There's Room to Grow: Shaunté Brewer

Shaunté Brewer is a southsider, educator and farmer. As a self proclaimed “nerd,” she spent her downtime during the pandemic learning to grow vegetables and fruits in her backyard on the Chicago southside. Now, she’s teaching others to do the same.

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Growing up in Jeffrey Manor, Brewer is familiar with the southside’s lack of access to organic foods and grocery stores. She uses TikTok to teach others living in urban areas how to grow food with limited resources and space. One of her videos shows how she grew this lettuce from a lettuce core.

 
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Brewer believes that gardening is a way for Black and brown communities to tap into their ancestry. “That's why I make sure every year I have okra and watermelon growing here,” Brewer said. “It's symbolism. Okra literally came over here in an African woman's hair, and watermelon that’s a symbol of prosperity.”

 

Brewer started out as a youth educator. She’s taught at a juvenile detention center, an elementary school and currently teaches urban agriculture at South Shore International College Prep. “Love is an ingredient,” Brewer said. “So thinking of the ailments areas with food deserts deal with, we have to start working our way from the bottom up. That's why I'm so passionate about teaching the kids.”

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But, in teaching about agriculture, she’s faced stereotypes. “If you go to the elementary schools, they'll be super honest with you,” Brewer said. “They’ll say a farmer is a white man with a hat on and overalls.” This homemade T-shirt, an homage to the Ludacris song, is one of the many ways Brewer redefines who a farmer is.

 
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Brewer’s students named all four of her chickens. Lulu, the most attention starved of the bunch, is named after the Chicago-based rapper Lulu Be.

 

Farming is more than a passion for Brewer. It also helps her manage her congestive heart failure. “I began noticing my heart failure numbers get better tremendously during my gardening months, so now I do it for my mental health and my physical health,” Brewer said.

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In April, she had surgery to insert a pacemaker. Gardening, yoga and tending to her chickens has helped her recovery.

 

Brewer hopes to return to teaching at South Shore International College Prep this summer. And eventually, she hopes to expand her urban agriculture class to schools in Englewood since Whole Foods is closing there.

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Brewer received a grant to partially fund the materials she needed to make a garden at South Shore. This is the first time she’s been back to work on the garden since her surgery and weeds have sprouted. “I intentionally chose low maintenance perennials because I realized this school has never had anything like this,” Brewer said. “So in the event I wasn't around, I planted some things that’d outlast me.”

 
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Handwritten positive messages outline the South Shore garden. The school originally hired Brewer to assist the students with behavioral challenges. Gardening was one of the first restorative practices she introduced to the students.

 

Brewer’s classroom doesn’t have any windows, but she filled it with air purifying plants and taught students breathing techniques to improve their mental health. “They literally started calling it their sanctuary room,” Brewer said. “They just needed room to grow.”

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