Looking back on the Senn Unity Garden
In 1996, students from Senn High School worked with partners to transform an empty lot near their school into a Unity Garden. These same students engaged with Alternatives’ staff member Pat Zamora, Director of YouthNet at Senn High School, to start the first Restorative Justice Peer Jury in the Chicago Public Schools. Now, 21 years later, the garden has grown and still remains active. The original 12 raised vegetable beds have increased to 22, and it is a popular place for community residents who want to grow fresh vegetables. The garden also includes an earthen berm, performance space, mosaics, a totem, and landscaping.
Young people through Alternatives’ YouthNet program at Senn HS researched Unity Gardens, worked with a landscape architect, and presented their proposal to the broader community about what they would like to see the garden become.
Alternatives’ young people were leaders in a process that included many partners. Garden coordinator, Bonnie Tawse, and landscape architects, Chris Gent and Chet Jakus, came from the Chicago Park District, and mosaic artist, Mirtes Zirwinski, came from Gallery 37. Many volunteers came from Leadership Greater Chicago’s 1996 fellows, and younger children came from the Broadway Armory. All of these partners and more supported the young people and local residents to create this beautiful space.
Every step of the garden’s development had meaningful community input and support. Residents came on weekends to help, which meant they got to know the young people and each other. In the process, they took ownership of the public space, and continue to garden and take care of it to this day.