Humans of Sweet Water...Meet Angela Ford

Meet Angela Ford...Angela has been in the SWF family since July of 2018. She grew up on the South side of Chicago and has a deep passion for family, tradition, and honoring her ancestors. Angela has spent time at The Commons documenting and sharing the story of the surrounding community and families by archiving pictures and documents found in the area. SWF is excited to feature Angela this month because her relationships with SWF demonstrates another dimension of Sweet Water Foundation that is not always talked about.

Read on to learn more about Angela.

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Tell us about your background
I was born and raised on the South side of Chicago. My family transplanted here from Oklahoma in 1936 when my grandmother migrated to Chicago, specifically the Bronzeville community as part of the Great Migration. She came here to get a college education. She had my mother who had me - and we're still here. Bronzeville is a huge part of my life and I”m tied to the community. I was born in Chatham but spent every single holiday with my family in Bronzeville. Six years ago, I moved into the property that my grandmother owned. 

I had a wonderful childhood. We were very much a textbook middle class family. Both of my parents were teachers. The first Mayor Daley, decided that the Black people need more teachers. My parents graduated from Chicago Teachers College at the same time. They graduated on a Thursday and started teaching the following Monday. 

We were the second black family on the block and there was this White flight. I grew up in a completely Black neighborhood with Black ownership. I’m still friends with many of the people I went to kindergarten with - and I’m 55. We are all tied to the community in one way or another. My sister owns the house I grew up in, and I own my grandmother's building.

I've been an entrepreneur for 25 years and I have also been a Real Estate Property Manager for 25 years. As a property manager, I used to manage Chicago Public Schools. In the 90s, there was this aggressive move to privatize a lot of the Chicago Public Schools services. It’s interesting because with my parents, and my grandmother, and most of my aunts being teachers, I grew up in a Chicago Public School system that was run by the city. And then I became part of the privatization of it. 

My mother was Chair of the Math Department at Hirsch High School. She was one of those Hidden Figures that taught herself Fortran and then taught it in the high schools. She insisted that all of her descendants be good in math.  Her daughters and grandchildren all met the challenge.

Family, tradition, and honoring the wishes of our ancestors is a very big deal in my family.  Each generation added to the expectation of our bloodline for (now) six generations. My goal was for my son to live in more places and speak more languages.  He’s lived in 4 countries and speaks 4 languages. We are on a roll!

What do you do now?
I am the Executive Director of two nonprofits. 

The first is called TAG Foundation. When I moved back into Bronzeville, I formed this local nonprofit to address needs in the community I felt weren’t addressed by others.  

The second nonprofit is The Obsidian Collection Archives.  Long story short, we are digitizing Black Legacy Press and Black Community Archives and making them available online.  We have to digitize Black History and make it available to the world!

How did you find Sweet Water Foundation? 
I came upon Jia Lok Pratt, Chief Operating Officer of Sweet Water Foundation, during a meeting at a philanthropic organization I attended downtown. I was feeling frustrated with the City of Chicago at that time because of their approach to the Black community. They don’t acknowledge how rich and great the history of the black community is. They push these dreadful narratives that we don’t have the sense to live and thrive in our own communities. Jia told me I should stop by the farm. I was surprised because I wasn’t very warm at the meetings and I didn’t believe there was a farm on the South Side of Chicago.  I did stop by because Jia was so nice and I couldn’t say no… and the rest was history!

I was surprised when I first saw the farm. I can hear, my ancestors laughing like, “I know, right?” My great grandmother lived to be 100. When she was 90, she moved up to Chicago. I spent a lot of time with her. One time, I told her, “Wow, you must be thrilled to have lived so long and all of your great-grandchildren have graduated college.” She said, “Hmmm. You've given up your humanity for this fake sense of accomplishment - you don't know how to grow your own food, you don't can food, you don’t build. You're more dependent on the system than we ever were - you're in a much more dangerous position.” And she was born a sharecropper. She said, “At least when they were trying to oppress us, they could not take our food and shelter because we were growing it and we built it our own homes. But if they decided to close the grocery store for three weeks, you all would be dead in the streets!” When I told her I was going to live into my 90s like her, she also said, “You don’t get to be in your 90’s by yourself - you need a community. You throw food away while your next door neighbor starves to death. I’ve never seen anything like this.”  

I searched for that community she talked about. And when I stepped onto The Commons, it was like, “Oh my gosh, she would be so thrilled that this exists.” Sweet Water is exactly what she was talking about. I spent a lot of time with her, so I have an idea of what it was like to have that community in 1900 and 1910. What I see on that farm, is there is no judgment or the arrogance of superiority. The Commons reminds me of the equality that the black community used to have. 

What is your role at Sweet Water Foundation?
My role shows one of the other dimensions of Sweet Water Foundation that’s not always talked about. I’m scanning the historic images and documents found at the house being renovated by the Sweet Water team.  I also help garden (a teeny-tiny bit) and I adore working the main registration table of public events. Greeting all of the people coming to farm is a real joy. Plus, I’ve got jokes.

Something I love about Sweet Water it is that I was able to come and be a part of something without having to add value by some arbitrary metrics.  Chicago is very much a “who sent you” kind of town. All too often the joy and soul of a project is stripped of its humanity with the amount of forms, interviews, and processes from those outside of the community.  I have a lot of skills. At The Commons, I get to “get in where I fit in.” I really appreciate getting a chance to tap into all of the experiences and just help a really important vision grow. It is a community that truly believes in the community.

Can you tell us why history is important to you?
I’m very tied to my own ancestors. I've got a picture of my family circa 1916. We are regal - like the Royals!  There were very specific rules handed down in my family. Each generation was expected to perform specific acts. We have a strong oral and written family history.  For that reason, I know a great deal about historic Bronzeville.  

I’m working on a project about Historic Bronzeville.  This community was formed due to the Restrictive Covenant laws from 1916 to 1948 that required all Black people to live in this neighborhood by law in Chicago.  During that time, through to the 1970’s we had over 1,000 Black businesses, three Black hospitals, and six Black newspapers. Then mainstream Chicago came to “help.”  The more “help” we receive the less access we have to our own TIF dollars and the less development deals we supervise. The only thing we have more of is outside supervision, condescending advice, and gentrification.  I want young Black people to know how great this community was even with restrictions and even without “help.”  

I want young Black people to know they do not have to surrender to this narrative that their elders didn’t accomplish anything.  Black Chicago elevated Jazz, Blues, Doo Wop, Rap, and actually created House Music. Our contribution to the best of Chicago is tremendous.  They need to know that. I’m very frustrated with the mismanagement of Black history in Chicago. But I’m doing my part to reverse this false narrative and sharing the findings at The Commons is a part of that journey.

Angela Ford’s Family (circa 1916)

Angela Ford’s Family (circa 1916)

What has been your favorite moment at Sweet Water Foundation so far? 
My favorite moment was the night with Danny Glover. It wasn't the celebrity of it as much as it was a benchmark because he came to Sweet Water right after testifying to Congress about reparations. It’s so symbolic. And, it's important that a guy who has been on a global stage for decades thought that Sweet Water was the place to be after such an awesome and historic testimony. 

I enjoyed being there for that fellowship and hearing all of that intellectual conversation. My ancestors would have been pleased with that. I could have taken it back to my family and shared the experience of what he said and they would have added their own experiences. So that's what is so rich in my family culture. We used to sit around and talk. I know all the characters in my family and what they would have said and why. 

If you could describe Sweet Water Foundation in one word, what would it be?
Real Community - I really feel that. I would like to add that I was drawn to Emmanuel and Jia’s vision and approach. It is not only comprehensive, but it is also where intellectualism meets an organic true life experience, which is rare.

There are some people who can articulate an ideal community but can't live it. There are also people who can live it but can't articulate it. At Sweet Water, there are folks from the neighborhood and also folks from MIT living on the grounds and contributing.   I celebrate that they’re able to do that. It's a great skill and it's important. 

I’m glad to support The Commons in any way I can.  Thanks to my ancestors, I can cook, I make soap, I can build a little bit.  I can garden a little bit. I can respond to requests for proposals. I can speak on behalf of the farm.  I can digitize and share the archival history. And I’ve got jokes.

Courtney Hug