ACT Executive Director Darnell Shields shares progress updates on the Austin Forward Together quality-of-life plan at the 2019 Austin Community Summit.

We can no longer wait to address racial disparities. Minority communities like Austin are struggling with the compounded impact of decades of disinvestment and recent crises, but fortunately, Chicago is taking steps to once again prioritize equity.

Mayor Lightfoot and the Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) declared racism a public health crisis in 2021 after data showed a 9.2-year life expectancy gap between Black and non-Black Chicagoans that had increased in the past 10 years.

Then, to build on CDPH’s Healthy Chicago 2025 and to continue improving anti-racist policies, $9.6 million in COVID-19 relief funding was allocated to enact the Healthy Chicago Equity Zones, “six geographic areas covering the entire city that will be led by regional organizations” to “create community based stakeholder coalitions to develop targeted strategies to improve community and individual wellness.”

The lead for the west region of the Healthy Chicago Equity Zones is Rush University Medical Center and West Side United who are working to reduce the racial life expectancy gap by allowing community expertise to guide the training of health professionals in community engagement.

In addition to focusing on health disparities, another focus should be on empowering Austin and other heavily impacted communities. When people feel heard, they have power. That power then becomes motivation to get and stay involved.

One massive effort centered around empowerment is Austin’s first quality-of-life plan called Austin Forward. Together. (AFT). AFT is a four-time award-winning roadmap for transformation created by and for Austin to address barriers to quality of life by the end of 2024 by successfully implementing 84 total actions across seven issue areas. The plan serves as a tool for building equity, as evidenced by its Equity with Impact Award from The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, and the Opportunity & Empowerment Award from the American Planning Association of Illinois.

An AFT action that shows how effective even a small segment of leaders can have when they come together is the Austin Eats Initiative. As a collection of more than twenty groups, Austin Eats is strengthening Austin’s food access infrastructure by supporting the growth of food pantries, emergency food distribution, community gardens, education, culinary entrepreneurship, and more.

The plan and the projects stemming from it are prime examples of just how powerful community-led investment can be, especially for an area as historically disenfranchised as Austin.

Austin Coming Together (ACT) was chosen to steward the AFT plan, from creation through implementation, due to our experience and expertise incorporating the perspectives of community members into our work.

ACT has advocated for systemic and equitable solutions since its inception in 2010, but now that the community has its own concrete vision in the form of the AFT plan, Austin is better positioned to take on the deeply rooted causes of the racial disparities it is facing.

In early 2021, ACT activated its Policy division of the Strategic Initiatives department. The Policy team draws on insights from ACT’s Austin Community Hub and the AFT plan to advance systemic change through capacity building and organizing.

In its first year, the Policy team has met with Austin residents and stakeholders to identify which structural barriers are most urgent, researched the policy landscape in Chicago to identify opportunities that will address these barriers, and advocated for racial equity and justice within the city’s policy development processes.

As a lifelong resident and business owner, I see the immeasurable potential for Austin to be a thriving community and am dedicated to doing all I can to help achieve it.

Austin is on the path toward health equity because we are seeding collaboration and leveraging community-driven solutions along the way. However, we must ensure that new citywide policies are informed by the lessons of the past and fully integrated with racial equity.

We have made some strides, but it won’t be until access to resources becomes equitable that we will see long-term change.