Blacks in Green founder blends environmental stewardship, business smarts

  • By Jennifer Slosar
  • Environment Reporter
  • January 20, 2009 @ 9:00 AM

Naomi Davis has a piece of advice for people interested in revitalizing Chicago’s black communities: Take a close look at the trash cans.

Davis, founder of the environmental nonprofit Blacks in Green (BIG), says “finding gold in trash,” is one way those communities can take advantage of the coming green economy.

Last week the organization launched a new initiative to promote countywide recycling in African American neighborhoods. The program will help people create trash receptacles as art works and build small businesses around recycling.

“The black community has a lot of buying power,” says Davis. “But building the infrastructure to get that money circulating back in our neighborhood requires a huge transformation of how we’re organized to work and think.”

Naomi Davis

The project epitomizes the blending of black self-determination with “green village building” that moved Davis to launch BIG in 2007. By connecting people across lines of class and expertise,  BIG aims to cultivate green jobs and build self-sufficiency in neighborhoods where, Davis says, the “dollars are on a one-way trip out of our community.”

As Davis emphasizes, it requires reviving a tradition of land stewardship and neighborhood business that’s gotten lost in today’s “colonized communities.”

“We get seduced into thinking that because we work downtown or graduated from an Ivy League school, that we’re free,” says the former attorney, who notes that even upscale African American communities like Olympia Fields lack a critical mass of locally owned businesses.

“Well, even the wealthiest white folks are going to be in for a bruising if the trucks don’t come to the grocery stores for four days.”

Davis, 53, says that her parents, who started out as Mississippi sharecroppers, were poor, but self-sufficient.

Growing up in the mixed-income neighborhood of St. Albans, Queens in the 1960s, Davis knew a cohesive network of thriving black businesses and cultural institutions. The photography studio, the print shop and the gift shop were all owned by neighbors, she says.

Her mother, a devoted fundraiser for the United Negro College Fund, “never had to go beyond the neighborhood businesses to raise money for causes that benefited the neighborhood,” says Davis.

Davis is a key player in the Chicago/Calumet Underground Railroad Effort, which seeks to transform the Jon Ton family farm in the Southside neighborhood of Riverdale into a cultural and eco-tourism destination.

The organization is lobbying the city to redevelop the former Underground Railroad stop with a museum, a theatre, retail, dining and lodging.

 “Black family reunions don’t have many places they can go for a cultural experience that keeps money circulating in a black neighborhood,” notes Davis.

Davis is also working with a local homeowners’ association in Riverdale. They  envision local food production, job training in environmental remediation, canoe rentals and aquaculture in the lakes of the long-neglected Beaubien Woods forest preserve -- all perhaps nurtured by a green TIF district.

Meanwhile, Davis says 2009 is the year BIG is “upping the ante” with its new “Green Hubs in the Hood” initiative. Kennedy King College in Englewood and Our Lady of the Gardens school in Riverdale will function as the first “hubs,” neighborhood epicenters for environmental education and job training.

Activists in Chicago’s sprawling network of green, arts and social justice organizations say Davis is an important voice for inclusiveness in environmentalism.

“Naomi is one of the few people I know who’s really doing that part of it—going across class and achievement lines in that way,” says  Martha Boyd, director of the Chicago chapter of the Angelic Organics Learning Center Urban Initiative.

Heidi Hickman, arts coordinator at the Little Black Pearl Arts & Design Center, where BIG holds a monthly networking event, says Davis excels at bringing together professionals and lay people within the environmental movement.

“Some times these projects happen in a bubble,” says Hickman.  “I think she’s really bridging the gap between areas where conversations are taking place and areas where they’re not.”

Jennifer Slosar is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She covers environmental issues for the Daily News