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Neighborhoods Mon Aug 29 2011

North Lawndale Quilting Project

The North Lawndale African American Quilting Project was a long time coming.

Described as an "idea deferred" by organizer Valerie Leonard, the notion to strengthen community bonds through the tradition of storytelling and the craft of quilting came back in 2000, when she took a job at the North Lawndale Small Grants Human Development Corporation. At the time, however, she and the board of directors were focused on getting the African Garden Project off the ground, so the quilting — which was to be an extension of the garden project — had to wait.

Facing "five vacant lots" right by where their building was located, they saw an immediate need to beautify the area. What might seem like a simple process of applying seed to soil took three years: not only did they looked at African traditions and compare them with those of African American communities, particularly those of their own neighborhood, they also researched plants native to Africa that would grow right here in Chicago.

With the involvement of groups such as Historic K-Town, Art Forward, and Better Boys Foundation, Leonard hopes that the "really good vibes" she's been getting from people, from both within and without the community, grow into something more than yarn and thread.


The notion of quilting and storytelling "seems to strike a chord, even in some places where I wouldn't expect it." She described how the prospect of "working on something that's fun [and] creative" elicits positive feedback even from those "who have fallen off the map, in terms of community activism." Whether exhausted from discussions of TIFs or mortgage foreclosure, "issue fatigue" not only does not prevent interest in the quilting project, it may actually contribute to its allure.

Sharing stories as a community, and capturing those through the art of quilting, may not "take your mind off issues per se," but it does let "you focus on your creativity and positive things. You can address issues, but in a much less confrontational way."

Beyond the immediate goal of making quilts and the plan to display them "during a community gathering for Black History Month 2012", Leonard has more long-term gains in mind.

"I would love for people to really be proud of the community again. We're so immersed in fear — you read about the violence, you talk about the violence. Those things that you focus on, those things become so, so real to you and they can become larger than life."

Far from seeing North Lawndale through rose-colored glasses, Leonard sees it for what it is, but thinks her neighborhood can do better. "Don't get me wrong, this is a dangerous community, and I don't kid myself one bit. But if that's all we focus on, we can never move forward. Quilting is a way to bring people together across different barriers. Talk to people as people. Make people more proud and trusting of one another."

The quilting project will begin in full force on September 20th, from 6 - 8pm at the Better Boys Foundation (1512 South Pulaksi). Participants are encouraged to bring scissors, thread, cotton print fabric and batting. Workshops are scheduled to run through the end of October.

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Valerie F. Leonard / August 30, 2011 9:21 AM

Megan, I thank you and Ramsin
for covering this story and helping us to get the word out. We believe the project has the potential to transform the community--not over night, but in increments over time--kinda like quilts are developed. We'll keep you guys posted.

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