Chicago Ideas Week, the annual festival that celebrates thinkers and innovators, attracts over 300,000 attendees a year to its lineup of more than 200 events, according to its website. And for the first time, a trolley tour of Austin was included among the Week’s highlights.

Held last week, from Oct. 17 to Oct. 23, CIW featured conversations with personalities like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former New York City mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg and Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In Austin, CIW participants were allowed to get an on-the-ground perspective of the city’s largest community area.

The CIW Lab in Austin, entitled “The Austin Neighborhood You’ve Never Seen with United Way,” kicked-off at the Austin Coming Together (ACT) office and traveled from one end of the neighborhood to the other.

The tour’s stops included Channing’s Childcare Academy, the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago’s office, Austin Polytechnical Academy High School, and the home garden of Dollie Sherman, an ACT member and Austin resident.

ACT Executive Director Darnell Shields, who narrated the tour, said it was facilitated through a partnership between United Way Chicago and the Neighborhood Network Imitative (NNI), with the aim of educating visitors about the Austin community.

“The goal was to give people a different perspective on what they heard about Austin that may be negative in nature to show them that there are positive things happening in the community,” said Shields. “While there are many issues, there are ways we can address them.”

Shields said tour stops were selected from NNI members based on availability and leadership in a specific area. He wanted visitors of Austin leaving the community with a sense of hope and opportunity for the community moving forward.

“This could provide people the opportunity to learn more about Austin, learn more about the work we’re doing, but then learn how to support the efforts that are being put forth,” said Shields.

United Way Chicago Senior Director for Community Impact Mandee Polinsky said her organization decided to use its partnership with CIW to showcase the work its partners are accomplishing throughout Chicago and Austin to help residents.

“We support the Neighborhood Network Initiative,” said Polinksy. “Austin Coming Together was in our second cohort so we chose them as a great example of a community organization bringing out the whole community.”  

Austin resident Janart Winfrey volunteered to be a tour guide and ambassador for Chicago Ideas Week. He began volunteering with Chicago Ideas Week last year.

“This really means a lot to me,” Winfrey said. “This is one of the ways that I’m giving back to shine a bright light to show not everyone that comes from Austin is a gangbanger or drug-dealer. There are plenty of intelligent people who come from this beautiful community.”

The trolley car accommodated roughly 30 diverse riders, including Austin native Natialie Johnson, a program manager for the nonprofit Horizons for Youth.

Johnson said the tour was “an awesome idea” and suggested that, for next year’s Chicago Ideas Week, young people should be included to participate in initiatives like a non-violence event featuring their perspectives on community change.

“Austin is near and dear to my heart,” said Johnson.