Losing someone close to me has a way of making me reflect on how I got to where I am. And I’m never sure that I am who I am because I was born this way or because so many people touched my life and changed me. I suppose it’s a little of both.
When I moved to the Austin neighborhood almost 20 years ago, I didn’t have any plans on being a community activist or a newspaper columnist. I was young and scared. I had almost completely destroyed my life through addiction. I needed to start over and understand recovery. I found the perfect place on the West Side of Chicago at Sisterhouse. While living at Sisterhouse, I learned how to stay clean, and I learned how to help others recover from addiction. I became the co-director of Sisterhouse and created a program of recovery from substance abuse for women.
Other than working at Sisterhouse, I pretty much kept to myself. I could hear the gun shots outside. I could see the utter despair in the eyes of some of the folks who stood on the corners. This was in the late 1980s. The country was in the middle of a major drug epidemic”crack”and the West Side was under siege at this time.
I was introduced to Northwest Austin Council (NAC) during a meeting at the 15th District police station. Carolyn Taylor was the NAC housing director, and she was working on the proliferation of recovery homes in the Austin area. At that time, HUD properties were being turned over to local non-profit groups. Most were dilapidated houses with people trying to clean themselves up. Yet these recovery homes did little more than take advantage of the addicts. To stay in the house, individuals were charged as much as $400 a month to live in conditions that were more suitable for rodents. This situation also became a breeding ground for crime and other activities.
As I got more involved in what was needed to monitor recovery homes, I met Leola Spann. I don’t have a clear memory of the day I met her, but I remember her being at the basement office of NAC when it was on Monitor. If Ms. Spann had something to say, she said it. Even when I disagreed with her, she had a way of making me feel like she had made the best decision possible. You really couldn’t argue with her.
As I started to become more involved at NAC, I learned a lot more about Austin and the work that was going on to change the community. During this time, NAC was in the middle of getting the Department of Justice to designate the Austin area as a Weed and Seed site. It was the first time a community group had gotten that designation for a community.
Ms. Spann led the monumental organizing effort that included local groups, the chief judge for Cook County, the mayor, and other politicians. Her work to change Austin didn’t stop there. She believed in helping youth and getting treatment for those who were addicted.
Ms. Spann’s accomplishments are too numerous to list here, but she has left us a tremendous legacy to build upon. I hope that the Austin library organizes a collection of her papers so that her work and accomplishments are not lost or forgotten.
What I remember most about Ms. Spann was her wit and her courage. She never backed down from something she felt was the right thing to do. If we ever had a true superhero, it was Leola Spann. She was an honest-to-goodness, real live crimefighter.
Ms. Spann died last week, and I will miss her. She was my mentor, my mother and a friend. I relied a great deal on her counsel and wise words. She will forever remain in my heart, and I promise to speak of her often so that I will not forget what she gave me. I hope that others who were touched by the way Ms. Spann lived will do the same.