Sitting Down With Quilen Blackwell of Southside Blooms

We recently sat down with Quilen Blackwell of Southside Blooms to learn about his amazing organization and why he chooses to work with Arctic Industries. A slightly edited transcript of the conversation can be found below.

Why don’t you tell us a little about yourself and Chicago Eco House?

“My name’s Quilen Blackwell and I’m the president/co-founder of Southside Blooms based on the southside of Chicago. Our mission is to use sustainability to alleviate inner-city poverty. We started in 2014, we’re a 501c3 nonprofit that’s based here in Englewood on the south side of Chicago, and we accomplish our mission by taking over vacant lots on the south and west sides of Chicago and turning them into solar-powered flower farms that creates jobs for a lot of the at-risk young people here. We’re providing a viable economic alternative to street gangs for a lot of these young men and women.”

Can you tell us what an average day looks like for you or for those volunteering for Chicago Eco House?

“I usually wake up pretty early around 5:00am or so. I start off my day by praying, having devotion, getting my kids ready, and taking them to school. Around 9 o’clock is when the team comes in- our farm manager, flower shop manager, and florist. We’ll have our 30-60 minutes of game planning for the day, and then after that we’re all about our work. In the flower shop, we’ll normally have anywhere between 60-90 bouquets that we have to do. Our flower shop manager is responsible for working with the youth to make those bouquets, and obviously that’s where the walk-in cooler comes in. That’s like the heartbeat of our flower shop; being able to have a walk-in cooler really helps us to expand our capacity. Our farm manager works with the youth on the farm in terms of growing, planting, and harvesting. We do weddings, corporate events, quinceañera’s, funerals, etc. so she’ll work with the youth and help them make boutonnieres, corsages, and bridal bouquets. My job is kind of like “running the show”, so no two days ever really look the same. Some days I’m on the farm, some days I’m in the flower shop, and some days I’m doing calls like these. We have multiple farms across the city, so we have a rotation of our crews across five farms- four are in Chicago and one in Gary, Indiana.” 

How big is the team that’s supporting you?

“We have four full-time staff, as well as contractors that we work with such as our grant writer, accountant, that sort of stuff. We also have our youth who work part-time, which can be anywhere from 15 hours a week to 20-25 hours a week.”

What’s the organizational structure in terms of the level of support you get locally, regionally, and nationally?

“We don’t really get government support, all of our support has been from private sources. We get a lot of individual donor support, foundation support, corporate support, as well as support from our flower sales. Our flower sales actually make-up about 40% of our overall budget, so that’s a pretty big driver for us. In terms of where it’s coming from, we get everything from national support to local foundations and charities. At this point, we’ve been developing more of a national reputation because our mission and motto are really resonating with people. These young men who are being lost to the streets are now becoming farmers, florists, working in the event industry, working in sales and customer service, and everything else that you need to support the floral industry.”

Are there plans to expand beyond what you have currently, and is this a model that can be replicated elsewhere in other cities or counties across the country?

“Yes, for example, the Gary project in Indiana is through a partnership with a group called Gary Community Partnership, which is a non-profit who heard about our work and invited us to Gary because they’re dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with. We helped them to set up a solar-powered flower farm there, and now they’re selling to a local casino, as well as starting to do more individual orders.

We have had other cities and other organizations reach out to us, we just don’t have the capacity to work with them yet. Gary is like 30 minutes from us, so it’s pretty easy to work with them. We’ve had people reach out to us from Milwaukee, Kentucky, Atlanta, and even LA. Our grand ambition is to eventually take this across the country and have every inner city having a flower operation there.”

What would help get you to be able to produce or replicate this project in other places, so you can see this grow organically, but also at a rate you can take some pride in?

“I think a couple things- one would definitely be having the right community partnerships that are already connected to the city and the business community there. The other piece is funding, just to be able to start up those initial farms. The last piece is being able to market and get the word out. A lot of people that we’ve found in the flower market don’t know there’s an alternative to places like Costco, Whole Foods, or your local florist. We’ve found that once people hear about us it’s usually a no-brainer for people to buy their flowers from us, it’s just more of getting that word out. You’ve got to really build that capacity and get in a position where you can sell your product reliably, and have people trained because even though we’ve got a community partner you’ve still got to train the workers.”

Can you go into more depth in terms of what your background is, how you came up with this concept, and what the story behind the story is?

“I’m originally from Madison, Wisconsin. I went to the Peace Corps in Thailand, where I was working in Northern Thailand with farmers, as well as the local high schools. I think when I was in Thailand- that’s when I first encountered this concept of social enterprise. I think one of the things that really stood out to me was that even though it was, from an economic standpoint, in a low-income community you didn’t see hardcore poverty. You didn’t see homeless people on the streets, or any of that kind of stuff. When I got stateside, I did community organizing in Waukesha county around affordable housing and the worked in the  biodiesel industry Up until that point, I really just thought of sustainability more through the lens of policy, rather than being a viable industry that can create jobs for people. After t ministry, I started volunteering at a High School here in Englewood. Seeing a lot of these kids made me think that if I ever met someone like myself, I would hope that they would care enough to try and open up some doors for me because ultimately that’s what the kids express- they really just want an opportunity. From there I really began to figure out how I could use my background to specifically try and do some bottom-up economic development. Eco House has really become a blending of that passion for sustainable business as well as community development, and then the rest is history.”

How has COVID affected the team, support, environment?

“COVID was like a blessing in disguise for us- it’s obviously been very hard for a lot of people, so I’d like to be sensitive to that, but it forced us to adapt. When COVID first hit and everything was shutting down- one of things that shut down was events. Before COVID our company was set up for being more of purely an event florist, but then once that was all wiped out we had to adapt to doing more online deliveries. We started off in March/April of last year just putting up some bouquets for sale on instagram, which sold out within hours. We then did a little bit more and those sold, which made us think that maybe we’re onto something. That eventually turned to full-on CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and the next thing we know local media started reaching out to us because some of our customers were editors for those publications. Then it became this big snowball effect where through more word of mouth, people started telling others, “There’s this awesome flower business doing some great work in the southside of Chicago, you should support them.” Fast forward to now, we have in terms of our CSA’s almost 415 subscribers for at least this season. We also diversified our product, so we have holiday wreaths that we do, candles, and honey now that we’ve added 10 beehives to our farms.”

What have the walk-in coolers been able to let you do from a business standpoint and a community standpoint?

“Arctic’s prices are good, they’re definitely affordable, and the coolers have pretty good functionality. The walk-in cooler we were using before was just like a DIY-solution with a Coolbot that we whipped together ourselves. So we were stunned at how clean Arctic’s cooler looked, how professional it looked, and just the overall space of it. We’re ecstatic to have it, and like I said before it’s really the heartbeat of our flower shop. Before we even built our DIY walk-in cooler, we were losing a lot of flowers that we were just keeping in the basement. We quickly learned that moisture and mold are big issues if you’re dealing with fragile products like flowers. Being able to have the right equipment to control not just the temperature, but the humidity as well is a huge blessing for us. It’s been a great experience overall even with some of the shipping or technical issues, the customer service is great, and has been helping us “newbies” learn how to use it and get the right people to get it installed correctly.”

Where can people find out more about what you’re doing and what would you like people to take action on?

“You can go to and check out what we have, buying our products is the most effective way of supporting us. Donations are always great. If you’re connected to an organization in a city that has a lot of the means to take on Eco House and help us to replicate/scale there, we’d definitely be interested in people like that as well.”

Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with us, Quilen!