When Quran Whatley walks into work in the morning, he sees a space he helped create with his own hands.
The 25-year-old graduated in 2018 from the previous version of Build it Green, the sustainable leadership and workforce development program run by green|spaces, and now serves as a leader in the relaunch in its new space on Glass Street.
After losing funding for the program at the beginning of COVID, green|spaces and Build Me a World redesigned the program to work with the AmeriCorps Opportunity Youth Service Initiative. Team members receive a living stipend as they learn sustainable building practices and skills and then put those skills to work improving homes and neighborhoods.
But, they needed a space where they could provide that hands-on training and found it on Glass Street.
Thanks to Glass House Collective’s knowledge of a local landlord who had an available space that needed repairs, the BIG team saw an opportunity not only to have a hands-on project but also a location where the members could serve as a resource for the surrounding community. From sink installation to larger interior construction projects, team members have been hard at work bringing their vision for the space to life.
Part of that community service involves a partnership with Glass House Collective, where the members work with neighborhood residents to make improvements, like the recent public street mural completed outside the Glass Street Gateway Save-a-lot.
While construction work like insulation and repairs to reduce high energy burdens and improve energy efficiency requires a lot of technical skill, it also can take a lot of creative community problem solving, Whatley said.
And, the Tyner graduate and budding photographer added, developing those skills through the BIG program have sparked the pieces that interest him most in a career.
When he isn’t using his artistic eye for construction and team building purposes — after all, he said, building an A frame requires the same understanding of space as capturing a well-balanced photo does — he’s outside getting to know neighbors individually, and offering up helpful solutions where he can.
“It saddens me to know that people in my city, especially people who have less control of their circumstances, know very little about the social, economic and environmental injustices they face,” Mr. Whatley said. “Those are illusive monsters this program is trying to tackle.”
In tandem, Mr. Whatley’s co-team leader, Dexter Talley, focuses on projects like decreasing air leakage in area homes by up to 50 percent, as well as homeowner outreach and education. (Both team leaders will graduate from their roles this fall, while three other members completed their shorter work terms this month.)
For graduating BIG team member Marlon Lykes, that passion for helping others combined with exceptional woodworking skills translated into raised bed gardens, repaired mailboxes and other beautification projects for community members. Now, he’s using his carpentry skills to work with multiple contractors that are repairing homes that were damaged during the 2020 Easter tornado in East Brainerd.
Mr. Lykes, along with LeBron Nash and Edward Whitlock, are the first graduates to complete the program since the move. Each also received a scholarship at the end of their service for continuing education.
Through his time in the program, Mr. Whitlock discovered his passion for environmentalism. Invasive species removal and other community land work became his specialty, and he and Mr. Nash now work at Hiwassee Building Supply, where his work helps reduce construction waste to a fraction of what exists at a typical job site.
“Our goal isn’t just sustainable building skills,” said BIG program Co-Director Christian Shackelford. “It’s about providing the necessary tools to build sustainable and resilient lives and communities.”
And building resilient communities is also a passion of Build It Green’s business neighbor: Jacquelyn Allgood-White, owner of All-Good Coffee Shop and Used Bookstore.
Ms. Allgood-White took over the family business her grandmother started in 2019 in the midst of COVID-19. While the decision was an unexpected one, she said a deep desire to give back to the community that raised her fuels every move she makes (both business and personal).
“Having a coffee shop in any neighborhood is special, but especially in a community like ours that is not affluent and is often overlooked, having comfortable public spaces for people to go is so important," she said. “I’m from this community. And I have happy memories here. That’s why I love the work the Build It Green team does. What people need isn’t always glamorous. But having resources available to solve those personal problems for people in a community? That’s huge.”
Ms. Allgood-White said she knows all too well what many think of the East Chattanooga area, viewing it as a place of need.
"Sometimes I just ask people ‘If it's so bad, what are you going to do to make it better? … What is your endgame other than criticism?’” she said of her encounters with Chattanoogans who are dismissive of her childhood home and neighborhood.
As Build It Green works to fill the open team member spots and celebrate its three new graduates, Ms. Allgood-White is also looking forward from next door, celebrating the team members she’s gotten to know and providing space for connection and community conversation.
“The work they do is so much bigger than weatherizing homes and community curb improvements,” Ms. Allgood-White said. “It’s investing in them but focused on investing in the people in them. And I’m excited to watch that grow for us all.”
“A very easy way to talk about community development is believing in people and giving them the tools they can need to make a lasting difference,” agreed Program Co-Director Chris Woodhull. “Each step we take brings us one step closer to achieving that goal.”
For more information about Build it Green and how to support green|spaces’ programs, visit: