Asiaha Butler believes Englewood residents’ activism can transform their community

Asiaha Butler attends the Urban Agriculture and Community Development Meeting at Imagine Englewood and discusses the idea of acquiring vacant city lots for urban agriculture. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

Asiaha Butler attends the Urban Agriculture and Community Development Meeting at Imagine Englewood and discusses the idea of acquiring vacant city lots for urban agriculture. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar]

Englewood has long been known as one of Chicago’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and its predicament has been well documented before: The per-capita income sits at $11,000, well under the Chicago average of $27,000, and a Chicago Tribune analysis found that more than 6,000 crimes occurred there last year.

Asiaha Butler, known as “Mrs. Englewood,” believes that the key to changing Englewood’s woes lies in residents themselves. So, in 2007, Butler began engaging teenagers in the community by hosting free documentary viewings on weekends and holding discussions on how violence, low-income families and other social justice issues were portrayed in the media.

Word on Butler’s popular movie nights spread quickly. “People didn’t realize you could fill a room of teens by putting on a movie, giving them some popcorn and having a dialogue,” she says.

Soon, like-minded people started coming out of the woodwork to volunteer their services. “A Harvard grad, a journalist, a teacher, someone who liked going door-to-door—there were so many, all of a sudden,” Butler says. “I knew I had to start formalizing this group.”

So Butler went on to create the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE) to encourage residents to take a more active role in the community and transform it for positive change. Today, the association boasts 80 active members and 30 organizers.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Butler to learn about RAGE, and why she thinks resident-driven work is the key to improving a community.

Why did you decide to get involved in the community instead of leaving for a different, more developed one?

In 2007, my husband, my daughter and I were going to leave. Most of my father’s side of the family lives in Atlanta, and we saw some really beautiful homes there for less than $150,000. Meanwhile, our block in Chicago wasn’t in the best of conditions. I looked out my window and would see a vacant lot.

I don’t know what hit me, but looking at that vacant lot one day and I just thought that, if we left, we would be just like everyone else who left. And those who stay won’t see a family or a person with a job in their community. I thought there had to be something I could do.

What does Englewood need, and how will RAGE deliver that?

Before we wanted to do anything else, we wanted to shift the mindsets. That’s the biggest need — to make people think differently about their community, value the community and really value the assets here. Englewood needs another truth to be told about it. Being in a community of which people say, “This is a warzone, this is a hopeless area, everyone’s poor.” We knew we wanted to have another narrative.

We also need a safe space where young people and elders could talk about some of the issues in the community and have real dialogue about that, and then work together to change that. Before RAGE, I didn’t see any spaces where people are empowered and took the empowerment to action.

There are countless numbers of community groups and outreach programs serving Englewood. What makes RAGE different?

There are very few other organizations that are resident-driven, because most of them have a cozy office downtown and were told, just like social service agencies, to come and “organize the people.” Very few listen to a voice of working-class homeowners, taxpayers.

Most organizations are very small capacity. You have hundreds of really small nonprofits barely making it, competing for the same pot of money from grant organizations. But my program is having kids off the street, making them think critically, using films and art to develop their conversation skills — all with no funding. We built relationships with people to have them let us use their spaces for no cost. So RAGE isn’t beholden to any money source, meaning we can just listen to the people and can be run by the residents themselves.

How do you ensure the local people stay engaged with RAGE?

We have public village meetings every other month. They’re an open forum where we give people information about what we do and bring a neutral platform for the hot community topic. At those meetings, everyone is invited to introduce themselves, so that we all get to know who our community assets are.

We move that event around the community, wherever places are happy to host us, and that way, we also touch more people. That’s important because Englewood is such a large neighborhood.

Should Englewood residents be concerned about the neighborhood Tax Increment Financing District funds? Do you think the decision on how to spend the TIF money so far have been good for the community?

When it first became known the TIF would be funding a Whole Foods, the neighborhood had mixed reactions, and it still does now. Of course, we want healthy food options in the community. Whole Foods will drive some economic growth, people will get jobs at the store, and other retailers will come to the area. But Whole Foods was going to set up there regardless of whether or not we supported it. Community voices are the last on the totem poll for decisions involving our tax dollars.

The community development has been whatever the alderman has decided would be best for the community without asking the community. What they’re doing at the moment is developing veteran housing units on 61st Street. I am not really sure how such units will help us develop a long-term local economy, which is what TIF money is supposed to do. It seems to me that housing more people who can’t afford to buy their own homes isn’t going to bring in much new potential for economic growth.

What are the biggest challenges Englewood residents face right now? Are they different from when RAGE was first formed?

They’re the same — it’s still perception of the safety and people in the area. We can talk about economic development and political challenges, but the perception underlies all of that.

And the way things are structured in Chicago, Englewood is a victim of the structure. Our schools close. The majority of people are unemployed. These are all challenges most underserved neighborhoods of marginalized communities face.

What would people be surprised to learn about Englewood?

The Englewood residents on the news robbing people are the minority; they are not terrorizing this entire community. I am not dodging bullets going out from my house, and I spend hours on my porch — that is actually an office space for me in the summer.

Some block residents have not been activated, and as a result, they are then taken over by this small minority of dangerous people. But just like everywhere else in Chicago, the crime level really depends on the block you live on.

There are phenomenal, capable, educated residents who nobody talks about. The majority of people here are really great people.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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