Originally published in 10/20/21 issues of Austin Weekly News and Wednesday Journal newspapers
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
When I think of this African proverb, it reminds me of the power of collaboration, which is why Austin Coming Together (ACT) was founded in 2010. Since then, growing with the nonprofit and serving Chicago’s Austin community where I was born has shown me what this neighborhood is made of: resilience and limitless potential. There is no greater potential to be found than in our youth. But when family support, quality education, inspiring career paths, or even just grocery stores are hard to find, a child’s chances of reaching their potential becomes limited.
WE CAN’T WAIT
Austin has one of the highest populations in Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods with just under 97,000 people spread out over the largest geographic neighborhood area. 26% of our community’s population is under 19, and nearly half are under 34 years old. However, too many of our young people are dying at an alarming rate. Without fully-resourced schools, family support, stable housing, representation in the justice system, and access to mental health services this will not change.
A MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS
Our youth are being negatively affected by decades of systemic inequities, lack of quality education, and poor policies. We must strengthen the system of supports for our young people if we are to relieve the burden of trauma many are carrying. Students transitioning from remote learning back to in-person are having trouble readjusting. They need space to talk and not be judged.
NOT JUST HEARING BUT AMPLIFYING
Not only must we make space to actually hear what our youth want, but we are responsible for exposing them to inspiration to create those dreams.
Serving as an authentic advocate for young people is the only way Aisha Oliver, fondly known as Mama Pooh, knows how to really connect with the kids she works with. As the Community Engagement Specialist at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Oliver is a fellow Austinite who is passionate about helping youth use their voice. She is also the Executive Director of Root2Fruit Youth Foundation and has seen a recent increase in the number of youths battling depression. They do not feel they have any resources to help them. Oliver and Root2Fruit “use creative initiatives that demonstrate an understanding of positive reinforcement and life skills to shape well-rounded, productive young adults.” But the environment in Austin makes it challenging. Always being around gang violence or generations of family members incarcerated “is like programming youth to destroy themselves,” as Oliver put it.
“Many feel like they are not enough.”
This is the story we must unwrite; the myth we must abolish. Austin and all its residents deserve the same investments as those living elsewhere in Chicago. Paving this path will take coordination of the entire community. After ten years at ACT and a lifetime in Austin, I’ve learned the only way to build trust is through collaboration. When you care enough to give others the chance to participate, they will feel the fire that fuels them to do their best.
Extending an opportunity to those impacted most to take the lead in creating change is the foundation on which ACT was formed in 2010. It is also the basis of a quality-of-life plan, a framework for community leaders and residents to create their own strategies to break down the barriers that keep families from thriving, a model brought to Chicago in the 1990s through support from Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Chicago and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Austin’s quality-of-life plan was published in 2018 and is called Austin Forward. Together. (AFT). Through consensus workshops with over 500 stakeholders and almost two years of planning, it has become a roadmap to a shared vision that is owned and led by Austin.
Both ACT and the AFT quality-of-life plan work toward goals that include building the capacity of existing resources for our youth, while also generating key opportunities that will catalyze comprehensive neighborhood growth.
“Austin Forward. Together. will make a way for us to put young people at the forefront,” said Oliver.
POWER OF COLLABORATION
AFT is a massive body of work that requires the continued mobilization of dozens of community leaders, numerous private, non-profit, and government organizations, and the attraction of hundreds of millions of dollars in additional public and private investments. By providing the organizational infrastructure, technical support, seed funding, and external relations, ACT supports local leaders and organizations to implement AFT’s 84 actions.
Although there are excellent quality childcare facilities in Austin, schools are underutilized and after-school programs have long waitlists. From standardizing the education our babies get during those first early and crucial years, to helping local schools get more students and funding, to reminding our young people they are valued enough to chase their dreams, AFT and the projects spurred by them have already been making an impact.