Peace Corps Alum Turns At-Risk Kids Into Profitable Flower Growers

Quilen Blackwell is the president and co-founder of the Chicago Eco House, whose mission is to train inner city youth in sustainable social enterprises to alleviate poverty. The Chicago Eco House’s signature program is Southside Blooms, an off-grid flower farm youth social enterprise where participants convert vacant lots into commercial flower farms using solar powered rainwater irrigation. This creates jobs for young people on the south and west sides of Chicago. The Eco House has won several awards for its work including the UL Innovation Education Award, Delta Institute BOOST Award, the Keep Chicago Beautiful Community Vision Award, and the African American Legacy Award.

Quilen resides on the south side of Chicago with his wife Hannah (the other co-founder of Eco House) and their three children who are all under two years old.

I had the opportunity to interview Quilen recently. Here are some of the highlights of that interview:

Jill Griffin: What is Southside Blooms?

Quilen Blackwell: Southside Blooms helps Black youth, inner city blight, and the environment through a network of urban flower farms and a flower shop. The farms and flower shop provide meaningful work for at-risk Black youth who have few economic opportunities. They earn money working on solar powered urban flower farms. The eco-friendly farms use rainwater irrigation and provide a pollinator habitat. We like to say that we’re eliminating poverty through sustainability.

We want to break the stereotype that young people from these inner-city communities think gang activity and violence is fun. It’s not. It’s traumatic and it’s destroying lives. They may end up in that activity due to their circumstances but it’s certainly not something they want.

These young people want an opportunity to prove themselves. They want to learn skills, make some money, and provide value to their families and communities.

We’re helping them do this with flowers. The name Southside Blooms represents not only the flowers, but also the neighborhoods and the people who live in them blossoming.

Griffins: How many locations do you have?

Blackwell: Southside Blooms has 10 acres of urban farmland across four farms in southside Chicago, one farm in the westside, and one in Gary, Indiana. The youth plant flowers, tend them, and harvest them. They also take care of the farms’ chickens and honeybees. One of the beautiful things about agriculture is there’s always something to do!

We also have a brick-and-mortar flower shop in Englewood. The flower shop jobs include things like making bouquets, boutonnieres, and centerpieces for events. The youth also package honey from the farms’ hives, make seed paper greeting cards, and pour beeswax candles.

Griffins: How did your organization get started?

Blackwell: My wife, Hannah, and I founded Southside Blooms in 2014 with a $150 donation from a friend.

I came to Englewood from a very different background than the people who were born here and their experiences often made me think of how very different my life would have been if I had simply been born under different circumstances.

I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin. My parents had good corporate jobs and provided a comfortable life. I participated in many school and community activities. The reality of inner-city life was completely absent from my privileged existence.

Things changed when I went into the Peace Corps after college. Living in rural villages and being exposed to intense poverty was a defining experience for me. It made me think about how I could use my life to help people in need. When I came home, I became a community organizer and later moved to Chicago to go to ministry school. While tutoring at a high school, I discovered the awful inner-city conditions and devastating impacts of poverty. I thought I could have been any one of these kids and I just felt God gripping my heart saying I could use the blessings and privileges in my life to make myself comfortable or I could take up my cross and walk like the Bible says. So, Hannah and I got to thinking about starting a social enterprise to put our faith into action to help the inner-city community by changing its economy.

It turned out that flowers presented the best path.

Griffins: Why a social enterprise?

Blackwell: I believe that ssocial enterprises are the future of business. People, especially younger people, want to support organizations focused on social and environmental value, not on maximizing shareholder profits. With a social enterprise, the shareholders are community members. That’s who we want to add value to. That’s who we want to drive wealth and resources to. We’re not funding a CEO’s golden parachute here; we’re funding real life change.

That’s not to say business principles are bad. I believe the free market framework provides a solid base. Social enterprise simply changes who the stakeholders are by layering a social benefit on top of proven business structures.

With a social enterprise, you rely on your own income development, so you’re not limited by government contributions or fundraising efforts. You have the flexibility to generate revenue like any other business but you have the heart to take care of a community like a nonprofit.

Griffins: Where does your funding come from?

Blackwell: About 40% of our revenue comes from sales. The remainder comes from donations and grants from foundations, corporations, and individuals. We have not received government funding to date.

Griffins: How many kids can you employ at once?

Blackwell: Last year we employed 15 youth. Next year we think we will be able to employ as many as 25.

Griffins: How do career trajectories differ for Black youth compared to those from other backgrounds?

Blackwell: Black youth living in the inner city are much more likely to have experienced trauma than people from other backgrounds. They’re more likely to come from a broken home, be missing a parent, and have to care for siblings. So, they have more responsibility than other young people. Plus, they are likely to have close contacts involved in gangs and they may not feel as safe at home or at school compared to children from more affluent backgrounds. Those factors, combined with a dearth of inner-city job opportunities, all combine to create a trap with no obvious exit strategy.

That means youth from other backgrounds start and stay much further ahead in the career space. Black workers get paid less and have fewer benefits, like healthcare, than other workers.

At Southside Blooms, we’re working to change that narrative. We know that communities with economic prosperity have anchor industries that provide career opportunities as well as opportunities to learn work and life skills. Napa Valley has wine. Silicon Valley has tech. We’re hoping to make flowers an anchor industry in inner-city Chicago and beyond.

Griffins: Tell me a Southside Blooms success story.

Blackwell: Tashawn is a young man in his third year working at Southside Blooms. He came to us through a program for gang affiliated and gang adjacent kids. When he first came to us, he was very rough around the edges with limited soft and hard skills, but we worked with him. He went from showing up late or not at all to being a top performer. His attitude is fantastic.

In addition to improved life and interpersonal skills, Tashawn also excels at harder skills like event and wedding planning, agriculture, and floristry. He’s on track to be a shift supervisor by the end of the school year.

Tashawn, a stabbing survivor, told us about a night when he chose to work late and his friend, who he would have been with if he hadn’t been working, was shot. What we are doing is life and death stuff. It’s not just about having a job.

As odd as it seems the first time you hear it, we truly believe flowers can save lives. That’s our mission. We want to see more Tashawns choosing the shop instead of the street. We’re ultimately about preserving life and showing that the Black community has a lot to offer not just for Chicago, but all of America.

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