Austin residents got a chance to have their say on what ideas will become part of Austin’s very first Quality of Life Plan during a Dec. 16 community summit held at Michele Clark High School, 5101 W Harrison St. 

Austin Coming Together launched the planning process back in July with the support of Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago (LISC), a national community development nonprofit.

The idea is to create a plan for improving Austin based on ideas that come from residents, businesses, community organizations and other stakeholders. Since its formation, seven working groups have been established to build on ideas as part of the planning process. 

The Dec. 16 meeting was the second summit in the planning phase. A third, and final, summit is expected to take place sometime in May 2018. A finalized plan is expected to be complete by July 2018. 

Austin Coming Together, a coalition of many Austin and west suburban businesses, congregations and community organizations (including this newspaper), formed a steering committee earlier this year to lay the groundwork for the planning process.  

The second summit built on ideas that were generated during the first one in July, where attendees reached a consensus to push forward seven broad ideas, including the creation of a youth empowerment and inclusion plan, the development of homeownership initiatives, and plans to strengthen community collaboration, education and economic security, among other initiatives. 

“Again, this plan is for us, by us,” said Darnell Shields, ACT’s executive director. “And as you can see from representations of everyone who stood, we’re all involved in this process.”

At the second summit, Dwayne Truss, an education activist who represented the education working group, said that his group wanted to devise initiatives that will improve opportunities for students and parents alike.

“The increased parent involvement will lead to increased student achievement,” he said. “We want our schools to become places for parents, [where] they would be able to go to and have access to services they need.”

Danielle Dixon, with the youth working group, said that her group wanted to see kids and teens get the help and support they need. 

“[We want to] increase physical, emotional and mental well-being of the youth,” she said. “To have wraparound services for the youth and their families in schools and in the community. [In] Austin, as a whole, we deal with a lot of youth that have trauma attached to them.”

Dixon also stressed initiatives that would work to improve the self-image of young people through social and cultural events and programs. 

“We want to inform them that they’re valued as African-Americans in this world,” Dixon said, adding that stakeholders also wanted to devise a plan to encourage youth entrepreneurship and to give young people more opportunities to learn Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) skills.

Bradly Johnson, director of community engagement and strategic partnerships at Broader Urban Involvement & Leadership Development (BUILD) Chicago, said that the housing working group wants to see Austin residents of all income levels, including senior citizens and youths, have housing options. 

Vanessa Stokes, an ACT volunteer and head of the Austin Food Co-op, said that the economic development working group wanted to see improvements to major roads in Austin, in addition to more educational opportunities leading to good-paying jobs in the modern economy. She added that encouraging more business development, particularly grocery stores, should be a priority.

The civic engagement working group wanted to encourage more local residents to run for office and to participate in the local political process. 

Briana Shields, a graphic designer for ACT and Darnell Shields’ daughter, said that she wants more investments to be made in local artists and cultural institutions. 

Participants were asked to vote on some specific action items. Some of those items that generated some consensus included the implementation of a program that would train teachers on how to deal with trauma in students, among other skills. Another specific action was the possibility of turning the Laramie Bank building into a community and art center. 

June Williams, of Austin, said that she’s been fairly involved with the community and the quality of life planning process. She said she was pleased with how the summit went.

“I believe that if we continue to follow through on the [ideas attendees voted for], it will work out well,” Williams said. “If we really do the priority items, then that will show progress and people will continue to be involved.”


Igor Studenkov

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...