Summer service project provides real-life lesson in community building

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A SUMMER INTERNSHIP gave volunteer Aminah Grant a birds-eye view of the positive projects going on in Englewood and surrounding communities. The Sweet Water Foundation is transforming vacant spaces into community resources with the help of volunteers like Grant.

A corporate philanthropy intern reflects on her volunteer experience in Englewood

By Aminah Grant

As part of my summer internship in corporate philanthropy, I sat on the bus and watched Chicago change before my eyes. As we headed south, the gleaming skyscrapers and bustling streets eventually gave way to struggling residential neighborhoods with boarded-up houses and empty lots.

As a South Side native, I was familiar with this progression and the drastic contrast it provided. When we arrived at our destination known as the Perry Ave Commons, the location stood out among the empty lots and run-down houses. First, I noticed a grey house with a stunning mural adorning its side, then a timber-framed barn surrounded by hundreds of rows of budding vegetables. The site was the headquarters of the Sweet Water Foundation.

Sweet Water is a nonprofit organization and social enterprise committed to “a creative and regenerative social justice method,” in which safe and healthy communities are created by transforming neighborhoods once considered blighted. With four contiguous city blocks under redevelopment, Sweet Water is turning vacant spaces into vibrant and valuable community resources.

For eight weeks this summer, I volunteered with nearly 300 employees from PPM America Inc., and Jackson National Asset Management LLC (JNAM) for our Summer of Service — a series of 10 volunteer projects. While volunteer work is a strong part of the culture at these companies, Summer of Service allowed associates to compound their efforts through successive — rather than separate and unrelated — projects to provide a positive impact on the Englewood neighborhood through Sweet Water.

On my first service day, Emmanuel Pratt, Sweet Water’s co-founder, asked if anyone had ever been to the South Side of Chicago before. As expected, only a few people raised their hands, highlighting the chasm between Chicago’s more affluent and most vulnerable communities.

Reports often emphasize violence and strife in predominantly Black neighborhoods like Englewood, overlooking the powerful work community organizations and activists are doing daily to make a positive difference. Their constant, strenuous efforts combat decades of systemic issues like violence, poverty, racism and community divestment. Presenting only one narrative perpetuates stereotypes that lead many to incorrectly think these neighborhoods have no hope.

Mark Mandich, CEO at PPM America, believes it’s important to take steps to change that narrative. “We have advantages that many other people don’t have,” said Mandich, referring to his associates. “It’s important that we take time to give back. Volunteering in the Englewood neighborhood gives us the chance to get to know the community and recognize there are many people who want the same things we do – an opportunity to work hard and build a good life for themselves and their loved ones.”

Sweet Water’s presence and work send a strong message: “We will not leave this community behind.” The house, the garden, and the barn that initially caught my eye are known as the Think-Do House, Perry Avenue Community Farm, and the Thought Barn. These community assets were previously vacant buildings and lots that have been transformed into welcoming spaces for education, healthy food, art, and vibrant social activities. They are powerful examples of what can happen when neighborhoods and people are given meaningful opportunities for revitalization.

When I initially accepted my corporate philanthropy internship, I expected the work to be removed from community. Instead, it was at the heart of what community is about and made me feel part of something greater than myself and more grounded in the work I’m passionate about.

In school, I often feel removed from the realities of the issues I want to address because most of my work is limited to studying public policy and environmental issues. But at Sweet Water I engaged in experiential, hands-on learning in ecological regenerative development. And, while mundane tasks I performed like weeding and moving mulch may not seem important, they provided important support for Sweet Water’s short-term operations of its farm and youth academy and, by extension, the long-term transformation of Englewood.

Summer of Service has given me and other volunteers an opportunity to learn and grow as people. By going into communities vastly different from our own to make a difference and forging intra-communal bonds, we had the opportunity to make Chicago a stronger city. I’m proud of the work we accomplished together in Englewood.

Aminah Grant was a summer corporate philanthropy intern at PPM America and Jackson National Asset Management LLC, which are respectively an affiliate and subsidiary of Jackson National Life Insurance Company. She grew up in Washington Heights and is majoring in public policy analysis at Pomona College.

Jackson is the marketing name for Jackson National Life Insurance Company (Home Office: Lansing, Michigan) and Jackson National Life Insurance Company of New York (Home Office: Purchase, New York). PPM America Inc. and Jackson National Asset Management LLC are registered investment advisors and affiliates of Jackson National Life Distributors LLC.

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