If you drive east on Division Street from Trinity High School in River Forest to Chicago, the scenery changes dramatically very quickly.
The nearer you are to Trinity, the more suburban the landscape appears — the houses are bigger and the lawns are nicer. You have to share the road with bicycle commuters.
In 10 minutes, though, you’re in Austin, one of Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.
Austin Boulevard divides city from suburb. The boundary is ostensibly invisible, but you can see from your car where suburban Oak Park becomes Austin. When you look across Austin Boulevard, you see boarded-up buildings and a convenience store that advertises it accepts LINK cards.
Bitta Pacer, 18, of Oak Park, sees this startling contrast on a daily basis. She lives just eight blocks west of Austin Boulevard. Before graduating May 25, Pacer belonged to the social justice club at Trinity, a Catholic, all-girls school in the next suburb west of Oak Park.
The club chose Austin’s Peace Corner Youth Center, 5022 W. Madison St., as the recipient of their annual fundraising drive. The Peace Corner aims to give kids in Austin a safe and supportive place to congregate after school and during the summer where they can do homework, play games or hang out with friends.
The social justice club raised $1,050 for the center, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t much. But Peace Corner Executive Director Steven Hartley isn’t looking this gift horse in the mouth.
“I’m grateful that any organization of any kind gives me any money,” he said, adding that the Peace Corner depends on the generosity of others just to stay open.
And Hartley sees an extra benefit to partnering with Trinity. The students came to visit the Peace Corner, and spent an afternoon volunteering in the after-school program. They got to see the center firsthand and participate in what Hartley calls a “cultural exchange.”
“They actually got exposed to something that can seem quite frightening,” he said, referring to the students coming to Austin from River Forest. “They get to put a personal face on things they see in the media.
“For everybody involved, regardless of the money, it’s great,” he said.
Tara Suchland is the director of campus ministry at Trinity High School and oversees the social justice club. She said the partnership with the Peace Corner was “an amazing experience for the kids.” Students went into the experience interested in social justice, but some were still intimidated to go into Austin. They came away with a slightly different perspective.
“They learned the people we’re serving are just like them,” she said.
Pacer said she and her classmates learned that stereotypes about African-American kids in impoverished communities aren’t true, and she thinks the kids at the Peace Corner learned the same thing about white suburbanites.
In fact, Pacer found out that she shares much in common with some of the kids she met at the Peace Corner.
“I felt like I shared so many similarities with a lot of the kids even though we’ve had different backgrounds and different lifestyles,” she said.
She also believes that people with her kind of background – one with opportunities and privileges – are called to work on behalf of those without the same kinds of resources. Social justice, she said, “is about distributing the privilege.”
The proximity of Austin to Pacer’s home and school was something else that made the experience with the Peace Corner resonate.
“It instilled in me the awareness of what’s going on so close to home, how much we take for granted,” she said. “There’s so much work to be done eight blocks from our house. A few hours here and there makes a big difference.”