Members of the Westside Collaborative Project pose for a photo on Sept. 10 inside of Sankofa Cultural Arts Center in Austin. | Igor Studenkov/Contributor

Eight West Side nonprofits and civil rights organizations have united to form the Westside Collaborative Project, an initiative designed to provide a wide range of services for West Side youths ages 14 to 24 thanks to a $1.8 million state grant that uses revenues from the tax on cannabis sales.

As part of the legalization of recreational cannabis in Illinois, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority (ICJIA) is distributing Restore, Reinvest and Renew (R3) grants to organizations located in communities that have experienced economic disinvestment and disproportionate violence and incarceration. 

Led by the Chicago Westside Branch NAACP, the Westside Collaborative Project includes organizations that offer mental health, career development, violence prevention and other support services. The Collaborative officially kicked off on the morning of Sept. 10. 

All member organizations have been around for years, if not decades, and they all have a number of programs that serve young people. West Garfield Park-based Saving Our Sons Ministries, Austin-based Jehovah Jireh 1 Outreach Ministry and Violence Interrupters Inc. work to address the trauma caused by violence and prevent conflicts from erupting or escalating. 

Austin-based Bright Leadership Institute and Chicago Fathers for Change focus on youth mentoring and helping teens get long-term, stable careers, among other support services. West Garfield Park-based Habilitative Systems offers a wide range of mental health services. The National Alliance for the Empowerment of the Formerly Incarcerated (NAEFI) provides support services for young people and adults who have left prison and are trying to rebuild their lives.

During the Sept. 10 press conference, which was held at Austin’s Sankofa Cultural Arts Center, 5820 W. Chicago Ave., Karl Brinson, the president of the Westside Branch NAACP, noted that many people involved in the organizations that make up the collaborative “were once byproducts of the problem, but are now working to create a solution.”

Renell Perry, the director of the Bright Leadership Institute, said that “many times, when things come to our community, they’re thrust upon us.” The R3 grant funding, he said, will help the community shape its own destiny.

Donald Dew, the president of Habilitative Systems, said that he was pleased to see the Collaborative established, because it shows mutual support and “unity in our community.”

Rev. Reginald Berry, president of Saving Our Sons, echoed Perry’s point about investing in existing West Side organizations instead of imposing ideas from the top down.

“As African-Americans, we can be on the forefront, we can address problems in our community, we can deal with budgets and finance without it going awry,” he said. “We can bring our young men up, we can bring our ladies up.”

NAEFI President Benny Lee, who is himself formerly incarcerated, said ex-offenders continue to face legal obstacles that affect their ability to make a living.

“I’ve been out of prison for 37 years,” he said. “I’m a homeowner, I’m a taxpayer, I’m a father, I’m a grandfather. But after 37 years, I can’t become a licensed real estate broker. I can’t get a liquor license. I mean, when does our wrong end and our right begin?”

Orion Meadows works for NAEFI on the West Side. He said he was released last year after 24 years in prison.

“[NAEFI] helped me navigate in a way,” he said. “It would’ve been four times more difficult if I’d have been by myself. I just want to continue being productive and being a positive role model in our community.”

Charise Williams, ICJIA’s deputy direction, said she was pleased with the Collaborative’s plans.

“This is amazing, very inspiring, and we look forward to making the impact on the communities that need it the most,” she said. “We hope to have a long relationship with the Westside Collaborative and thank you for having us.”

Yaacov Delaney, the director of Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton’s Justice, Equality and Opportunity Initiative, said that, as a “justice system impacted person,” he appreciates the potential for change the Collaborative brings to the West Side. 

“If it wasn’t for me having a positive support system myself and having opportunities allowed by forward-thinking employers, I would not be standing here today,” he said. “Thank you again for having me here and I look forward to continuing to collaborate with you on this most important work.”

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