A new community center in Austin is expected to open this fall that will provide resources including violence prevention, HIV/AIDS testing, housing, job coaching and support for people experiencing substance use disorders.
Co-owners Shrone Conaway and brothers Marnell and Malcolm Brown purchased the 14-unit building at the corner of Madison Street and Cicero Avenue with about $500,000 of their own savings.
The building will be called the Mandela World Community Center and sits at an intersection on Cicero Avenue that is designated as Mandela Road in honor of Nelson Mandela. That honorary designation was established in 2014.
On a sunny Sunday morning early this month, over a dozen of people gathered at the site to celebrate the purchase of the city-block sized building. State Rep. La Shawn Ford vowed to work on getting state funding to help with renovations.
“What’s amazing about this group is they’re actually the very people that understand the population probably better than anybody, because they have their lived experience,” Ford told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Conaway and Marnell Brown, who are a couple, currently run the organization To Walk In My Shoes at that location and have provided over 10,000 COVID-19 tests to people on the West Side. Malcolm Brown founded the Herbert F. Ballard Foundation, which provides housing for women recovering from substance use disorders. They hope to expand services and resources in the community center.
A beauty, clothing and a community store also currently operate on the site. Conaway, 55, is still deciding which occupants will be staying and which will be moving on. UIC’s Community Outreach Intervention Projects recently moved out of the building, which will serve as the community center’s main area.
Malcolm Brown, 61, said he’s unsure how long it will take to complete renovations on the almost 30,000-square-foot building. They hope to get funding from the city’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund.
“We want to be proactive with the beginning steps on getting it done, so they can see that we’re building into the community,” he said.
Getting city and local support has been a challenge for the trio, who didn’t receive any assistance to purchase the building. The Brown brothers said they have gotten little help from 28th Ward Ald. Jason Ervin. Ervin won the reelection at the end of February with over 75% of the votes.
“People are dying all year round, not just election time,” Malcolm Brown said.
Ald. Ervin said he has no objection to helping the new community center and said no one reached out to him about the purchase celebration last week. “They invited La Shawn Ford, and he’s not even in that district,” Ervin said.
Marnell Brown, 64, said it’s important for them to provide help in violence prevention, HIV/AIDS, substance use and COVID since he has been personally affected by them all.
He lost a father and brother to AIDS and has been 20 years sober from heroin, he said. There will be residential units for men recovering from addiction on the second floor of the building, where Marnell Brown has lived.
He got the idea to expand their services during the George Floyd protests that happened in summer 2020. On May 31, 2020, West Garfield Park and Austin were hit with looting and fires during the protests.
“What really sparked me was the community came out, banned together. We literally watched Madison Street burn and get looted.”
Howard Brown Health provided COVID tests but left once the protests started happening in the area, Marnell Brown said. Marnell Brown and Conaway – who all grew up on the West Side – said they stepped up and created an outreach team of about 80 people to provide COVID tests to their community. They still are testing about 1,000 people a week by going to schools and nursing homes around the area.
Conaway wants to bring activities for youth and revive the neighborhood.
“We’d like to make this project as beautiful as possible,” Marnell Brown said. “We want people to drive down Mandela Road and we want them to see the Mandela Center and bring them a sign of hope.”