On Feb. 16, residents from Austin and Oak Park joined forces to decry the recent spate of violent crimes that have taken place in those communities, and to show that the neighboring areas are united in tackling the violence.

The event, which took place at the intersection of Chicago Ave. and Taylor St. in Oak Park, was organized by Oak Park residents Christina Waters and Deno Andrews, as well as Suburban Unity Alliance founder Anthony Clark and Sharita Galloway, the mother of Elijah Sims, an Oak Park and River Forest High School senior who was murdered in Austin last year.

“Tonight, we’re trying to send a message that we not only care about our community in Oak Park, but about the community in Austin, because we are neighbors,” Clark said. “We want to build business relationships, we want to building personal relationships.”

There were many Austin residents among the crowd of about 60 people, including members of the Jehovah Jireh #1 Outreach Ministry’s Stop the Violence initiative, who wore their trademark red jackets.

“I lost my son to gun violence,” said the organization’s founder, Goerge Bady, Jr. “I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through.”

As the marchers made their way inside New Life Ministries, Clark invited everyone to speak honestly about their experiences and feelings, and try to offer concrete solutions.

“We need to come together to find out something we can do with both communities,” said Galloway. “Because [the danger] is real, and I’m a living example of that.”

Youth advocate Iesha Oliver-Hollins, of Austin, said that she has seen violence up close and personal.

“[When I was] coming home from work, they killed a guy standing next to me,” she said. “They shot a boy in the head like I wasn’t there.”

Oliver-Hollins said that she has been trying to help young men be productive and stay out of gangs, but it has been a struggle. A big reason for that, she said, is the lack of funding for non-profit organizations that could provide better alternatives for youth.

 “[The youth] want to stay out of trouble, but how can we continue to provide support?” she said.

In response, Clark said that it was important to support efforts like the ones put on by Oliver-Hollins.

“There’s a narrative that exists that no one in Austin cares,” he said. “They’re fighting. When they’re yelling and screaming for change, we can yell with them. When they see people that don’t look like stereotypical Austin [residents], it matters.”

Derrick Green, a Stop the Violence coordinator, echoed Oliver-Hollins’ call for support. He also argued that ignoring the problems in Austin won’t help Oak Park.

“If you close your eyes to the problems in Austin today, you’ll be dealing with them tomorrow,” Green said.

Sydney Jackson, a senior at OPRF, founded Roses 4 Austin, an organization that looks to help kids in Austin and other West Side neighborhoods through volunteer work. She said that resources to help Austin may be relatively scarce but they exist.

“There is a lot of money in Oak Park,” she said. “I had a lot of money to use for what I was doing.”

Jackson also said that she believes that her generation want to help – they just need to be encouraged.

As the event wrapped up, Oliver-Hollins said that she didn’t want anybody to walk away with an impression that nobody in Oak Park wants to reach out across Austin Boulevard. She runs the Teens 2 Queens dance ensemble, which practices at Austin Town Hall park fieldhouse.

Oliver-Hollins said she was surprised and impressed that there were girls at OPRF who not only joined, but have stuck with it, making the trip to Austin four days a week.

“[Younger generations] have more of an open mind than I realized,” she said. “They want to come together.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...