Sweet Water Foundation: A site visit to remember
Program Director, Mark Murray recaps his inspiring visit to Sweet Water Foundation.
When I visit a place that I want to remember, I always buy a t-shirt.
As a long-time member of the Field Foundation team, site visits are a deeply important part of my job. Entering the space of an organization that I have only read about, and meeting the directors and community members who have built that organization, is always a special experience. While all site visits have value, there are some that I never want to forget.
This summer I had the privilege of visiting one of the most inspiring organizations in Chicago: Sweet Water Foundation. Sweet Water Foundation practices “Regenerative Placemaking, a creative and regenerative social justice method, that creates safe and inspiring spaces and curates healthy, intergenerational communities that transform the ecology of once-blighted neighborhoods.”
Now, you might be asking yourself, “Okay, sounds interesting, but what is Sweet Water?” That question is not so easily answered, because it is so many things.
On the day of my site visit I met Chief Operating Officer, Jia Lok Pratt, at Sweet Water’s Aquaponics Center housed in a former shoe factory now owned by Chicago State University. I learned, that aquaponics is a system of agriculture where the waste produced by farmed fish, in this case Tilapia, is used to feed plants, which in turn purify water. What I saw was a previously neglected space turned into an ecologically and economically productive haven for urban agricultural.
Next, Jia took me a few miles north to the Sweet Water Perry Avenue Commons, their flagship site located on the corner of South Perry Avenue and West 57th Place in Englewood. What I saw upon arriving I can only describe as an orchestral whirlwind with founder and Executive Director, Emmanuel Pratt, acting as a conductor. First off, the site houses two urban farms, one supported by the community and the other by Sweet Water. Individuals of all ages were working on the Sweet Water farm, from student apprentices to volunteers to veteran community members. Near the entrance of the farm was a small market stocked with produce grown on the farm, and a community member and artist roasting fresh coffee beans.
In addition to the agricultural abundance on the property, there are two inventive indoor community spaces, the Think-Do House and the Think-Do Pod. The Think-Do House is a previously foreclosed home that Sweet Water transformed into a hub with space for community gatherings, and a kitchen with a chef that cooks food from the garden as well as conducts demonstrations to teach community members how to make healthy food. The Think-Do Pod, is an educational gallery space and green house designed inside of a discarded commercial shipping container that is used for learning and growing.
Lastly, the Sweet Water Foundation’s Perry Ave Commons site has a workshop where youth learn to create from reclaimed wood. On my visit, youth were making Adirondack chairs that can later be resold. In collaboration with a retired union carpenter, apprentices were also helping to rehab another formerly abandoned home on site, that when completed will be a safe-house for neighborhood youth.
It is safe to say, I was absolutely blown away by what Emmanuel Pratt and his colleagues have done to regenerate energy in the community. The diverse array of programs offered in the space affords community members the opportunity to engage with art, science, organizing, and ultimately community development. At the core of their philosophy is that “every neighborhood in Chicago contains the seeds to its own regeneration.”
But how does this align with the Field Foundation’s focus on Justice? Well, in addition to providing a profound array of programming, Sweet Water is focused on systemic change as well. The Field Foundation is very excited to support Sweet Water’s justice work through a new community workshop series titled, The Radical Reconstruction of Values. Sweet Water aims to create a safe community space where the often-unheard voices of youth, elders and the poor will be amplified. The end goal of the series is to generate community feedback and systemic change recommendations to be shared with government officials, nonprofit leaders, and the community.
I left my visit to the Sweet Water Foundation inspired, and in awe of the courage and boundless creativity of Emmanuel Pratt. This visit was like no other, and luckily, I was able to buy a t-shirt to remember the day.