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By Tom Holmes
Community of Congregations President Leonard Grossman opened the meeting his organization sponsored, Sep. 30, at Ascension Catholic School by saying to over 150 people in attendance, "Recent publicity [e.g. online, Scenes of Chicago's Austin Neighborhood, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 27] has presented a one-dimensional portrait of the Austin neighborhood. Tonight we hope to broaden our understanding of our neighboring community."
The objective of the meeting was to balance the negative media images of the Austin Neighborhood with testimony from the directors of 11 non-profit organizations about the good things happening on "the other side" of Austin Boulevard. The theme of the meeting was Our Neighbors to the East.
Edward Coleman, vice president of economic development of Bethel New Life, a social service agency located in the former home of St. Anne Hospital — where many older Oak Parkers were born — talked about jobs. He touted his organization's entrepreneur training program from which 27 of the 30 people enrolled last year graduated and a pilot program with ComEd that trains people for jobs in utility construction.
Serethia Reid, president of the Central Austin Neighborhood Association (CANA), described how her group is working to revitalize her part of the city, 16 blocks at a time. CANA won the 2011 Chicago Beautiful Award for their efforts to make the neighborhood more beautiful. They enlisted the assistance of the ACLU in suing the city of Chicago to get more adequate police resources for their part of town.
Lt. Frank Brim described how the Chicago police and the Firefighters Training Program involves 250 teenagers "from every corner of the city" each year and exposes them to the work that the police and fire personnel do on a daily basis. Upon completing the program, the young people receive EMT certification. Brim is also the president and founder of the Garfield Park Little League, which he established to teach kids discipline, accountability and respect.
Kathryn McCabe, executive director of the Cluster Tutoring Program, talked about education. Since 1990, Clustering Tutoring volunteers, many of them from Oak Park and River Forest, have been driving to Pine Avenue Church to help neighborhood children improve their reading skills and become more successful in their studies.
"About 70 percent of the children who came to Cluster last year," McCabe said, "were reading at least one year below their grade level. When we evaluated our students last May, 73 percent were reading at grade level and 53 percent were above grade level."
Dr. Andre Hines told the audience that her agency, Circle Family Health Care Network, has been serving the West Side for the last 36 years with affordable health care from cradle to grave. She is particularly proud of her organization's ability to deliver primary mental health care at 21 sites where people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless gather, plus the health center located right inside the Austin High School building.
Michele Zurakowski, executive director of the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, reported that her agency supplied emergency food last year to over 16,000 families, 60 percent of whom reside in Austin. In addition, the pantry is working with 20 others in Austin and around the Metro Chicago Area to develop better food-chain protocols and maintain a transportation coop.
LaShawn Ford, state representative, 8th District, urged the audience to think of Austin and the near west suburbs as being mutually interdependent.
Cristy Harris, executive director of Prevail (formerly Walk-In Ministry), said her non-profit helps those who are in a financial crisis to not only break free but also receive training and resources to move into a position of greater financial security and independence.
West Suburban PADS Director Lynda Schueler noted that even though PADS does not host a homeless shelter in Chicago, 19 percent of the 540 people who used shelter services were from the Austin Neighborhood.
Rev. Reginald Bachus, executive director of Austin Coming Together said that many of the organizations doing good work east of Austin were doing business in "silos," i.e. working independently with no connection to other agencies. The goal of his organization is to promote collaboration. For example, they host a monthly meeting in which representatives from nonprofits can "share successes, take notes, help each other grow, build trust and unity among leaders and address issues in a comprehensive and systemic way."
Rev. Walter Jones, executive director of Fathers Who Care and a mentor for the West Garfield Park Youth Council, declared, "When real men come together and address men's health and parental involvement and are able to get decent employment, they can change their community."
Half full and half empty
The mood at the event was positive and energized, but what was apparent was that in order to provide context for their successes, all the speakers had to acknowledge how deep the social/political/economic/educational/attitudinal hole is, out of which they are trying to climb. In their celebration of the Austin glass being half full, they could not ignore that it was still half empty.
Edward Coleman, for example, was proud that 27 of the 30 students in Bethel New Life's entrepreneurial training program had graduated, but he prefaced the report of that small success with the statement, "In order for the West Side to catch up with rest of the city 10 years from now, 27,000 new jobs need to be created for people who are not working today and another 36,000 new jobs must be created for people working in positions that do not pay a living wage."
Prevail's Cristy Harris said, "What keeps me up at night is once you're in poverty, it's darn hard to get out of poverty. It's really complicated. Starting a dialogue, starting a relationship is a good thing, but it's going to require that long-term commitment to maintain that relationship. I challenge all of you here to commit yourselves to that challenge."
Responses in the question-and-answer period following the presentations, and then after the meeting ended, were all positive. Euclid Avenue Methodist Church's pastor, Dr. Marti Scott, said, "The Community of Congregations gathering was the most exciting and hopeful event I have attended. I began to see Austin Boulevard as a meeting place, not a dividing line.
"Last night demonstrated how people have for years put words into actions. My favorite moment happened after the benediction, when people were rushing the table of speakers to make connections and share thoughts. It was a critical and holy moment of what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther called 'Beloved Community.'"
Many were asking, "What's the next step?" Oak Park resident Jerry Lordan said, "I think the next step is to find projects to pursue for Oak Park and Austin residents to interact together. The more things we do together, the better we will get to know and trust one another. One such project could be mutual engagement with the Blue Line Visioning Project." He argued that the 63,000 jobs needed don't have to be created entirely in the neighborhood. Extending the Blue Line would provide Austinites access to jobs further west.
Lordan added, "We need to find ways to bring Austin residents into contact with other people/places in the Metropolitan Region. The formation of an Austin service club like Kiwanis or Lions or Rotary is one way to do that."
Rev. Kathy Nolte, pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Oak Park, said, on a personal level, she and her husband already volunteer with Duane Ehresman's Kidz Express (which did not attend). In addition she made a commitment to bring some of her business to the West Side and begin connecting with some of the leaders she met at the event. She intends to continue conversations with her congregation about how to build and maintain bridges across the boulevard. "Austin is not the Wall of China," she declared. "There should be more fluid movement across the line."
Rev. Scott said, "I left feeling compelled to recruit medical personnel from our cluster of churches to volunteer in the Circle Family HealthCare Network. I realized that the newly launched healing ministry at our church was too narrowly defined and its service area too small."
"I would also call on the Arts communities in both Austin and Oak Park," she added, "to write a new story, a play, offering a vision of what a new Austin Boulevard could become for all our sakes."
After the event, Cristy Harris focused on what people on both sides of the boulevard have in common. "At Prevail, we meet individuals from Austin every day. We all want the same things — security and happiness for ourselves and our loved ones."
Dawn Ferencak, the local advertising representative for the Austin Weekly News and Wednesday Journal, and the director of the AWN West Side Business Network, said, "From the energy evident at this discussion, people clearly want to help bridge the gap between the West Side of Chicago and Oak Park and other western suburbs. But this conversation must continue as we come together, not as two divided communities but on common ground. The door opened tonight to new opportunities to form relationships."
"Despite all the challenges mentioned that night," said Many Gawf, the congregational liaison at West Suburban PADS," many strengths of the Austin, Oak Park and surrounding areas were also revealed. One strength highlighted for me was the strong, active, and innovative faith community in this area. I think the network of congregations is a significant community resource of great potential that we should remember as we work toward becoming a community of greater wholeness."