From Gangs to Gardening, Southside Blooms Helps Keep Teens off the Streets

Southside Blooms provides jobs and job training to at risk youth on four sustainable urban farms on the South Side of Chicago and Gary, Indiana.  It is a project of the Chicago Eco House.  Participants get paid to transform urban lots into sustainable flower farms with their own bee hives. They tend the flowers, make bouquets, make and package honey, work in flower shops and more.  Farm Engineer and Manager, Cade Kamaleson says, “We’re fixing urban blight, helping the urban environment and more importantly, we’re changing urban lives.”

Southside Blooms also helps former gang members rehabilitate their lives by showing them they are valued members of their community, teaching them skills and communication techniques.  Founder, Quilen Blackwell says, “Young people often end up in criminal lifestyles or involved with gang activity because they are seeing a sense of belonging. We created the origination as a positive place where they can belong.”

Southside Blooms Chicago DefenderChicago Defender: What is Southside Blooms?

Our mission in the organization is using sustainability to alleviate inner city poverty. So we take empty lots on the southwest side of Chicago, transform them into flower farms, harvest those flowers and make floral arrangements and sell them. And we employ youth and people from the communities to economically empower the south and west side.

Chicago Defender: How does this help with violence prevention?

Our target are young at risk youth. Our goal is to disrupt young people heading into gangs by giving them other opportunities to be successful, specifically economic opportunities.

“They’re not just growing flowers, they are growing themselves”-Quilen Blackwell

Chicago Defender:  What kind of life skills are the youth learning to translate into formidable careers?

Southside Blooms:  They learn basic life skills like showing up on time, working on a team and learning to collaborate with others. In addition, they maintain a farm or get tasks done. It teaches them how to communicate.   They also learn how to grow and develop plants.  More than anything, they are learning how to explore avenues that they never considered before. Essentially, they are learning how to learn.  It’s not just about learning soft or hard skills for a general job. This is specifically geared towards them having a viable career in the floral industry. One of things that makes our program unique is that we want to inspire a homegrown industry in the inner city, specifically in the floral industry.  Our long term goal is to have the floral industry become an anchor industry in the inner city.

Southside Blooms Chicago DefenderChicago Defender:  Can you explain what you mean by anchor industry?

Southside Blooms:  Think about anchor industries you see in other communities. For example Silicon Valley is assimilated with big tech and Napa Valley is assimilated with wine, and orchards. In rural Illinois, corn, wheat and soybeans are what they are known form.   When you think of the inner city what would be an anchor industry for a community like Englewood? Back in the day it used to be blue collar factory jobs like factories and such.

We identified flowers because it really lines with some of the natural assets of the community. There are so many vacant lots and young people who are eager to work, creative and talented.  The floral industry is a $35 billion dollar a year industry. But 80% of flowers at market actually come from overseas. So we thought, what if we’re able to basically redirect that 80% of money going to other countries and keep it right here in our communities.  That would make a huge difference for the youth as well as the larger community as a whole.

Chicago Defender: What has been the impact of participating in Southside Blooms by the young people who work with this program?

Southside Blooms:  The young people really enjoy working here and learning these skills.  I think most importantly, having a consistent job and place to be has been really impactful for them as well.  It also helps our kids stay focused and out of trouble because they now have the responsibility of a job.

It’s also very satisfying for them to contribute to beautifying their neighborhoods and watch something they plant grow.   That takes a nurturing that provides a personal satisfaction as well.

Southside Blooms Chicago DefenderTeen, Eric Sanders, is an example.  Many of his friends and community members are gang affiliated. He says he could have slipped into that lifestyle but Southside Blooms provided him something better. “By forming positive relationships with people outside of the gang culture, teens like Eric learn there are healthier ways to feel connected, says Farm Engineer and Manager, Cade Kamaleson.

Blackwell added, “We are rehabilitating lots, we are rehabilitating neighborhoods and rehabilitating people. It’s a beautiful thing to see”.

Southside Blooms also has an online store where they sell flower arrangements, honey, candles, cards and gifts. To learn more about Southside Blooms visit their website at

Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSanders20 and @DanieSandersOfficial

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