The West Side of Chicago has no shortage when it comes to activists. From Martin Luther King, Jr. who lived in North Lawndale and formed the Chicago Freedom Movement in 1966 to Brenetta Howell Barrett who raises awareness for HIV/AIDS with the Pathfinders Prevention Education Fund.
To this day, the West Side is bustling with activists who are all pushing for a better Chicago. Arewa Karen Winters fights for police accountability, Aisha Oliver focuses on the next generation and Deondre’ Rutues pushes for social justice. Their focuses may vary, but there is a common thread to push for the next generation to pick up where they’ll leave off.
‘I muster up some strength and get back into the fight’
Arewa Karen Winters grew up in the Austin neighborhood, where she got her first taste of community activism at a young age.
Her mom was a block club present and active in many campaigns including those for Danny K. Davis, Harold Washington and Emma Mitts.
“I’ve always been exposed and engaged working alongside my mother and my grandmother. It was just a part of me,” she said.
After her 16-year-old nephew, Pierre Loury, was shot and killed in 2016, Winters became a police reform activist. Existing organizations started working with her including Black Lives Matter, Chicago Alliance Against Racial and Poltical Repression and the #LetUsBreathe Collective.
From there, she was a part of the group to file a lawsuit against the city that eventually created the consent decree.
“That is where I got my activism wings from. I immersed myself in the movement,” she said.
Now, as an elected member of the 15th District Police Council, she is focused on increasing community awareness and engagement so true police reform can happen.
Winters is also navigating the new waters of being in an elected position, learning the red tape of politics and figuring out how to make this new council impactful.
“We move. We’re movers,” she said. “It’s a new world for some of us.”
The infrastructure of the government and the police department make it challenging to make changes, she said. People have told Winters that people in power hope to wear her down and hope she goes away.
“I can’t because I feel like I’m an anomaly,” she said. “I don’t just bring my family’s story but I have to bring other stories into the room, as well.”
Self care is a necessity in Winters’ activism journey because she can get burnt out after giving so much of herself emotionally, physically and mentally, she said. She encourages other activists to step away and recharge, sometimes even switch up on what to fight for.
“I muster up some strength and get back into the fight,” Winters said.
The murder of her nephew inspired her to start her own non-profit called the 411 Movement, which supports families and communities harmed by systematic violence. Her next goal for the organization is to create youth programming of African drumming, spoken word, dance and other cultural arts called the Performance Art Collective.
Winters also has plans to create a documentary about families affected by police violence and wants to write a book to help other families who have experienced the same loss she did.
On top of that, Winters will be attending Northeastern Illinois University this spring, enrolling in a program called University Without Walls where students create their own curriculum. Winters will be focused on police reform and accountability.
Winters sees activism for police reform as the work of her life.
“I’m always going to be a part of police reform in one way or another,” she said.
‘I’m a table shaker’
Austin native Aisha Oliver first found her calling in community activism by working with children at Austin Town Hall. From there, she has helped hundreds of kids grow up in safe and positive spaces on the West Side.
She currently is a community engagement specialist for Lurie Children’s Hospital as they start to create a community hub on the West Side, a position she says she earned due to her fourteen years of experience with Root2Fruit.
Root2Fruit is a hyper-local effort in Austin that looks to create a safe community for kids to grow up in. This is the fourth generation of kids that Oliver has guided, some are children of the first group of kids that she mentored.
“Those same kids are the young people with me today,” she said.
She teaches children to raise their voices and advocate for themselves.
“That’s the seed that I’m sowing,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s on us. There’s no savior. If we don’t do what we need to do in this community, they’re going to wipe us out.”
Oliver admits that being a woman and handling the dynamics on the streets, as well as local gangs, can be tough.
“I’m a table shaker. I’m stepping on toes,” she said. “I’m making everybody uncomfortable until my kids are comfortable.”
Oliver started the Austin Safety Action Plan three years ago when 3-year-old McKai James was shot and killed. She and the kids involved in Root2Fruit created a one-mile safe zone that includes Austin Town Hall, the library and Harambee gardens. She chose the location based on places that reminded them of her childhood.
But the safe-zone isn’t entirely bullet-proof. Last year, 20-year-old Clarence Maxey, Jr. was shot and killed within the area. The biggest hurdle was finding mental health help for the kids present when he was killed, Oliver said.
“Some of them still don’t come outside because of that and it’s been almost a year,” she said.
Oliver’s organization continues to grow, as the first generation of kids she helped is stepping into roles and helping out younger generations. Her goal is to build something that can be passed on. She sees herself handing over the organization to the new leaders in the next five years.
“It was never meant for me to be in charge of Root2Fruit forever,” she said.
As for Oliver, she wants to continue to be a model of what true community engagement looks like and to be able to fund Root2Fruit to provide salaries for the people working in it.
“My legacy when I leave here is that I did everything I could to support the community that I came from,” Oliver said.
‘I have a mortality in this advocacy piece of my life’
15th District Police Council member Deondre’ Rutues has been a social justice activist since 2012 when Trayvon Martin was killed.
“I felt compelled to stand up for the first time,” he said. “Once I stood up, I didn’t want to take a seat.”
When Rutues was marching downtown, he wore a shirt that read “racism exists but there is still Black on Black crime.” That idea ultimately shaped his local activism to create a better West Side.
“We do a lot of damage to ourselves in our own community,” Rutues said.
Rutues focuses on improving the West Side socially, economically, politically and civically by working with Black Workers Matter and West Side Rising.
He notes recent developments in Austin that show improvement, like the new BUILD Campus and the redevelopment of the Laramie State Bank. But he still sees these developments going at a glacial pace, especially when compared to the “drastic communal change” other neighborhoods like Pilsen and Bucktown have seen.
“I still think it’s slower than it needs to be,” he said. “This city has changed so much in 10 years.”
Rutues doesn’t see himself being an advocate forever, as he finishes up his PhD in business and wants to focus on his family and raising his daughter, he said.
“I have a mortality in this advocacy piece of my life,” he said.
His dissertation for his doctorate covers “psychological capital,” which is how people experience hope and develop resiliency and optimism, he said. He hopes that programs based on his research can be created to help West Side organizations.
Rutues said he knows the next generation of West Side advocates will build out and pick up from wherever he leaves off.
“They are already up,” he said. “They are already there.”
Refers herself as an organizer rather than an activist. She is the associate political director of United Working Families, an independent political organization….ADD MORE
Gardner organized the community to help Brandon Johnson get elected as mayor.
Created the online community group on Facebook called Activate Austin in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd.
Background of her mother and father involved in Harold Washington campaign.