Local Networking Builds Stronger CommunitiesOct 31, 2023 ● By Megy Karydes
Christina Schleich (L) greets guests at Chief O’Neill’s Pub & Restaurant during the popular annual Avondale Gardening Alliance Agriculture and Gardening Fair. Photo credit Avondale Gardening Alliance.
Building a sense of community and belonging is a sure way to increase our happiness while creating safe and resilient neighborhoods. This is why Christina Schleich works so hard to find ways to connect her neighbors and support an eco-friendly lifestyle where she lives in the Avondale neighborhood on Chicago’s northwest side. Schleich is the founder and lead organizer of Avondale Gardening Alliance (AGA), a network of neighbors that share their skills and resources to help create a safer and healthier community through the power of urban agriculture.
“Supported free green spaces are incredibly important in regard to the health and crime rates of neighborhoods,” Schleich says. While Chicago has parks and other green spaces throughout the city, Avondale lacks abundant green space primarily because of its location. The Kennedy expressway (I-94) cuts through much of it, so finding other ways to support eco-living is a priority, and she feels helping neighbors meet and support each other is key.
“We have the capacity to have so much more impact on our immediate community than people realize,” Schleich says. She knows that her superpower is mobilizing people by leaning into what they want to do, are comfortable doing and are good at.
As a community organizer, Schleich understands that people are motivated to help and be part of the solution by sharing or showing what they can do or is possible, rather than constantly being told either what they can’t or should be doing.
AGA hosts events throughout the year as a way to help neighbors meet their neighbors. Participants need no gardening experience or to even have a garden to be part of the group. Its most popular event is the Avondale Garden and Agriculture Fair held in late August, which features demonstrations at sites throughout the neighborhood. This year’s fair included information on how to attract birds and pollinators to the yard, beekeeping 101, home brewing techniques, nature-based crafts, the benefits of fermenting foods and more. Hundreds of visitors made flower crowns and learned how to grow sprouts and save seeds to share with neighbors.
Schleich says she doesn’t buy into the idea that it is hard to meet neighbors. She suggests walking out the front door as a start. Go and meet them where they are. Sometimes they are visiting an insect museum.
The Insect Asylum, an Avondale museum and event space, has been a strong supporter of the Avondale Gardening Alliance, hosting a number of events. During this year’s Summer Fest, The Insect Asylum encouraged participants to take part in a cyanotype flower-pounding project to create a community banner.
Nina Salem, an educator and founder of The Insect Asylum, wants her natural history space to be more than a museum and retail location. Salem believes nature should be accessible to everyone, and wants The Insect Asylum to be a true community gathering space. It regularly offers classes on propagation, plant care 101 and repotting, and hosts events such as foraging expeditions and Sensory-Friendly Fridays.
It is also home to their popular Little Free Plant Library, designed for people that love plants to the point where they have too many of them and choose to donate extras, as well as for those interested in learning how to cultivate plants, but don’t necessarily have the financial means to do it. If someone takes a plant home and it accidentally doesn’t survive, Salem says that’s okay, because it’s part of the learning process. “It’s a resource by the community for the community,” Salem adds.
Making a Difference
“Making a difference in your community is shockingly easy,” Schleich says. “And so much more satisfying than you’d think.” She realizes that what is happening around the world might feel overwhelming, but what we do close to home matters when it comes to long-term happiness.
Connecting with others isn’t reserved for extroverts or people with special knowledge. “We all have hobbies and interests that can serve as a starting point. I often mention when I talk to people that there is not a skill set we can’t use to make our network of support stronger,” Schleich says. “Even someone who wants to get involved by using data management skills or design talent can make a huge impact. Find what you like and how you can make a difference. A big gesture isn’t necessary to make a big impact.”
Salem advises that a personal connection is what makes us care about something. “If you don’t have a personal connection to something, you’re not going to fight hard for it,” she says. “Our goal here is to help inspire people to find those things.”
“What’s going on in your neighborhood is what you make
happen,” Schleich notes. “And that’s what matters more. If we want stronger and
safer communities, reach out to a neighbor.”
Megy Karydes is a Chicago-based writer. Her book, 50 Ways to More Calm, Less Stress: Scientifically Proven Ways to Relieve Anxiety and Boost Your Mental Health Using Your Five Senses, is available for preorder at MegyKarydes.com.