It began in 2011 with an unplanned kids’ yoga class in an empty lot. Yoga teacher and founder/president of I Grow Chicago (IGC), Robbin Carroll, has since then made it her mission to combat the traumatic effects of violence and poverty in Englewood, a neighborhood in Chicago’s South Side. I Grow offers an inclusive approach to community programming that integrates various wellness modalities, such as yoga, urban gardening, and more. There is even a housing program currently in the works. These programs take place on IGC’s Peace Campus, which comprises two homes and six formerly vacant lots. The newest addition to the campus as of August 19, 2019, is the Family Resource House, a 103-year-old house that IGC renovated. The Family Resource House will be used for women’s groups, positive parenting training, individual case management, early childhood education, and domestic violence resources.
Quentin Mables, who was born and raised in Englewood, is the co-executive director of IGC. He remembers the first time he met Robbin.
“She was standing on the corner handing out Subway sandwiches when my friends and I slowly approached her, and of course we thought she was the Feds or she worked with some form of government agency.” She asked me, “Do you want to take back your community?” At the time I didn't know what she was talking about, and I asked myself how would that look—taking back my community. I immediately took the trash bag that she was holding out of her hand and I started cleaning up the block for the first time… Everything was open and honest with Robbin from the beginning. We are two people from two totally different backgrounds, but we both understand the trauma of my neighborhood.”
Chicago is one of several major U.S. cities to struggle with gun violence in recent years. There were more homicides in Chicago in 2016 and 2017 than in any other U.S. city. As the legacy of racial and economic segregation, income inequality, and lack of resources continue to negatively impact Chicago’s marginalized communities, IGC is aiming to support the community against systemic odds. I recently spoke with Robbin Carroll to learn more about I Grow, including its impact in Englewood.
Tell us about your motivation in starting I Grow Chicago.
I founded IGC because I could not watch the news. I could not hear how many people were shot over the weekend just a few miles from where I lived, and then turn off the TV and eat my breakfast. This was not the city or world I wanted to live in, and I knew I needed to understand the problem and do something about it.
What is your relationship to the people who live in Englewood? How did you begin?
I was involved in a summer youth program where I was helping kids build a farm. The director found out that I knew how to teach yoga, and he asked me to teach the teens who were acting out—there was no plan for dealing with the problem other than to send kids home. And there was nowhere to teach them. So I took them to an empty lot because it was literally the only space available near the program, and we did yoga there.
An empty lot? How did that work out?
Yes, it was by the highway. There were over 100 kids and the temperature was in the 100s. I taught a meditation and stretches. None of them had done yoga/meditation before, so everything I was asking them to do likely felt strange and foreign to them, and they seemed uninterested in the practices. I didn’t know about trauma sensitivity then and that I shouldn’t ask them to close their eyes—because they had to be alert to street danger. I needed a better understanding of the life situations these kids were coming from.
What kind of misconceptions did you have, and how have those changed?
As I started meeting kids’ parents and more and more people in the area and learning about their lives, I developed a new perspective of our criminal justice system. I saw the bigger picture: how differences in education, and a lack of access to food, housing, and medical care can pave a person’s road to crime. And I’ve come a long way: I was the person who previously said, “My parents worked hard”—meaning that hard work is the answer to all social ills.
I was the person who would have said, “If you’re incarcerated it’s your fault.” As a white woman in America, my beliefs and values have all been shaped by the society and culture that surrounds me. I believed that going to school, getting a job, and following the laws would get you the American dream, but I was wrong.
Once I started studying trauma—the way that our past experiences become the stories of our lives—and how to heal trauma in the body, I began to see things in a new way.
What happened after that summer?
Winter came, and I was invited to teach inside one of the schools. Once I started teaching, I quickly realized that many of the kids I wanted to connect with had been suspended, expelled, or were sitting in a hallway. And some of their parents, who had been caught up in the criminal justice system, didn't feel welcome in the school.
I also learned of a house in the neighborhood that was owned by a bank and was going to be demolished. So I set up a table with Subway sandwiches and asked people walking by if they wanted to take back their community. People stopped and said yes. I shared my ideas for setting up a community center. I didn't know a lot about the block, but I soon learned there had been a lot of violence in the area. The police received upward of 12 phone calls every day about this block. Gunshots were a common sound, and the voices of kids playing and laughing were nonexistent. Many homes had been marred by gunfire.
Through our restorative justice program, we started getting volunteers, and some of them were people who had committed crimes in the area. A lot of the work we did was outside, and one of the biggest challenges was that the residents had to look at the people who had caused destruction in their neighborhood, and were now fixing things.
How did you address this situation?
It was a natural unfolding. The neighbors who were harmed got a chance to share their hurts and frustrations, and slowly we all came together to build what everyone wanted all along: a place to belong. A place to be and be heard. A place to be loved. We hosted many community outdoor events so that everyone could come together.
Quentin was the first person to get involved, and he told people that I was there to help. He took a garbage bag and started cleaning up the street, and more and more members of the community joined in. And we’ve been co-creating I Grow Chicago with the community ever since.
Neighbors let us use their bathrooms, kitchens, and electricity. People of the community led the way in creating everything we did, including running a summer camp for 45 kids. The community wanted ways to heal from trauma, ways to find peace and a safe space inside and out.
What impact did you expect yoga would have?
What led me to know that yoga/mindfulness could have a big impact was my experience in that vacant lot. I really wondered if I was hurting the kids more than helping. And then, a young man found me to tell his story. He said his mother was addicted to drugs and passed out in the living room every night. He would move her each morning, so that his brothers and sisters did not have to wake up and see her like that. He said he was mad at her. He told me that he started doing the sa ta na ma meditation I taught, and that he would say this when moving her in the morning. He wanted me to know that he was not as angry with her anymore and felt really good about helping her. I knew then that I was committed to this work.
Tell us about IGC’s yoga and mindfulness program.
We teach classes at community schools, at day cares, at the Peace House, and at Kusanya Cafe, a local nonprofit. We introduce the youngest Englewood residents to the power of their own breath.
We have a yoga teacher training program, led by graduates of the program. They’re role models and mentors, helping to change the cycle of community trauma to one of community healing.
Currently, we have twelve certified teachers. Studios in Chicago—like Sat Nam Yoga, Zen Yoga, and Spirit Rising—have all done mentoring for us. The Africa Yoga Project (AYP) has as well. Their team first came to visit us in Englewood, and we were then able to send four people to Kenya to get certified as AYP yoga teachers and to learn the strategies AYP uses for empowering community. We’re now working with them on a yoga teacher training program at the Peace House. We don’t just do yoga and mindfulness—we live yoga and mindfulness. Finding a place for peace within leads to peace outside ourselves. Moving and shaking out the stress we feel and see every day helps us all to heal and move forward. Every day, we ring a mindfulness bell at different times throughout the day, reminding all of us to stop, listen, and be present together.
What is IGC focusing on now and for the future?
Our focus is on community wellness and providing the support needed to make communities whole and healthy. Because we’ve outgrown our current home, our community has asked that we expand. So we are in the process of expanding the Peace House into a Peace Campus. We have purchased three more homes and eight more vacant lots. One of them is the Family Resource Home that opened this summer. The big vision is to have a day care in this house sometime in the future.
We will soon begin renovating what we call the Healing Justice Home—a place to heal and acknowledge your right to justice. Healing occurs over meals, talking, laughing, and being together. We will have a small recreational center there for teens, a music studio, and an art expression studio. As we open these homes, what we will offer will be directly related to what the community wants and needs. So these ideas are based on what we’ve heard so far, but things can change as needed.
Last year we put in an NBA-sized basketball court, called our Healing Justice Court. This year we will build a nature playground.
The plan with our homes is to have program space on the first floors and small apartments on the upper floors. Our community is in desperate need of safe housing. Single mothers and couch-surfing teens need to feel safe and supported.
IGC is focused on restoration of neighborhood buildings, not new construction. This is often more expensive than starting from scratch. Why this route?
Yes, we restore homes instead of tearing them down. Our community has lived in these neighborhoods for many generations, and when we tear down a home, we strip the community of cultural value and treasured memories. For instance, Quentin previously lived in the Family Resource Home.
Can you offer general advice for cities/neighborhoods that want to set up a similar nonprofit devoted to restorative justice?
We have a saying that hangs above our front door: “If in doubt, love.” Love is about how we see each other and also how we see ourselves. This type of work requires a lot of internal work and self-reflection. We must heal ourselves first, only then can we love and heal others. You need a vision or passion about making an impact, and you need to co-create with people. You need to hear what people need and how you can be of support on their journeys. Then you must keep listening and engaging in the community you love and serve.
You’ve taken a grassroots approach. Without a background in nonprofit or social work, you felt that you could have a positive effect…and you have.
That’s right—I was ready to leave my family’s wholesale business and do something that felt more personally meaningful and impactful. I was not sure how to make that happen, but I figured it out along the way with Englewood residents.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
I’ve learned what community looks like and what a sense of belonging is. I have learned that the world I grew up in is not the world I want to leave for the next generations. I want to be part of dismantling racism and co-creating a world filled with a shared humanity and collective healing—where everyone is welcome, valued, wanted, and loved.