Naomi Davis has been bringing her message to South Siders for more than a decade on the need to be more aware of climate change, sustainability and clean energy.

Save the planet and save black neighborhoods, Davis tells people. This will improve the lives of Chicagoans, as well as the health and economic future of their children.

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 plans to rebuild Black communities while responding to the climate crisis.

In Woodlawn, where BIG is headquartered, Davis is working to create what he calls a village green, starting with a sustainable square mile in Woodlawn that is just south of Washington Park and only a short distance from the future Obama Presidential Center.

Black historic tourism is also in his plans, pushing for Emmett Till’s childhood home to become an eco-museum.

One day, he hopes to help build a revitalized and sustainable community that draws electricity from a renewable energy microgrid. Davis was an outspoken critic of electric and other utilities for their rate hikes and shutdown policies and worked for policy reforms.

He sees his plan as a possible model for reviving black neighborhoods across the United States.

My vision is self-sustaining black communities everywhere, Davis says.

This view is gaining wider support. President Joe Biden’s administration has now awarded her $10 million over five years to help environmental justice communities in the Midwest raise federal funds.

This comes after years of a much more personal level of activism on the South Side. Having worked in government, politics, retail, and even theater, Davis began her quest more than 20 years ago to understand why black communities have fallen apart. This led to BIG.

Determined to improve black lives, she took no pay for the first twelve years.

Now 67 and after years of fighting to make BIG a viable, difference-making organization, Davis says he’s thinking big. Encouraged in part by federal money, she talks about building more programs and possible regional and national expansion.

If the sustainable square mile becomes a reality, it can be replicated in Chicago and across the United States, he says.

He hopes to get more political support, particularly from City Hall as new mayor Brandon Johnson promises policies that promote equity.

Among its efforts, BIG creates educational programs, job training, and community gardens.

Davis says the goal of all of this is to rebuild Black neighborhoods through environmentally sustainable means and, in the process, take advantage of the emerging green economy. Here’s how this effort can succeed where a half-century of white-led initiatives have failed to help African-American lives, she says.

Our health and wealth metrics are worse than ever, he says.

Population loss in majority-black areas of Chicago has been followed by more violent crime, unemployment and economic despair, according to an analysis this month by the WBEZ. That report follows a grim analysis of life expectancy among Chicago’s blacks 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 significant population loss, is Davis’ starting point. The South Side community, more than 80 percent black, has a median household income of about $28,000, less than half the household income citywide. Unemployment is 17 percent, and that doesn’t include more than 40 percent of residents who aren’t in the workforce, according to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning.

Davis sees the green revolution as a path out of poverty after decades of failed governments and private programs aimed at aiding black politics that he calls the industry Save the Negro.

There was never the wholesale solution that would have been possible if those dollars had been seriously committed to solutions, says Davis.

He is rapidly building his organization. Donor revenue last year was 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 it raised in 2014.

Naomi Davis Blacks in Green

Naomi Davis, founder and CEO of Blacks in Green.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun Times

BIG’s financial backers have included the Builders Initiative, Chicago Frontline Funders Initiative, Walder Foundation, Crown Family Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust. He also received money from the city of Chicago.

Now increasingly in the national spotlight, Davis has been invited by groups from other cities to speak about her ideas.

The US Environmental Protection Agency recently announced it is awarding BIG $10 million over five years to help communities in six Midwestern states and nearly two dozen tribal areas tap into funding available under the Federal Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure. Law to promote environmental justice, clean energy and related initiatives.

Under the grant, BIG will receive assistance from academic centers, including the University of Illinois at Chicago and other organizations. What’s unusual about the deal 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 need to be an organization that is first and foremost locally legitimate, says Kyle Whyte, a University of Michigan professor who serves on the Environmental Justice Advisory Council of the White House.

Davis’ organization fits that description, says Clem Balanoff, a former Illinois state representative who serves on his organization’s board.

It’s always two steps ahead of the next four or five steps, says Balanoff, who describes Davis’ work as visionary. No one has worked harder for the community than he has.

In Woodlawn, Davis envisions a revitalized neighborhood that resembles the community she grew up in, St. Albans in the borough of Queens in New York City. 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 have deteriorated and was trying to find ways to revive them.

I was really reluctant to accept a world where the kind of place I grew up in had been replaced by blight, and the new normal was what you see here empty lots and corroded corridors and boarded up buildings, she says.

He found that Black communities around the world shared similar issues. Among the problems was that efforts to help them were typically overseen by white-led organizations outside those communities, and much of the money invested was short-term rather than going towards sustainability and economic growth at a later date. long term.

She says what she’s doing has a foothold in the practices and values ​​she grew up with with what she calls Grannynomics. One of the elements of Grannynomics is that, at age 10, you’re an apprentice in some trade. For Davis’ mother, she was sewing. Her mother grew up attending Rosenwald Schools, set up for black children in the rural South. Davis says she grew up in an African-centric family where 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 1960s kid, I mean I’m very into a narrative of justice, movement, community, and the economy.

Davis says he has studied the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. boycotts that pushed for economic justice efforts critical to his racial and social justice mission.

She was also influenced by the death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy who was tortured and killed by whites while visiting relatives in 1955 Mississippi. Davis was born one day before Till was killed. Davis’ mother, Juliet, was born miles away in Money, Mississippi, where Till was visiting before he was kidnapped, killed and maimed, a brutal death that was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.

Davis raised funds to purchase Emmett Till’s childhood home at 6427 S. St. Lawrence Ave. and restore it to function as a museum. It is expected to open in 2025 with a path connecting it to the Mamie Till-Mobley Forgiveness Garden, named after his mother.

Davis took a home that had been neglected and helped make it a storefront, says Woodlawn resident Elizabeth Gardner.

It’s part of what his vision really is to take our neighborhoods and bring out the beauty and history that once was and share it with the world, Gardner says.

Emmett Till Woodlawn home

Emmett Till’s former home in Woodlawn is scheduled to open as a museum in 2025.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun Times

Brett Chases’ environmental and public health reporting is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

Aydali Campa reports for Inside Climate News.

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