Activists from Austin and Oak Park gathered at the Austin Branch Library, 5616 W. Race Ave., on March 13 to talk about their community advocacy and ways that they’re building bridges between the two sides of Austin Boulevard.

The Everyday Activists panel was originally meant to kick off the eponymous exhibit, which has been on display at the library since December 2021. The exhibit features the portraits of Austin and Oak Park activists who, one way or another, advocate for their community.  The Omicron variant surge scuttled the original plans, pushing the panel closer to the end of the exhibit.

The panel included seven of the 19 activists featured in the exhibit: Austin businesswoman Tina Augustus; Austin community safety advocate and former 37th Ward candidate Leroy Duncan; Austin Coming Together coalition Youth Outreach Coordinator Dollie Sherman; housing and education equity advocate Sandra Sokol; Oak Park spoken word poet and anti-racism activist Anandita Vidyarthi; and Vanessa Stokes, artist and executive director of Austin Village Special Service Area 72.

They broadly agreed that activism requires compassion, persistence and wiliness to put oneself out there. They argued that bridging the divide would require residents to confront their biases and go outside their comfort zone.

Everyday Activists is a brainchild of sociologist Susan Stall, the president of Oak Park’s Arbor West Neighbors community organization. Stall said she realized that activists who are well-known within their own communities may not be known to their neighbors across Austin Boulevard. She hoped that the exhibit would build bridges between the two communities.

The exhibit was displayed at the Oak Park Arts League, 720 Chicago Ave., in May 2021. While the organizers always intended to display it at an Austin venue, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the process. It debuted in the library on Dec. 6, and Stall said that it will stay in place until at least the end of March.

During the March 13 panel, participants talked about their work.  Vidyarthi said she organized a South Asian student organization at Oak Park River Forest High School simply by “going up to random students in hallway and asking, ‘Do you identify as South Asian?’” The club is still going strong even after she graduated, but the experience was a lesson on the power of putting oneself out there, she said.

Duncan recalled a campaign to reduce drug-selling in front of a McDonald’s location at 5133 W. North Ave., saying that they threatened to go over the franchisee’s head and take their complaints to corporate headquarters, which got results. Sherman said that her work requires her to mentor youth others may have given up on.

“I let them know, I see you,” she said. “I still see you. I don’t care if your hair is in different colors, I see you. I think that’s what our young people want — someone to see them.”

The panelists were also asked what they think would help bridge the “social distance” between Austin and Oak Park. Stokes said that “it really starts with us being a bit uncomfortable,” whether it is about visiting another community or confronting racism.

 “I think we’re so in our comfort zones a lot of the times, folks don’t want to come outside from where they live, folks they associate with,’ she said. “[Stepping outside the comfort zone] is how it starts and I can’t make you do it. I’m not here to convince you. You gotta step out of it.”

Stokes also suggested creating more recreational and gathering spaces for the community would benefit both Austin and Oak Park residents, as would increasing awareness about what’s happening in both communities.

Augustus said that Oak Parkers should be willing to take advantage of what’s already there, citing the Soul City Community Market, which takes place every weekend at 5713 W. Chicago Ave., as an example.

Duncan argued that making Austin and Oak Park safer was key.

“If I fear for my safety, I do not frequent that business,” he said. “Everything else will come together and work if we have safety.”

Ole Schenk, who is studying to become a priest, is one of the many Oak Parkers who came to the panel. He said that he found the discussion “very inspiring,”

“The message about allowing ourselves to become uncomfortable is very important,” he said.

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...