Chicago Police Officers join the ACT team in handing out masks and resource information at a distribution event in March 2020.

Historically, Austin has experienced many inequities that have limited access to the resources and opportunities crucial for its residents to live healthy lives. 

These economic and social conditions are referred to as social determinants of health. For decades, areas like Austin have struggled as a result of a lack of investment in almost all determinants, such as education, physical environment, healthcare access, and employment.

COVID-19 and the civil unrest that has followed have compounded conditions even further.

Many of Austin’s social service agencies were unexpectedly paralyzed. From the urgent need to reconfigure programming to fit virtual platforms, to finding creative funding sources to cover unbudgeted expenses, the survival of several organizations continues to be at risk. 

“Going forward, existing businesses must be comfortable in an environment that is likely changed forever,” said Ed Coleman, President and CEO of West Side Forward, an Austin-based nonprofit evolving from Bethel New Life whose services have provided critical guidance to entrepreneurs and business owners during this time.

When a crisis strikes, a community’s infrastructure is tested. So for Austin, the last few months have been an unprecedented stress test. The COVID-19 pandemic forced us all to confront our weaknesses. It has made clear for all the unstable ground on which we stand. 

With a situation as new and complex as this, there is no one solution. But there is certainly a desperate need for action.

Some real solutions

Austin Coming Together (ACT) immediately increased our outreach, surveys, and strategy sessions. Since 2010, ACT’s goal has always been to create sustainable solutions to address Austin’s core needs, and that means adapting to change. Although the challenge was new, we took it on the same way we always have: by listening to the community and leveraging the assets we do have to create the greatest impact. 

For ACT, our work is relational. Having such strong relationships with key partners, frontline services, and block clubs who were able to identify families with the highest need allowed us to quickly respond. Those partners have become essential in executing our response efforts.

In order to connect residents to the resources they need and improve the quality of their lives, ACT’s Austin Community Hub team continues to build relationships with the community. The Hub is among others like it across Chicago that make up United Way of Metro Chicago’s Neighborhood Network Initiative. Austin’s Hub team has led ACT’s resource deployment of everything from PPE supplies, food, and laptops, to connections to direct financial assistance, and COVID-19 testing.

How to move forward

Although the future may seem uncertain, one thing I know for sure is that if we are to be successful in saving lives, we must address the underlying systemic issues that will still plague Austin long after the virus does.

Efforts to improve social determinants for Austinites must be endorsed. One of those is a quality-of-life plan for Austin, created by and for the community, called Austin Forward. Together. Supported by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), ACT facilitated a two-year planning phase involving over 500 community stakeholders. The result was a shared community vision and a roadmap for economic revitalization. Implementation of the five-year strategic plan began in 2019.

Austin Forward. Together is empowering residents to carry out 84 actions across seven issue areas: Community Narrative, Economic Development, Housing, Public Safety, Education, Youth Empowerment, Civil Engagement. 

More action needed

The plan has made significant progress, but there is still much to do. 

The organizations committed to carrying out the work in Austin Forward. Together are part of Austin’s essential support network and like ACT, had to pivot to the nuances of our shaken landscape.

“We have seen a drastic increase in people seeking our help. Since March, we have expanded our service provisions to include financial payment assistance, rental and homeownership resources to more than 700 households,” says Athena Williams, Executive Director of Oak Park Regional Housing Center and Co-Chair and Strategy Lead of Austin Forward. Together‘s Housing Task Force. The OPRHC agency has also been busy providing rental counseling and property management education to property owners. 

And this ability to persevere by always listening and flexing to community needs hasn’t gone unnoticed. Longtime partners are razor focused and new ones are realizing the time for commitment is now.

“…there is this incredible knowledge and power of communities in addressing large scale problems, and we want to support that,” said Kimberlee Guenther, Chief Impact Officer at United Way of Metro Chicago.

United Way’s Chicago COVID-19 Relief Fund made it possible for nonprofits in the Neighborhood Network, such as ACT, to leverage unrestricted donations that could be used where necessary.

The initial support from that Relief Fund allowed us to create the Austin COVID-19 Relief Fund, enabling ACT to provide sub-grants to threatened organizations as well as direct deposits to struggling residents.

But although incredibly helpful, these efforts are all just temporary. We must keep up this dialogue on innovative ways to fix the City’s deep-rooted problems if we are to bring the magnitude of resources truly needed to neighborhoods like Austin.

We are seeing an increased interest in neighborhood-led support, but to fully rebound from economic deprivation, Austin needs reinvestment at a level it has not seen before. 

By Darnell Shields 
Executive Director, Austin Coming Together