Austin Coming Together held the first of the three planned community summits to find out what the community residents, business owners and community activists want in the Austin Quality of Life Plan.
The planning process is spearheaded by Austin Coming Together, with Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Chicago providing funding and support. The idea is to create a plan based on what residents want to see in Austin and that various community stakeholders can work together to carry out. 
During the July 29 community summit, the ideas were split into categories based on subject area. Over the next few months, teams of volunteers will work to figure out how those ideas can be implemented. That work, in turn, will form the basis of the Austin Quality of Life plan. 
Austin Coming Together is a coalition of a large number of Austin and west suburban businesses, congregations and community organizations—including this newspaper. While the plan was the first for ACT, LISC Chicago helped develop several quality-of-life plans throughout the city, including one for the South Chicago neighborhood, and a Chicago Southwest plan for Marquette Park and the surrounding neighborhoods.
The community summit was held at By The Hand Club for Kids, 415 N Laramie. By the Hand is a member of ACT. Darnell Shields, ACT’s executive director, said at the start of the summit that the quality of life plan was an outgrowth of the Thrive 2025 strategy, which called for encouraging living wage jobs, improving the quality of early childhood education, improving safety and stabilizing the Austin housing market. 
“In order to achieve these important goals by 2025, we need to facilitate [community collaboration],” he said.
Earlier this year, ACT formed a steering committee to lay the groundwork for the planning process, including the July 29 summit. According to a statement released by the coalition, the steering committee was made up of 20 community stakeholders, but it wanted to cast a much wider net in order to get a better understanding of what the community wants.
Attendees were randomly assigned to tables and people at each table was asked to brainstorm five things they wanted to improve in Austin. 
This reporter sat at the table that also included Janice Henry, the community health coordinator for Loretto Hospital, Luriel Ocampo, a community organizer for Noble charter school network, and Anthony Clerk, the executive director of the Suburban Unity Alliance. Clark recently announced that he is challenging U.S. Representative Danny David (D-7th) in the 2018 Democratic Primary. Butch Campbell, a promoter for the Coalition of Peace Makers, was a facilitator. 
The lack of quality grocery stores in Austin quickly emerged as a major issue.
“I’m at Pete’s [Fresh Market in Oak Park] just about every day,” Henry said. “When I first moved here, we had a High Low [Grocery Store], we had a Jewel, we had a National.”
The options that do exist aren’t good enough, she argued.
“Leamington [Austin location] is okay, but it’s something about how you walk through the door and smell stuff that makes you not want to shop there,” she said.
As far as Clark was concerned, that was part of a larger issue. “Businesses that are here, they don’t respect the community,” he said. 
Henry also complained that development projects often take place with little say from the community. Henry referenced the plan to redevelop the shuttered Emmet Elementary School as an example. 
Clark called for greater community collaboration.
“[Community organizations need to collaborate and pull their money together,” he said. “Right now, you have competing organizations competing for one grant. This doesn’t benefit the community.”
In the end, the group agreed to submit two suggestions. One was to do a community needs assessment and the other was to create local opportunities for jobs and education.
All of the suggestions from the groups were placed on a wall and then sorted out based on topics. Ideas under “Planning and Organizing” included increasing civic engagement, collaborating with local politicians and civic leaders to enhance community programs, creating monthly community events, beautifying the community, holding elected officials accountable for the community’s economic conditions, and creating a “community agreement package” that would give residents more say over what sort of businesses can come into the community and how they can conduct themselves.
Ideas under the “Education” category included creating financial literacy and job training programs, more innovation in education to fit the needs of 21st century job markets, more after school activities and launching healthy food initiatives. 
Ideas under the “Economic Revitalization” included investing in “viable” businesses, revitalizing small businesses, encouraging more black-owned businesses, investing in youth and infrastructure, and creating living wage jobs, including jobs in trades.
Ideas under “Narrative Change” included figuring out ways to market Austin’s positive aspects, collaborating with neighboring communities, making property owners more accountable for what’s going on in their buildings, adding arts, culture and sports amenities, and creating an Austin Facebook group to help highlight community events and resources.
Illinois state Rep. Camille Lilly (78th), a West Side resident, said that she was encouraged by how many people got involved.
“I like the support it received from us, but most of all from residents young and seasoned, all working together,” she said. “And all of the little stickers representing people who want to give involved. That’s empowering.”

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...