Humans of Sweet Water...Meet Orrin Williams


In 2010, Orrin Williams met Sweet Water Foundation's Co-Founder, Emmanuel Pratt, at a meeting in West Englewood. An instant bond was formed as they quickly recognized the synergies in their work and a shared vision of transformation on Chicago’s South side. The two have been working together ever since and Sweet Water Foundation has benefited greatly from Orrin’s leadership, vision, and contributions over the years.  

Orrin was born and raised in Chicago. In fact, his family lived 6-7 blocks away from Sweet Water Foundation’s Perry Ave Commons site. He has since lived and worked in a variety of places, including Texas and Thailand. Ultimately, Orrin settled in Chicago, where he has a vision of making urban spaces more efficient and productive. As a Food Systems Coordinator, he helps develop food-based programs which support positive lifestyle changes. Orrin has witnessed tremendous change in the Englewood community since childhood. As a person who works closely with Sweet Water Foundation, he sees the potential of the organization to reconstruct the community with the community from the ground up.


Tell us a little about your background.

I was born and raised in Chicago during the “baby-boomer” era, post World War II. This spot where we’re doing this interview, Sweet Water Foundation’s Perry Avenue Commons, is approximately 6 ½ to 7 blocks from where I spent my formative years, from the time I was 2 until my family moved to another community area called Chatham. In Englewood, when we moved in, we were the second black family on the block. During that era, into the 1970’s, Englewood was quite a remarkable place. It had the second highest economic activity in the state of Illinois, outside of downtown. Then the community went into a precipitous decline. A lot of that decline is coordinated with the decline of population, the beginning of the loss of manufacturing and other types of jobs, like stockyard jobs.

West of where we’re sitting and just east of the Dan Ryan expressway, sat an A&P store, which was one of the stores where our family shopped. Of course, I’m old enough to remember when there was no expressway and when they began building the expressway. The expressway sits no more than a block and a half from where our house used to sit. They used heavy dynamite to carve out the Dan Ryan; our house shook and cracks formed in the wall.  We had to file claims for the damage that was done. I remember a lot of folks who were in my kindergarten, first grade, and second grade classes. Their families had to move because the expressway was coming. I also remember that there was some opposition to the building of the expressway. I sort of remember those meetings, and my mom and dad going to these meetings on this impending building of these expressways. The construction was part of an interstate system that was, in fact, a project instigated by President Eisenhower. Eisenhower was a general in the military and thought that America would be in trouble if it didn’t have a solid highway system in order to meet any kind of military need. The complete name of the interstate system is the United States Interstate and Defense Highway System. They kind of conveniently leave the defense part of that out. But, you immediately recognize the sort of disruption to the community that the expressway created when it was built.

I started school at a public school called Lewis-Champlin, which was situated near 62nd and Steward, next to the old Englewood High School. Then, I went to a private school called Howalton Day School, which is no longer in existence. There was an interesting mix of civil servant children, like myself, and children of some of the elite Black families in Chicago. Congressmen's’ children, physicians’ children, dentists’ children. Later, I went to Lindblom High School, which is in West Englewood now, but it was an all white neighborhood in those days. From there, I attended an HBCU in Texas called Wiley College. I was only there for a semester. I later spent some time at Eureka College and, then, Wright college, in the city college system, until I went to the military. I served from 1970 to 1974 in the United States Air Force. I did basic training in Texas and spent considerable time in Arizona until the last 20 - 22 months or so when I served in Thailand.  The time in Thailand had a profound influence on me, even to this day.

After returning, I wound up at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), where I majored in Sociology and Social Science. I had the opportunity to design my coursework. I took a lot of courses related to African and African American Studies. One of the most influential courses I took was a basic ecology course.

I was employed at Northeastern for several years, so I had the opportunity to meet and know various faculty members and participate on various committees. The folks that taught urban planning had a major influence on me. After NEIU, I worked in environmental justice, urban agriculture, and building ecological communities.



How did you become involved in Sweet Water Foundation?

Through my work with People for Community Recovery based out of Altgeld Gardens, which was headed by a woman named Hazel Johnson, I worked with a group in Chicago called Growing Home. They started an urban farm on Wood Street in West Englewood. We worked with them on different levels, helping them locate the site where the farm is now and providing other supports and guidance. While I was working there, Emmanuel came to visit. It was impromptu. I think he was trying to see what that landscape was like. We began talking and have continued to work together for the last 7 or 8 years.

As Sweet Water Foundation began to establish a presence in Chicago, I was asked to serve the Board of Directors. A couple of years ago, I went to work at the University of Illinois at Chicago, working for Dr. Angela Odoms-Young, who co-directs the Chicago Partnership for Health Promotion, which is under the Office of Community Engagement at UIC. Since I started working there, we’ve formed a collaboration between SWF and our program at UIC, which affords me the opportunity to be here and work on various things that Sweet Water Foundation is working on.


If you had unlimited resources, what project would you dedicate yourself to on the Perry Ave Commons?

One of the things me and Emmanuel connected on was a book call the Integral Urban House. It’s a book I read years ago. I always wondered why housing wasn’t that way. Why isn’t it normal to generate your own energy? Why isn’t it normal to be careful about how you use water? Why isn’t it normal to create at least some of your own food? I always thought, how can we expand these concepts so that it’s an integral urban community? With housing, commercial buildings, empty spaces, generating energy, producing food, having water wells...all those things. I think a lot of the work going on at the Perry Ave Commons now is related to that vision and a lot of the discussions I’ve had with Emmanuel over the years. How do we make urban space more productive and more efficient, particularly in terms of feeding people and generating energy?

If I had the resources, I would also develop the State Street corridor, not only in terms of commercial and live-work spaces for artists, but also the commercial vision would include a lot of the arts and cultural programming. One thing I would be interested in doing in those spaces and in the community would be to engage art and art practice in a way that brought back and maintained certain traditions. For example, I’d love to bring quilters from Mississippi and Alabama to do quilting classes, and to have spaces to present their work. I would love to bring in weavers from different traditions and teach people that may not know about those traditions. I’d love to bring in a series of potters and folks dealing with ceramics to do their work, whether it’s someone from Japan or Minnesota or Africa. And of course, food-related businesses, like small groceries. A variety of restaurants, whether they are vegan or not vegan, whatever the case they may be. How would you integrate that with the farming that occurs here? What opportunity does that present for the expansion of agriculture in the community? And, how to  make it commercially viable and available to people who have businesses and households?


What is a notable memory that you’ve had here with SWF?

Our initial meetings, of course. And witnessing the evolution of Sweet Water Foundation from its beginnings in Milwaukee to Emmanuel relocating to Chicago and launching this platform - the Perry Ave Commons. There’s not much that’s more amazing than this. Besides the farm, the Think-Do House, and the variety of things that go on here. It is amazing for me.


What does Sweet Water Foundation mean to you? Any wisdom want to impart?

Sweet Water means to me the opportunity to collaborate with people across disciplines. We really are a whole people, a whole planet. It’s an opportunity to get out of the silos and meet people, outside of what becomes silos. Also, the importance of growing food, your own food, is real important to me. We need to learn how to grow. We can’t be dependent anymore on the health care system and health insurance in a way that some stuff is going on now. It may, in fact, be a blessing. Now, you have to take care of yourself, of your community, and your family. And do it in a different way. I don’t think it’s an accident that Homo sapiens have been here for 200,000 or 300,000 years without the benefit of the Western medical system and without the benefit of health insurance or anything like that. I think maybe it’s time to rediscover a lot of the old ways.


Fun Facts About Orrin:

  • Favorite book: “From Plan to Planet” by Haki R. Madhubuti

  • Favorite music: I like a lot of the old hip-hop stuff, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Of course all the classic jazz. A lot of the global music. My tastes are particularly keen around what I call African base. Blues, R & B, reggae, music from the continent, Kumbia, whatever you hear in Central and South America. I like a lot of music, from the middle east too. I love percussion stuff, whether it’s African drums or any other kind. We’ve probably got 3,000 or more CD’s in the house.