Education topped a nearly two-hour community dialogue Tuesday night (Oct. 2) as Urban Circle Ministries’ new executive director sought input to better address residents’ needs.

Dr. George Wilson, Circle’s newly-minted leader since July, had been the Austin-based nonprofit’s chief operating officer before moving up.

“I know for 38 years, we have been relevant so we want to continue to be relevant,” said Wilson, who succeeds Circle’s founder and executive director Glen Kehrein, who died in November 2011 of cancer. The top job had been vacant since then.

“We want to continue to extend our reach to the community and make sure our programs here at Circle speak to the needs of the community,” Wilson said.

Tuesday evening’s community dialogue was sparsely attended. But improving education for Austin’s youth weighed heavily on the minds of those who came. The idea of creating more charter schools, however, did not garner much support when that topic was broached.

According to Ald. Deborah Graham (29th), who spoke at the meeting, the consensus among residents is to not divert money from the public school system to create other types of schools.

“The belief is we need to fix Chicago Public Schools,” she said. “Folks would like to see CPS repaired so that we don’t create another generation of children who are not educated.”

Austin resident Gloria Hudson insisted that improving schools starts with more parental involvement. Hudson, who is active at her son’s school, argued that some CPS parents rarely attend meetings, volunteer at or visit the schools.

“If all the parents do that I think we would be a better community and have better education,” she said.

John Green, also an Austin resident, wants to see mental health services in the school, as well as a black history curriculum. “We got to have some tangible alternatives for our children, because our children are broken, hurting and sick,” he said.

The meeting also touched on violence and drug sales. Wilson said he was aggrieved by a Crain’s Chicago Business article that labeled Austin’s the deadliest community in Chicago. The city has seen an up-tick in murders with 391 homicides even though overall crime is down. Wilson said violence is a sickness occurring throughout the nation. The Aurora, Col. shooting – where James Holmes allegedly opened fire in a movie theater in July, killing 12 people and wounding 58 – is a prime example, Wilson said.

The entire city of Chicago, he insists, is in a state of emergency, not just Austin.
Circle’s executive director contends it’s up to churches, faith-based organizations, or community groups “to do what we must do to eradicate and change some of the behavior in the community.”

Residents at Tuesday’s meeting wanted to see more safe spaces for youth. Others insisted that more black men step up to mentor wayward teens. A request went out to restore resources for churches to address domestic violence when shelters are overwhelmed. There also was a call for more police patrols in areas with high drug activity.

Graham said that request is a two-way street. The intersection of Adams and Laramie had a real bad drug problem, Graham noted, until residents fought back and occupied that corner.

“The police cannot sit on your corner all day long. It has to be some community engagement,” Graham said. “We have to get out there and take our streets back. As a community we have to work together. (The police) are there to protect and serve, but I wouldn’t sit there if you weren’t with me either.”

Graham, though, urged for empathy for some of these young men. She knows some people are making bad decisions, but “some of them feel like they are doing it to put food on their table.

“They’re doing it for the right reasons but with the wrong resources,” she added. “We have to start by changing the way we address who these guys are.”

For next steps, Wilson said the suggestions from the meeting will be culled together to formulate action plans, adding, “This has been a good start.”

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