Omar Kamran, Justin Clemons, and shop dog Toph in front of Clemons’s magnolia blossom mural. Credit: Jamie Ramsay

A
large, stylized tricolored painting of a magnolia blossom extends across
the interior front wall of Magnolia Screen Printing, a year-old business
located in the heart of Chicago Lawn’s 63rd Street corridor. The mural,
painted by artist Justin Clemons, spells out the flower’s Nahuatl name,
“yoloxochitl,” which translates to “flower of the heart.” To Clemons and
his business partner, Omar Kamran, the magnolia symbolizes the beauty and
resilience they’ve found in Chicago Lawn.

Neither Clemons nor Kamran had previous experience working with screen
printing when they opened Magnolia a year ago. Despite this, both knew they
wanted to start a business that would provide sustainable jobs for young
people in Chicago Lawn while also giving them the knowledge and practical
skills that could be applied to future jobs.

“The reality is there are a lot of young people that need job
opportunities,” says Kamran. “The more contracts we bring in, the more
orders we are able to fulfil, the more part-time jobs we are able to create
for the community. There are a lot of young people that need this
opportunity. Our goal is to be that really good first job that young people
can have.”

Kamran, 30, was born in Rogers Park and grew up in Mount Prospect but has
worked with various nonprofits in Chicago Lawn for nearly a decade; he
moved to the neighborhood four years ago. Clemons, 25, grew up in Chicago
Lawn and now works at the same After School Matters program where he
learned to paint as a teenager. Working closely with young people on the
south side has shown Clemons and Kamran the dismal reality of employment
opportunities for young people in the area, who typically commute downtown
or to the south suburbs to find jobs. Close by, work is limited to
fast-food chains, most commonly McDonald’s or Little Caesars.

Kamran at workCredit: Jamie Ramsay

Just beyond the storefront space and its inviting mural lies the print
shop, a windowless room with enough equipment that workers can use up to
eight different screens at a time. This is the domain of 18-year-old CJ
Ferguson, a senior at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences in
Mount Greenwood. Before starting at Magnolia two months ago, Ferguson
worked at a nearby Little Caesars. He wasn’t thrilled with his boss or the
conditions at the restaurant; just before he quit, he’d injured his arm
while washing dishes. Ferguson was excited to be offered a job at Magnolia,
especially knowing he would be working with Clemons and Kamran.

“I feel like I got lucky-or blessed, I would say-to be where I am and doing
something that I wouldn’t mind doing,” says Ferguson. “Working with [Justin
and Omar] doesn’t feel like work.”

“Sometimes I wish it would feel like work,” jokes Clemons.

Clemons, Kamran, and Ferguson all met at nearby Morrill Elementary five
years ago. Ferguson was in seventh grade. Clemons and Kamran were working
with Teen Reach, a statewide mentorship initiative that Kamran’s wife,
Andrea Ortez, had brought to the school in 2010. Clemons and Kamran wanted
to open Magnolia Screen Printing in the neighborhood so they could build on
the relationships they have built with young people like Ferguson.

“Omar and Justin care about the work that is being done and how it is being
done, but they also care about how my day is going outside of work,” says
Ferguson. “I feel like [at Magnolia] they not only want me to be good
inside the space but outside as well. For me that means a lot, knowing
these people care about what I am doing outside of school. A lot of people
just won’t ask you about that.”

Currently Ferguson is Magnolia’s only employee. Although Kamran and Clemons
are eager to provide more jobs for other young people in the community,
they first want to focus on making the business sustainable before they
increase their staff.

“We wanted to offer young people something that wasn’t bound to a grant or
a foundation, but something that was financially independent and we could
set the parameters with how we engage with young people,” says Kamran.

The shop’s name may not be unique, something both founders understood when
they named it. But the symbol of the magnolia represents their own desire
to cultivate something dynamic and long-lasting in the neighborhood.

“It is an honor to be a part of Chicago Lawn, and we hope to bring more
positive attention to the neighborhood,” says Kamran. “Unfortunately, when
you think of the south side of Chicago, you think of Hyde Park, Englewood,
or Midway Airport. Chicago Lawn is often overlooked or unheard of. We want
Chicago Lawn to be known for the strength and courage of its young people.
We want Magnolia Screen Printing to be a reflection of that strength and
courage.”   v