By Danielle Russell, Public Allies Americorps Member
I am a Public Allies Americorps member who has joined Openlands for a 10-month apprenticeship supporting Space to Grow. Public Allies is a program that selects young people who are interested in growing into community leaders and places them in apprenticeships at leading Chicago nonprofits for capacity building and direct service, as well as participating in social justice leadership training. Public Allies targets young people of color, folks who come from LGBTQIA+ identities and people with disabilities to reflect the communities we serve.
Public Allies adopts the lens of asset-based community development, which encourages us to find the strengths that are already present in our communities and in each other in order to do the work that must be done. Asset-based community development is highlighted in Space to Grow by engaging the school community in how the new schoolyards are to be designed and used. Instead of building a new schoolyard for the school, Space to Grow builds with the school and community.
Before constructing a new Space to Grow schoolyard, students, teachers, staff, parents and community members are invited to participate in an inclusive planning process. This allows for the unique needs and vision of the entire school community to be communicated and addressed in the design of their schoolyard. Furthermore, the designs also incorporate stormwater management features, which keep rainwater on-site and prevent flooding in nearby homes. The program and designers recognize that each school community is unique, and their unique attributes are reflected in each design.
After the construction of the schoolyards, planting days are an important way Space to Grow engages the school community in the schoolyard. My first day with Space to Grow was a planting day. We got to spend the whole day with students getting native plants in the ground–every student in the school had a chance to plant! Kristin LoVerde, Openlands’ Education Manager, taught us about how native plants’ roots are much better at absorbing stormwater than grass and how to properly place each plant into the ground. The students were reminded that since this is now their garden, it’s up to them to make sure the garden is taken care of and to hold others accountable for respecting it.
It is amazing to see how excited the students got about being able to garden during these planting days. Several students would name their plants and the worms they’d find in the ground. It was inspiring to see students embrace the earth; many hadn’t had many opportunities to garden before this. At the end of the school day a few students came by the garden and proudly pointed out which plants they planted. It was great to see parent volunteers come out to garden with the students as well. At one school, over 20 parents came out to help!
Not only was it great fun for students, parents, teachers, and myself, to take a break from routine to play in dirt, but building a garden together was building a great community together!
Space to Grow is transforming Chicago schoolyards into vibrant spaces that support kids, communities and the environment. The program is co-managed by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands. Capital funding and expertise comes from Chicago Public Schools, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and the Chicago Department of Water Management. Each Space to Grow schoolyard gets a $1.5 million transformation, and every space uses special surfaces and design elements—such as rain gardens and permeable pavers—to capture rainwater and help reduce neighborhood flooding during the heaviest of storms.