The City of Chicago built a community garden no one used, so Pearl Ramsey took over and brought it to life.

How many problems can a community garden solve? Pearl Ramsey’s garden in her neighborhood on Chicago’s Southside is a solution generator. Since she first stepped into the small patch in 2018, it has developed into so much more than a garden– and her plans continue to evolve. 

Pearl Ramsey is one of those people who has an infectious energy and creativity. Her community garden is not just called a community garden, it’s called the “Come-Unity Joy Garden.” It’s not just for getting together and growing food; she wants it to be a theater, a kid’s clubhouse, a healing cultural Art Experience, a training center, a movie theater, a food pantry, a communal cooking space, no, a “hands-on culinary food explosion”, and whatever else the community finds helpful. Her volunteers are called “voLOVEteers” and when Pearl posts something to her page on ChangeX or Facebook, the status updates can’t have enough emoticons to get across adequately the excitement, love, and gratitude she feels about the work she is doing in her community.

Born in a neighborhood on the Southside of Chicago, Pearl later spent 6 years traveling the world through her work as a Performing Artist. When she came back in 2018, she felt like it was time to give something back to her community.

When I returned from performing around the world and witnessing how powerfully Black American culture shapes World culture, I was inspired to continue honoring that suppressed legacy and be able to impact the community that I come from. A community that has been targeted by domestic terrorism, planting of drugs and guns in the community by law enforcement, medical experiments on people in the community, a discriminative narrative in the media, all these things. But also a community that is growing with power. We are a powerful people intentionally undermined. Doing great things and always have. We are not broken or organically susceptible to poverty. That is engineered. But, we continue to rise against all systemic odds.

To Pearl, her community garden is a tool to unleash that power and help people to see it for themselves.

The garden that Pearl and her community ‘voLOVEteers’ are cultivating now had been unattended for a while before Pearl got involved. As Pearl tells, the State Attorney’s Office and the Alderwoman’s Office wanted to help create a community garden in 2017. This initiative was part of a bigger plan to address the lack of places for people on the Southside to get healthy, nutritious food and vegetables within walking distance. The intentions were good. The only problem was that no one from the community engaged with it.

“There was a lot of media coverage, a ribbon-cutting… but no relationship with the community was established. So the community felt very shut out of it. This happens often in Black Indigenous communities. Politicians would come and rally the Black vote, they make a lot of promises, but there is no real accountability, no real responsibility.”

“For a long time, the garden was neglected and people started using it as a dumping ground,” Pearl reflected. So she went down there with her own tools to do some work and start harvesting, while also looking for someone who was responsible for managing the space. “Their mindset was: the community will do it,” but Pearl knew it would take more to get people interested in the project and gain their trust before they would make it their own.

“Our community has been exploited for so many years and people are overwhelmed by multiplous things, normal life stuff coupled with systemically engineered sickness and suffering. Black communities are as diverse as Humanity and have always created solutions in diverse ways. There are lots of mini-influencers throughout Chicago and the nation. I knew to get engagement, I first had to go door to door and talk to people about the garden, even as I saw them on the streets. First, I had to do the work, to demonstrate my investment. ‘Don’t talk about it; Be about it’, is what I say. People believe what you do more than what you say.”

It was during this work that Pearl created the Neighborship Come-Unity Network, a Circulatory system for ‘Good in the Hood’, to build alliances locally and globally with like-minded others desiring to partner and share resources and ideas for tangible change.

“The Neighborship Network was established to create an environment for the human spirit to thrive.”

And following some simple tactics her mother had taught her when she was young, Pearl started to make things happen.

“My mother founded the Block Club for our neighborhood and the Dauphin Park Neighborship Community Council that partnered to raise up leaders on adjacent blocks in establishing Block Club organizations. She made us go from door to door petitioning and talking to people. At the time people were very resistant to the idea of the Block Club. But 30 years later we are still going strong.”

Slowly, by talking to people in person, folks came on board and came to the garden asking what was going on there. Pearl also found great partners in Wendy Irwin, owner of the local food-growing organization Yellow Tractor, the veteran organization The Mission Continues and Barb Sanders, founder of the Inner-City Women’s Empowerment Network who helped her to bring her vision to life. 

Wendy from Yellow Tractor passing on some food growing skills. 

Pearl welcoming helping hands from The Mission Continues

About a year later, there are around 30 people now who volunteer their time to regularly care for the plot.

For Pearl, growing food was just as much of a challenge as for anyone else in the community and she had to learn from scratch how it worked.

“I made a lot of mistakes in the first year. Gardening is one of the most difficult things I have done in my life. I’m a visionary. The garden life requires (you) to slow down. That was intimidating for me. I didn’t have the inner temperament for it. But necessity is what brought me here. It’s unbelievably rewarding to see a plant or vegetable growing because you planted it. And you can be fed and feed countless others and their families. It’s humbling.
The garden now has enough cucumbers, tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, kale, lettuce, peppers, basil, peppermint, eggplant, carrots and rosemary for people to take home regularly. Pearl also has developed something she calls “dignity bags” to help homeless people. Dignity bags don’t just include food but also things like toothbrushes, hygiene products, and bus cards.
There was a lot that could be done through all of the helping hands and creativity coming from the community, but there is a limit to that. When a neighbor told Ramsey about the Chicago Sustainability Challenge, the ChangeX fund sponsored by the Microsoft Datacenter Community Development team that was launched in June 2019, Pearl did some research. She found herself in disbelief that this was real.

“I was taken aback by the fact that there was an organization that would provide us with financial assistance in real-time. It was like a ram in the bush. It allowed us to purchase things that we needed for garden sustainability. My out of pocket expenses were mounting.”

Pearl was able to put the money to good use right away. She had the plot and the people, she just needed a bit of money to buy some materials and tools to build the vision they had created together over the last year. And sitting down to research funding opportunities and writing funding proposals wasn’t for Pearl. It’s not what she’s good at. Her strength is in getting things done.

“ChangeX’s funding gave us a tangible vision. Applying for grants and funding is tedious, laborious, discouraging and discriminatory, especially when a Black American. Organizations, government and foundations make it extremely difficult. It zaps you of hope and any joy. You feel like you’re on trial or begging. If you’re not careful you’ll begin to feel inadequate. The application process makes it so hard for those making an impact and doing good to do more and better.”

“ChangeX was instrumental in facilitating positive community relations; making a difference right where we are. That is essential to sustainability. The extra money was a relief and fostered creativity without the burden of fundraising, we could put more energy into the garden, officially meet, solicit more volunteers and plan our expansion. It was a miracle!“

Since Pearl took part in the Chicago Sustainability Challenge, the garden has seemed to transform on a weekly basis. Just from the photos Pearl posts online you can see how the garden has become more and more developed. First, they built a stage. A few weeks later, they installed separate vegetable beds and new benches. After another couple of weeks, all the space between the beds was cleared of weeds and covered with mulch.
The gardening itself wasn’t the most crucial thing in the first year for Pearl. She allowed herself to make mistakes. Her focus was rather on building relationships with people and proving her own integrity to them.

“I’ve learned so much in the first year and I’ve made a lot of mistakes– like planting vegetables too closely and the right vegetables together – to be fair children were assisting and we weren’t as mindful as we should’ve been. Organizing and logistics was the goal initially and staying on task. Follow through. That was important. My word is my bond.”

And it paid off.
“The garden has fostered more ways to heal, create, neighbor, hope, joy and love inspite of domestic terrorism. Barb Sanders dedicated a bed in the garden to her brother, a Veteran that passed this year.  And Wendy Irwin gave us the news of her first grandchild to be born here. Having spaces like this creates moments for relevant conversations for people to share their lives, stories, anecdotes, thoughts, ideas and organize. For example, within two hours of the stage being built the children had created, cast, directed and performed an entire play.”

The opportunity for artistic expression is an important part of Pearl’s garden and it’s one of many things that makes it unique compared to other community gardens.

“It’s a healing place where people harvest, eat, share, find their voice, their passion, their gifts and new friends. It’s alchemic. I’m sure our garden will become a world travel destination location because of the Spirit here and vision. Love draws each gardener, they don’t know they’re a gardener when they come but, it happens. Love sown in surrender can be felt in every step and breath you breathe when occupying this space. It’s a blueprint of joy for communities anywhere in the world.”

We can’t wait to see Pearl taking her vision to more communities in Chicago.


Photo courtesy of Pearl Ramsey

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