An Environmental Studies degree won’t find much purchase on the South Side of Chicago. At least, that’s what lifelong resident Rachel Patterson thought when she began her job search last summer.
“I just assumed I’d have to move or commute for an opportunity to actually use my degree. But then I found this internship. It looked interesting and was environmentally focused, and I realized it was literally a few blocks from my house. I couldn’t believe it,” says Patterson.
That program was Imani Green Health Advocates, a career development initiative from Imani Village and collaborators Trinity United Church of Christ, Advocate Health Care, Chicago Region Trees Initiative, The Morton Arboretum, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Forest Service and others.
Connecting Conservation, Careers and Community Health
Now in its third year, the Imani Green Health Advocates program provides professional development and career training to a small cohort of participants, orienting them toward careers in three areas: environmental health, community health and spiritual health. In practice, their work involves outreach for people in Chicago’s South Side, including the neighborhoods of Pullman, West Pullman, Cottage Grove Heights, Washington Heights, Roseland and Chatham. The advocates focus on all aspects of health and well-being--physical and mental health, landscape health and spiritual well-being.
The internship program is just one facet of a larger, social enterprise known as Imani Village that has been in the works for over a decade. Pioneered by leaders and parishioners from the Trinity United Church of Christ, Imani Village is a sustainable mixed-use development that is taking root in Chicago’s Pullman community. The 23-acre site is in a food and healthcare desert that experiences some of the most serious health outcomes in the city. The development will be home to an urban farm, organic garden, NCAA sports complex, retail center, health clinic, youth development center and community housing.
“Imani Village will be a model community that directly addresses social determinants of health and empowers residents of this area. We’re not just building pretty buildings. We’re trying to cultivate a holistic, healthy lifestyle,” says Patricia Eggleston, Imani Village Executive Director.
Sustainability and meaningful employment are core to Imani Village’s approach to community health, and they converge in the Imani Green Health Advocates program. Advocates spend weeks learning about urban forestry, tree health and urban landscapes with input and guidance from The Nature Conservancy.
Quote: Patricia Eggleston
Growing the Tree Canopy—and Green Jobs
Last year, a capstone project for the Advocates included surveying the community’s tree health, tree canopy and local infrastructure to identify optimal places for tree planting, and then actually planting trees based in part on that research, as well as community interest and need. A summary of their tree health findings was also incorporated into Advocate Hospital’s community health needs assessment.
“This was really our community partner’s vision, but helping them realize that vision was also a way for us to meet our mission,” says John Legge, Chicago Conservation Director for The Nature Conservancy.
By continuing to grow Green Health Advocates and staffing village amenities, Imani Village will be an oasis for residents like Patterson who are hungry for community conservation careers on the South Side of Chicago. Eggleston said they hope to create hundreds of opportunities for community members looking to apply their skills in new career paths, particularly returning citizens.
While Imani Village is still under development, Legge says they hope to find more permanent job placements for the trainees once they finish. Since completion of the program, Patterson has expanded her resume through work with both the Shedd Aquarium and Audubon Great Lakes. She also came back to the Imani program as a guest presenter to share her story and run a workshop with the newest cohort of Advocates.
“We want more than just jobs. We want careers,” says Eggleston. “Well-paid employment and career development opportunities are very important to the health of a community.”