurred public mobilization. (In September, thousands of students rallied in downtown Chicago as part of the global Climate Change Strike.)
Davis has long been ahead of the curve, pointing out the importance of walkability to combat climate change — transportation is one of the largest sources of U.S. global warming emissions — and stressing the need for equity in a green new economy before the popularization of the Green New Deal. “I just keep saying to the decision makers, funders, financiers: look, give someone else a chance!” Davis says. “What you’ve been doing hasn’t worked. Do something different and work with us!”
“We need to do something dramatically different,” Davis says. “And we need to do it right now.”