Aleta Clark’s nickname is Englewood Barbie. “It was a joke at first,” says the longtime South Sider. “People started calling me that because they were like, ‘You’re from Englewood, you’re cute!’ So I just kept it.” Her bio on Instagram, where she goes by that handle to her 63,000 followers, declares: “I’m the flower growing through concrete.” Especially this year, in the throes of the pandemic, her commitment to her community has proved as deeply rooted and tenacious as a dandelion pushing between sidewalk squares.
In 2015, the mother of two founded the nonprofit Hugs No Slugs after double tragedies: the revenge-fueled gang execution of 9-year-old Tyshawn Lee and the death of her own mother from a heroin overdose. “It just fucked my head up,” she says of the child’s murder. “All anyone could say was how bad that was, but they never said what they were going to do about it.” Her solution: grassroots, relentless services on a shoestring “to change the narrative that earning respect comes from hurting people when it should come from helping people.”
Since then, Clark has provided meals for the hungry through Club 51 — a winter-long nightly breaking of bread for those who live under the viaduct at 51st and Wentworth — and educational and recreational programs for youth. In May, as the pandemic was devastating the city’s Black neighborhoods, Clark opened her first “safe house” at 6427 South Ashland Avenue in Englewood, where she gives out groceries every Monday and Friday to anyone who needs them. She distributes 240 bags’ worth weekly and prides herself on the quality of the food. “I buy them good stuff — macaroni, steak, salmon, rice, stuff I eat,” she says, because “you never know when you’re going to get your last meal. Life is so short.”
Her efforts this year went beyond COVID-19. In July, she partnered with Louis Vuitton artistic director and Chicago native Virgil Abloh, who had slid into her DMs and offered to help, and the clothing store Notre on a sneaker raffle that raised $187,000. She soon secured sites for five more safe houses across the South Side, including the fourth and latest, at 79th and Paulina: the Tyshawn Lee House.
Even with big-name support (Chance the Rapper helped her hand out food to Black Lives Matter protesters), Clark’s operation stays down to earth. “If you’re really serious and want to help,” she says, you can show up at any of the safe houses from noon to 2 on a Monday or Friday, “and I’ll find something for you to do.” And if you’re a volunteer who’s also in need? She’ll have a bag of groceries for you.