There are some 10,000 youths in Austin between the ages of 20 and 24 who are unemployed and out of school, said Quiwana Bell, the COO of the Austin nonprofit Westside Health Authority, during one morning earlier this month.
Last month, the WHA launched its Good Neighbor campaign with an Oct. 25 press conference. The campaign, Bell said, has a goal of employing at least 1,000 of those young adults in Austin who need work — in both the formal and informal economy.
Oak Park homeowner Tim Smyth attended that press conference. He left it something of a pioneer in a local, homegrown experiment he and WHA hopes will grow to scale.
“My wife met a representative from [the community development nonprofit] Austin Coming Together, so I got on their mailing list, which is how I heard about [the press conference],” said Smyth. “Quiwana was saying that if we had any connections to employment, even if its simple handiwork around the house, let her know. It occurred to me that I don’t have to overthink this.”
Smyth said the previous owners of his home planted so many gardens that they were hard for him to maintain by himself. So, he hired a landscaper from Berwyn.
“They charged me $150 and that was the number that stuck out in my head,” he said. “It doesn’t require a whole lot of expertise; just time.”
Bell sat in Smyth’s living room earlier this month with Brianna Mullen, 21, and LaFrance Lucas, 19, two young people that Smyth paid $75 each to rake and bag leaves and spruce up, in other ways, that backyard for a few hours. Jillona Flowers, a graduate of Southern Illinois University and a youth job developer with WHA, also chipped in.
This isn’t charity, Smyth said, just a simple act of mutuality so basic and rare, that its cutting edge. The Oak Park resident, who is active in numerous social justice organizations, said that some time ago he realized that he doesn’t have to go far to do well.
“You have to get small,” Smyth. “I live two blocks away from Rob Breymaier [the executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center] and [at an event for the organization], he said, ‘We’re going to stop calling it Oak Park and Austin; instead, we’re going to call it the Greater West Side. We want to make Austin Boulevard invisible. There’s a lot of that in the air right now. It just makes sense.”
Bell said Smyth is the first person to open his home to WHA’s Good Neighbor youth employment initiative on either side of the boulevard. She hopes her nonprofit can be the conduit for facilitating more grassroots employment opportunities for young people who are desperate for work.
“People want to do something [about systemic issues like high youth unemployment rates], but they don’t know how or they’re afraid. They’re isolated,” Bell said.
“We had one neighbor who said that someone came to his door with an offer to rake leaves, but the homeowner had some fear and trepidation about opening the door. Had that man offering to rake leaves been connected to a trusted organization, or another neighbor, we would’ve been able to make that connection and help put him to work. That’s what we seek to do.”
Lucas said he’s all too familiar with that kind of rejection. The Austin resident said he’s searched for work for months, but in vain.
“Sometimes it can be an obstacle going into a workplace with dreads,” Lucas said. “That can be an obstacle in itself.”
Bell said that WHA, which operates a 15-week job readiness, skills development and placement program for youths, ages 16 to 24, has long sought to pair West Side young people with formal employers. That will continue, she said, but the Good Neighbor campaign is somewhat different.
“Our mission is to build capacity among ordinary citizens,” she said. “When we talk to people on the streets, they talk about needing to be connected. We can’t wait on government to save us. What we need is already here in our community. We just need to connect resources.”