When we spoke with Diana Graham, she had just come from a community meeting. A resident of Austin since 1969, she is still a regular at meetings on local issues—that day’s was with FEMA about recent flooding that had impacted the neighborhood. “At 80 years old, I’m still out here,” she says.
After more than 50 years in the neighborhood, Graham is still making an impact, although she says the neighborhood has changed quite a bit since she first arrived. When the City of Chicago began closing the Cabrini-Green homes, many former residents were placed in Austin and nearby Garfield Park, causing the neighborhood’s population to skyrocket.
Graham’s organizing path began with working with mayors, volunteering to register voters and attending local meetings. From there, she says the impetus to get involved was the extent of the drug problem in Austin. “That’s what made a lot of us get involved, so our kids don’t get harmed,” she says. “I wanted to get connected with a movement to come up with a solution to save our city because drugs come in from everywhere.”
As more young people became involved in gangs and drug activity in the neighborhood, Graham wanted to be part of a movement to make the community better. She says neighbors will be resistant to coming together to combat the issue because they are afraid of the gangs, “and they know you’re afraid of them. I’m not afraid of them, never have been.”
Graham became the president of her block club, Lotus Neighbors for Action, 20 years ago. She says her goal was to make her block “completely drug free,” and that she has achieved that goal. To keep local youth engaged and away from high-risk activities, she applies for grants and comes up with activities every summer. In June, she organized a trip for neighborhood youth to the Wisconsin Dells, and has chartered a bus down to Navy Pier. “I wanted to come up with activities to get them off the block and see there’s another world out there,” she says.
Graham says she regularly attends CAPS meetings and works with the 15th district police department to come up with solutions. She volunteers at the station’s “Hip Hop Tuesday” event, where local youth can come after school to do homework, play basketball, play on the computers and generally stay connected.
She also works to provide seminars to offer training for after-school or summer jobs, and on her block, hosts resource fairs for youth. She will hand out snacks, water and brochures for different community organizations and job opportunities, and will answer anything the teenagers want to ask about.
She also works with My Block, My Hood, My City, a nonprofit that works to build cross-city connections and mentor youth from under-resourced neighborhoods through educational programs and field trips.
“I want the young generation to be able to learn who your neighbors are,” she says. “Conversate with your neighbors. Get together more than once a month so you’re aware of what’s going on in your neighborhood. You’ve got to keep block clubs going.” Graham says her dream for the neighborhood is “100 Churches, 100 Block Clubs,” where faith and community leaders work with youth to build more connections across Austin.
“If every community had 200 strong organizations like that, imagine what we could be,” she says.
Graham encourages young people to show up at meetings and be more involved. Her message for Austin as a whole? Be persistent and stay engaged.
“I just want to tell my community, the whole community, don’t stop fighting, don’t give up,” she says. “Never say never. Whoever would have thought my block would be drug free?”