Home Local Sankofa Wellness Village looks to the past to envision a better future for West Garfield Park

Sankofa Wellness Village looks to the past to envision a better future for West Garfield Park

by staff

Over 50 years ago, massive uprisings after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. left Garfield Park and North Lawndale in ruin, said longtime community leader Marshall Hatch Sr. The area went up in flames and never recovered. Many vacant lots remain from businesses and homes that were destroyed and never rebuilt, he said.

The historic neighborhood continues to grapple with underinvestment, high poverty rates, low life expectancy and violence, including a Halloween night mass shooting that killed one and wounded over a dozen others.

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Now, a group of residents, faith-based and health care institutions, nonprofits and other stakeholders in Garfield Park are working to revitalize the neighborhood’s commercial quarter and break the cycle of disinvestment through Sankofa Wellness Village.

The Sankofa Wellness Village will create opportunities for West Garfield Park residents of all ages to have access to health and recreation services, business development, healthy food and the arts. The village, which is set to break ground in 2023, will serve the more than 17,000 residents of West Garfield Park and the surrounding communities.

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Hatch, a reverend of New Mount Pilgrim Church, is helping to lead the effort through the Garfield Park Rite to Wellness Collaborative, where he serves on the executive committee.

“This has been a community of many challenges,” Hatch said. “There’s been major disinvestment. It’s one of the poorest per capita communities. But it is a resilient community. That has been part of the catalyst to think of wellness holistically. We use the term village, which has to do with the health of the people.”

The plan encompasses four projects — a physical and mental health wellness center, a business hub, a makerspace and a community-owned grocery store. This walkable “village” will connect the Madison-Pulaski corridor with other new investments, including Garfield Park Community Plaza and Outdoor Roller Rink and the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church Campus.

The project is also a finalist for this year’s $10 million Chicago Prize from the Pritzker Traubert Foundation.

Hatch son, Marshall Hatch Jr., said the project began to take shape five to six years ago, when troubling life expectancy statistics for Garfield Park showed that life spans for residents are around 16 years shorter than people who live in the Loop.

“The data wasn’t new or even revealing — it just put a stat to our reality,” said Hatch Jr., who is executive director of the MAAFA Redemption Project. “I think it was a perfect time to come together as a community to create a foundation for a movement and restore West Garfield Park.”

Pastor Marshall Hatch Sr. of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church next to a mural along West Madison Street showing health disparities in West Garfield Park, Dec. 14, 2022.

David Ansell, a physician and the senior vice president for community health equity for the Rush University Medical Center, took part in those early conversations about the wellness village.

He said the historic disinvestment, structural racism and economic deprivation of communities like West Garfield Park have been evident from the time he started practicing medicine in Chicago in 1978, leading to direct impacts on health.

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“It wasn’t just about health and health care, it was about the conditions under which people lived, worked and played,” Ansell said. “It was the flight of capital that left these neighborhoods bereft, and then poor health followed.”

Ansell said the collaborative got to work on a plan to address long-standing underinvestment in Garfield Park and improve health outcomes, specifically the life expectancy gap.

Starting as a small group with an idea for change, the Garfield Park Rite To Wellness Collaborative and its partners began community outreach with surveys, phone calls and visits to residents door to door to understand their needs. They also held monthly town halls.

Theodore Joseph “Coach” Crawford, executive director of the collaborative, said the group’s community assessment spoke to the “need and urgency” of a holistic approach to health and wellness.

Leaders of the collaborative say residents have long been looking for more jobs, business opportunities, food options, safe places to gather and exercise, after-school options for children and better physical and mental health access.

“Folks highlighted the need for a space where they can receive quality, culturally mindful services,” Crawford said. “Through that process, organizations are now all around the table committed to improve health and addressing the life expectancy gap, knowing that a proper environment is what is needed to foster health.”

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Crawford said the vision for the Sankofa Wellness Village is predicated on the concept of Black Culture Wellness, which promotes the idea that authentic expression of Black culture inspires healing, healthy behaviors and improved wellness for Black people.

The word Sankofa itself derives from an ancient Ghanaian concept that symbolizes the reconciliation of the past and the future. It means, “to move forward, we must first go back and recover the valuable things we’ve lost.”

“The concept of cultural practice is reflected in our name,” Crawford said. “We’ll go back to what has been lost and really bring it forward. As we start practicing things that celebrate us as our natural and best selves, it helps to improve our health, instead of us feeling trapped or having to fit in a box.”

Now, more than 20 organizations are helping to bring the Sankofa Wellness Village to life, including the Erie Health Center, West Side United, the Community Builders and the YMCA of Metro Chicago.

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Each part of the village will address different needs. The Sankofa Wellness Center will bring an exercise facility and comprehensive health care for all ages, as well as a YMCA-run day care, a community-owned credit union and financial education classes. The MAAFA Center for Arts & Activism will offer a flexible artistic venue for exhibitions and performances, as well as spaces for classes and workshops.

The K Entrepreneurship Development Hub will act as a social innovation hub to support resident-owned businesses in developing real estate along the Madison and Pulaski commercial corridors. The Community Grocery Initiative will bring new grocers and healthy food and nutrition options.

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Cherese Ledet, chief community development and equity officer for the YMCA of Metro Chicago, said the work builds off the organization’s long-standing presence in West Garfield Park with its early learning child care center. She said the project will allow YMCA to continue to expand out of its traditional “gym and swim” services to provide multipurpose spaces for fitness and learning.

“We want to provide a really open, comprehensive wellness environment that’s intergenerational for all to use and explore” Ledet said. “The collaborative has done an excellent job in focusing on West Garfield Park and ensuring that we can rise from this disinvestment and really provide the programs and services that the community needs. “

For Hatch Jr., the Sankofa Wellness Village is about showcasing what he and other residents have known about West Garfield Park all along.

“We need this cohesive framework and philosophy to let the community and city know that West Garfield Park is one of the best neighborhoods in the city and always has been,” Hatch Jr. said.

joanderson@chicagotribune.com

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