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Many neighborhoods and communities throughout the region are underresourced and underserved. Nonprofit organizations, churches, community groups and government agencies support when and where they can. Sometimes, though, that is not enough. Other times, it’s simply a matter of knowing what you have—and more importantly, whom you have—to make a change and an impact. Lifelong Englewood resident Sonya Harper seeks to turn that philosophy into a way of life.

“I’m not doing anything that you can’t do”: Sonya Harper nurtures community health in Englewood

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After being forced to cover the death of a friend, Harper left the journalism business and returned to Englewood to change the narrative surrounding the community that raised her. In 2013 Harper, along with friends and community members, began Grow Greater Englewood, a coalition that seeks to cultivate a healthy and resilient food system and economy through collaboration.

The group, which recently applied for 501(c)3 status, works to educate residents about “all things healthy in Englewood”: food and nutrition, gardening, new developments coming to the area, and ways to ensure that new businesses adhere to the quality of life plan, particularly if they are using TIF dollars.

Q: How did Grow Greater Englewood begin?

A: It started because there was a void in the community that was dedicated to improving food access and following up on the community plan for Englewood to become an urban agriculture district. From the community/resident point of view, when we saw that Whole Foods was coming, we realized we needed an action plan to make sure the initiatives benefitted the Englewood Quality of Life Plan, which was brought out to improve food access. GGE ensures that comes into fruition and creates an entire healthy local food system. We make sure residents stay engaged in the process because sometimes benefits to the community haven’t been figured out.

We started out as a little coalition, and thought about how we can work together, come together and put those issues on the table. What can we be doing to better link our efforts, to reach people better, improve our relations with one another so we can be more effective in the community and on the ground? We all need to work together to be better. Grow Greater Englewood keeps organizations and people together, in a space where we can build our relationships and build on this issue of food. The only way we can meet our mission statement is to link our efforts. That’s how big the problem is.

Q: When did you start giving back? Tell us about your first experience with giving or receiving.

A: Way back in high school. I was active in the church. I went to St. Sabina with Father Pfleger. I was a peer leader at the West Englewood Youth and Teen Center, which no longer exists. Back then violence prevention was an issue too. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was actually running a nonprofit as a youth. My friends and I would always go to parties in other neighborhoods. We decided to have our own parties, but raise money. We didn’t know what to do with the money, so we started a club called G.O.D.D.E.S.S.—Growth, Order, Diversity, Discipline, Endurance, Self-Worth, and Service. We were like a sorority with our own colors and bags. Our mission was to empower young women to recognize the greatness within them. We would rent out space at the Chicago Children’s Museum and hold workshops for young girls. We weren’t getting paid for it, but saw the benefit.

Q: What inspires or motivates you to do good for others?

A: The biggest thing that motivates me is all the friends I have lost over the years. When the West Englewood Youth and Teen Center closed because of budget cuts, kind of like what we’re experiencing now, all of the friends I made had nothing left. Pretty soon, the kids I’d sit with in class were getting shot or killed. High school, for me, was going to funerals all the time. I had a funeral to go to every month. These were my friends that would sit next to me in class, in my church, that I would talk to on the phone with every day, and see in my youth group. The West Englewood Youth and Teen Center was important to others and me because it had impact. We were marching and organizing, and half of them are no longer here. That wouldn’t be the case if that Center were still around.

I know because of circumstances that have been beyond our control for quite some time now, a person can do everything perfectly and can still receive the hard end of life. I just don’t think that should be the case. Whenever I can help support and build a village, I will do that. Could the Center have been partnered with others to help them? I don’t want these organizations to fail. As small as they may be, I know the impact they are having on their communities.

My friends can’t die in vain. We have to fix the problems in our community. It’s not just violence. I’m 34 and I’m the oldest person in the Harper family. Everyone has died prematurely. I’m learning that I live in a food desert and it’s been that way the past 40 years. There’s just some serious challenges and I feel like if people dedicated themselves, and stopped being hopeless about it and recognized their true power, we’d solve it. When you have people power you can get the money power, we just need to bring our people power together. That’s what motivates me.

Q: What is the greatest act of kindness or giving you have witnessed?

A: Sometimes it’s as simple as getting a ride. It was the blizzard we had a few years ago, and the heat went out at my house. I had my baby with me and we were stuck, we couldn’t go anywhere. It was freezing. It took us thirty minutes to walk three blocks. I just needed to get somewhere warm. While waiting for the bus, this lady picked us up and gave us a ride. I didn’t expect for the neighbors in our community to care. We are taught as a community to not trust each other or bother each other, to stay out of each other’s business. That’s a reason why things are the way they are today because we’ve been taught to not be a neighbor, so to speak. That experience changed my notions about that. It helped me become more open. I just remember being so thankful.

My friends can’t die in vain… I’m 34 and I’m the oldest person in the Harper family. I’m learning that I live in a food desert and it’s been that way the past 40 years. There’s just some serious challenges and I feel like if people dedicated themselves, and stopped being hopeless about it and recognized their true power, we’d solve it. When you have people power you can get the money power, we just need to bring our people power together.

Q: You are a philanthropist—what advice do you have for others who want to do good?

A: You are your power. When it comes to this issue of philanthropy, I laugh. I don’t feel like a philanthropist, I’m like my neighbor. I’m food insecure, I’m getting harassed by the police, and I can’t walk into the local store and find healthy snacks. I live next to an empty lot, and abandoned houses with roaches and rats. We’re in this together. I’m not doing anything that you can’t do. We could be doing this together. Just imagine if there were five of us and the gains we could make. Just to do it.

Find a spot, find something that maybe you want to learn more about or have a particular passion or soft spot for, and just go and learn as much as you can about it. Get your hands dirty. When it comes to doing good, there’s nothing to it. Just do it, but be informed about the ways you want to do good. As an organizer, a leader in the community, I come into contact with folks where a light bulb went off in their head and they have these assumptions, again from the media, that it’s not already happening. Research and figure out where your skills, desires, passions can be most useful.