Local not-for-profits may have their offices or headquarters in one town, but typically serve people from a greater geographic area. The communities of Oak Park, Austin, Maywood, Berwyn, Forest Park, Garfield Park and River Forest collectively form the Greater West Side, and work done by one organization based in one community can have wide-reaching impact throughout the area.
While working in his previous role as the executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, Rob Breymaier says he coined the term Greater West Side. He points out that OPRHC was uniquely situated to make connections between communities because it had programs in all of the communities.
He says, “In Austin we were supporting block clubs and community development efforts and building the Austin Ascending program. In Oak Park we had our longstanding programs to sustain diversity, integration, inclusion, and equity in the community. In Proviso Township we were working to save folks from foreclosure and provide folks with new homes and down payment assistance.”
He says, “We could see that the communities had a lot in common and that the people across the Greater West Side had much to offer one another. We could also see that none of the communities could succeed on its own. That the communities are interconnected. At that time, faith leaders were also working to bridge the communities and we allied ourselves with them in the hopes of amplifying what each group was working toward.”
Reesheda Graham Washington says the Greater West Side has been an important part of her developing enterprise Sweet Rest, which provides education to white women regarding the negative impact of white supremacy and uses funds from subscriptions to a monthly newsletter to provide sabbaticals to Black women.
While the organization serves women across the country, she says that through funding from the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation Sweet Rest has been able to provide sabbaticals to six women from the Greater West Side.
Graham Washington notes the Greater West Side connects all within its boundaries because, our communities, our lives, our issues and our passions are interconnected. She says, “What we do within each of our communities impacts what happens and what is felt in every other community. It is what Dr. King referred to as the interrelated structure of reality.”
Beyond Hunger is another example of the connected nature of the Greater West Side, says Chief Executive Officer Michele Zurakowski. While the main office and food bank are located in Oak Park, and many volunteers reside in Oak Park or River Forest, Beyond Hunger provides food and nutrition education to residents of the Greater West Side.
Zurakowski says that while the Greater West Side is interconnected, it is also made up of individual communities, each of which has a unique set of needs. In order to meet those needs in the best way possible, she says Beyond Hunger increasingly relies on its client advisory council.
The client advisory council is made up of program participants who have experienced hunger or food insecurity. Rather than volunteers or staff members dictating what needs to be done, Beyond Hunger is able to use a client perspective to determine how to best meet the needs in a particular community.
Traditionally, a large percentage of clients hailed from Austin, and Beyond Hunger recently began sharing space with New Moms in Austin to better serve the needs of clients in the neighborhood. Zurakowski says that in Austin, there is a significant aging population that is in need of home delivery.
Beyond Hunger has also seen a recent increase in need from Berwyn, with many immigrants there unable to qualify for federal relief during Covid. Zurakowski says that work in Berwyn has to be more targeted to meet clients where they are. If they are afraid to give out personal information or come to a regular location to pick up food, Beyond Hunger can work on privately funded, targeted ways to get people food so that they don’t feel jeopardized.
New Moms has been serving young mothers who experience poverty and homelessness from its Greater West Side headquarters in Austin and its newer Oak Park location. Bright Endeavors, the social enterprise for New Moms through which young moms 24 years old and under can find work experience, is located in Garfield Park.
Jenna Hammond, its director of development & communications says, “We started our program in the West Side of Chicago because that is where we saw the greatest need, and our approach to expand to the Greater West Side has continued to follow this same logic. To the extent that we can remove barriers, like city boundaries, so that families can find consistent and high-quality support in their community, no matter what side of the line they reside, the better.”
Hammond stresses the concept of the Greater West Side includes acknowledging the truth that it is not just certain communities that experience poverty, pointing out that there are families in every community in the Greater West Side who are experiencing the stress of poverty.
She says that while the differences in neighborhood culture can be something to celebrate, the differences in access to opportunity is something that needs to be addressed.
To that point, she says, “Each of these neighborhoods has their own robust history and culture. We also know that in the world we live in today, these neighborhoods have not experienced equitable investment, creating real disparity in infrastructure and opportunity.”
She says that New Moms is committed to challenging this inequity and working to promote community investment and create opportunity for the families they serve to thrive in the future.
Breymaier, says that there continues to be a lot of work to do, noting, “As I see it now, the project is ongoing and requires a lot more effort. In particular, it requires courageous conversations that examine both the disparities and the commonalities that exist across the Greater West Side. But, most importantly, if we could get more people to recognize the Greater West Side as one community. I think that would be a positive first step in building a coalition of residents that can build equity together.”