Interviewed by Stephanie Geaslin
Camille Mays is a powerful presence in the Sherman Park neighborhood. Ms. Mays grew up in the neighborhood and five years ago she moved back here with her family. She loves the diversity and liveliness of the residents. She remembers admiring the historic homes in the neighborhood as a child and still loves driving through the streets admiring the architecture. Her dedication to the community and its people is demonstrated through her work at the Sherman Park Community Association (SPCA) and her organization called the Peace Garden Project.
Ms. Mays explains to us how the neighborhood has changed over time. The block that she grew up in is now vastly different from what she remembers. She is concerned that the neighborhood may not be as safe as it used to be. Yet, she is comforted that the current residents are committed to bringing the community together. She observes that when people work together, there is always a strong network of human relationships that act behind the scenes. These relationships are instrumental in bringing change to the area.
Ms. Mays tells us to focus on the people. She points out that, in Sherman Park there is a large group of community members who organize and lead the community. She gives the example of Markasa Tucker as one such dedicated individual. Tucker organized a community event in the park in 2017 with the City of Light Church. There were many organizations who helped put the event together but Markasa was responsible. She notified residents and organized. Then everyone came together and brought what they could to the table. She hopes that the politicians and the police would look at such people as human resources. She believes that bringing the various neighborhood stakeholders together will create opportunities for change. She gives us the example of the gap between many neighborhood residents and the police that could be bridged by conversations and interactions. Sometimes residents witness bad things happening and they want to help. However, they are afraid to help. They hesitate to call the police, afraid of the ramifications of taking such actions. Therefore, Mays works towards bringing neighborhood groups, police, and other stakeholders together. She organizes block groups and community meetings. She organizes neighbors to address safety and housing issues. As someone who lives in this neighborhood, Ms. Mays has first-hand knowledge of what the residents need.
Camille Mays also organizes residents around neighborhood beautification projects. On 55th and Center streets, next to the Post Office, Mays has planted trees with help from the Alderman and the residents. She was instrumental in creating the community gardens in various locations across Sherman Park. She worked with artist Tia Richardson and an organization called Safe and Sound Inc. to produce a large community mural on a wall facing an empty lot on the south side of 47th and Center streets. Community members collaborated with the artist to paint the mural the artist had outlined.
The Peace Garden Project is an initiative that is spearheaded by Mays. The project “seeks to replace makeshift shrines of liquor bottles, teddy bears, and balloons for victims of homicide or car crashes with perennial plants, mulch, stones, and other landscaping.” She explains that the many makeshift memorials that appear in the neighborhood often deteriorate over time, yet mere removal of these emotionally invested memorials can be harsh. She explains, “I know that the family had a loss and you want to respect all parties, [so] I came up with the Peace Garden Project.” The project seeks permission from the family to remove the memorial and replace it with perennials and annuals that to anyone else looks like landscaping but to the family symbolizes a hallowed ground that isn’t threatened with removal by the city. This unique idea honors the family and their loss while respecting the city’s sanitation laws. This project has promoted a positive change in her neighborhood and inspired homeowners and renters to take care of their own landscapes.
Ms. Mays takes her role as a resident seriously and knows that change begins with individual actions. She started a garden on her property. Others on her block followed suit. Soon, more tended gardens appeared on neighborhood properties. Some neighborhood children saw these emerging gardens and became interested in gardening. They come over and help. Ms. Mays partnered with Pastor Christie Melby-Gibbons of the Tricklebee Café to host classes and workshops on growing flowers and food. Their goal is to break the myth that eating healthy is more expensive and to let people know that gardening reduces food costs. Recently, Mays organized workshops on how to make healthy juices and flavorful foods. She desires to plan a workshop series on tasty food seasonings in the future.
Ms. Mays acknowledges that she is fortunate because her neighbors care. She is surrounded with residents who are invested in each other and who care for the safety of those on their block. She represents these brave individuals and assists them in making their vision and dreams of the neighborhood become reality.