Compared to the rest of Chicago, Austin is a young neighborhood. “Austin has more young people than any other community area, and people under the age of 25 make up the largest percentage of Austin residents,” according to the Austin Quality of Life Plan released by local groups at the end of 2018. In dozens of conversations with residents, the lack of spaces for young people to spend time, develop skills and get paid for work was a top concern for the upcoming election. 

“There’s not a lot for kids to do,” said North Austin Library branch manager Arystine Danner, adding that Austin residents often travel outside their community for programming, job opportunities and leisure. “There’s one skating rink, that I know of… Is there a bowling alley around here? No, you’ve got to go all the way to River Road [in the suburbs]. You know, they don’t have anything for the kids to do. And the parks are not safe.” 

Youth minister Lakendra Cannon, 29, brought up that people are leaving Austin because of the depleted opportunities for young residents. 

“They feel like their children aren’t getting best possible education. Or they don’t have enough funding or supplies,” she said.

Briana Shields, 26, from Free Spirit Media, a program for young adults based in North Lawndale, stressed the importance of investing in opportunities for young Austin residents. 

Shields said, “[Youth community spaces] really contribute to just having a positive lifestyle or having more positive experiences… If we don’t have the resources or any established places to have positive experiences…there is a ripple effect of that.”

At the Westside Health Authority on Division, a program called Young Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow is trying to build more of those positive experiences. Y.E.T. is a collective of seven young residents who launched a retail co-op to promote Austin businesses, empower the community and reduce crime. 

Y.E.T. and other programs like it are often funded through private foundations and corporations, and elected officials can play an important role in attracting private investment. Austin residents said they want aldermen to build youth centers on vacant lots and Y.E.T. member Mikey Fresco, 22, mentioned the potential for opening programs at closed schools. 

“In the areas where the schools close, just revitalize them and turn them into after-school programs — incubators for projects for arts and for business, teaching kids how to be business owners,” he said.”[Then] we don’t have to worry about getting jobs because people are creating jobs.”

Youth programming was instrumental to Fresco’s own life. “I was homeless during high school. The only thing that was keeping me focused was my video production class…  it gave me a feeling that I belonged still to society,” he said.

Community organizer and photographer Vanessa Stokes, 45, said there are many artists in Austin and she suggested that public officials could invest in the youth, residents and economy by focusing on the arts. 

“The public officials can help. Cause if they have their [$1.3 million of aldermanic] menu money, they can devote some of that menu money to public art,” she said. “They should work closer with the chamber [of commerce] or other business districts… to help create people in the community that are building wealth.”


Candidate Responses

Mayoral Candidates 

Toni Preckwinkle: Touted the establishment of the Opportunity Works program, which created internships for young people in the suburbs, during her tenure as Cook County board president. “[Youths] are provided with wrap-around services to ensure they’re successful in the program.” 

Susana Mendoza: We should use “a racial equity lens, because some kids require a significant investment of resources in order to be on a better track.” Focus should be on “providing after-school mentorships and summer jobs.” 

Willie Wilson*: “I would stop plowing all that money into downtown, the Riverwalk and the tourist areas and redirect those [TIF] funds back into the blighted neighborhoods that they were intended for. This will also create new jobs and opportunities in those areas,” to the Sun-Times.  

Amara Enyia*: “We must expand funding for violence prevention enrichment programming through community-based and -driven youth employment, mentorship and reentry programming.”

La Shawn K. Ford: First address drug abuse amongst young people that causes violence. Provide spaces in our schools for students to become artists. Increase job opportunities on the West Side.

Gery Chico: Create the largest-ever expansion of technical educational opportunities for CPS students. Open new programs and new schools dedicated to technical and vocational training tracks that lead to apprenticeships, well-paying jobs and new opportunities.

Bill Daley: Work with groups like Breakthrough Urban Ministries and other on-the-ground organizations. City resources are limited, so we must get private sector involved. 

Paul Vallas: Keep schools open until 6 or 8 p.m. to serve as a secure environment for young adults. Create universal work-study program. 

28th Ward Candidates 

Miguel Bautista: Let students propose a project in their community through participatory budgeting so youth are civically and politically engaged. Look at state-level legislation to get schools to provide additional programs and to make both parks and schools serve better as community centers. 

Jason Ervin: Quality youth programs do exist in the neighborhood, but “everything is not necessarily at your doorstep.” Residents should check out the Park District. 

Jasmine Jackson: “What I would like to see is more programs available and more options available in different neighborhoods. Even schools that we closed down can be repurposed into community centers. You can never have more than enough of those.”

Beverly Miles: Repurpose closed schools for youth programming and focus on the arts. Money from police academy can go to repurposing closed schools instead. 

Justina Winfrey: Bring in more youth programming associated with sports, robotics and coding as well as job shadowing and internships. 

29th Ward Candidates 

Zerlina Smith: Teach children to be entrepreneurs; has young CEOs group from ages 6 to 16. Fund home-ed and tutoring programs to ensure students are being prepared for college. Focus on sustainability of programs.

Chris Taliaferro: Fund programs like Boys and Girls Club and Kids Express. Support development of $29 million youth center proposed on North Avenue.

Dwayne Truss: Support Amara Enyia’s Cultural Campus proposal. Empower community members to organize their own activities for the youth. Invest in public parks to make them safe, fully staffed and able to offer robust programming.

37th Ward Candidates

Emma Mitts*: Plans on finding “an opportunity for [youth] to engage” with the police and fire training facility once it’s built.

Deondre Rutues: Hire 16- to 18-year-olds to work as social media managers in his ward office, which will double as a safe space for youth. Bring programs like Toastmasters and rotary clubs to the ward. Will donate 10 percent of salary to the community, such as paying for young people to take cultural enrichment trips downtown. 

Tara Stamps: Launch Hoodie Tech Hubs, where “not only can young people come in and play basketball and Fortnite, but can learn coding and graphic design, and create apps and podcasts.” Believes that the people already running youth programs “need to be held accountable.” 


* Indicates candidate did not respond to multiple requests for interview and responses are pulled from public comments.


This report was produced in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based civic journalism lab.