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How does a downtown Buddhist find herself practicing yoga with dozens of schoolchildren on the South side? Robbin Carroll, founder and president of I Grow Chicago, would say it was “totally up to the universe.”

Through I Grow Chicago, an intergenerational teaching hub for sustainable farming, movement yoga and the arts, Carroll is on a mission to bring people closer together, across communities and across neighborhood blocks. She operates with the philosophy that people have to become embedded in communities, rather than institutions, to make a greater impact.

South side teaching hub for sustainable farming + yoga was “totally up to the universe”: Robbin Carroll of @iGrowChi

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For more than a decade, Carroll sold jewelry to midlevel department stores like Kohl’s and JC Penney as a manufacturers representative. She’d never traveled further south than 18th Street; but when her child’s learning disability led her to a school on the South side, she began thinking about the potential impact of crossing community lines and how it can make an “enormous difference for everyone.”

Attending a talk with Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, inspired Carroll to “take a corner and make a difference.”

Q. How do you think giving creates stronger communities?
Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten we belong to each other.” No judgments, no expectations, we need to belong to each other. That seems to have fallen away in society, in general, and particularly when trying to understand how violence relates to poverty. The root of all of that is we no longer belong to each other. We forget to see each other. It’s easy to say someone’s a gang member, or a drug dealer, but when you know him and know why he’s out there… if he had no other way to feed his kids. When we start to see each other, as people, and no longer as labels, it makes the problem real for everyone. You have to ask, “What makes you do what you do?” When you know, it’s hard to judge.

Q. What motivates you to give and do good for others?
As a child I needed a ton of support and there was always someone there. Sometimes, I’m not giving back; I’m just providing a different opportunity to do the world differently. Lots of people did it for me—fed me when I was hungry, gave me money when I needed it. I know I wouldn’t be where I am if other people didn’t step in.

Children harvest greens from the gardens at I Grow Chicago

 

Q. What is the greatest act of kindness you have witnessed?
Everyone backs each other up [at I Grow Chicago]. One of the young men we’re working with wants nothing to do with yoga. He’ll watch, but just wants nothing to do with it. One day his friend couldn’t do it, and to avoid cancelling the class, this guy who has zero clue what to do, unrolled the mat and started teaching. The kindness of the fact that in the most unlikely places, someone stands up and helps out—I see that a lot. It’s a really small act, but enormous in the big picture.

Q. You are a philanthropist. What advice would you give to others?
I firmly believe that you live life from your heart. You don’t have to live life from your head. If you live from your heart, you know what you have to do. We have neurons in our heart and head. We’ve literally only learned how to think from our brain. If we learned to think from our heart, our society would be completely different. From that we’d be able to commit to one another the way we should. No matter what, that goes for everything, no matter where you’re working.