With a big personality, even broader smile and that Southern charm, Dollie Sherman is the 59-year-old outreach coordinator for Austin Coming Together (A.C.T.). With the assist of other residents, she is helping to bring back the Austin community she loves. 

Often accompanied by groups of young people, “Ms. Dollie,” who has operated a home-based daycare business in Austin for 25 years now, walks and talks the streets of Austin to help re-build bridges that have been broken by the ongoing issues of living in poverty, she says. 

“I moved here from Mississippi 38 years ago, got married and raised my family in the Austin community, so I can see how much we have changed.  It’s the negativity, the crime, the drugs, the violence,” says Sherman. 

It was three years ago when she decided to take her stand.

Since then, on-the-job for A.C.T., Sherman is the face of and force behind A.C.T.’s new Safe Neighborhood programming, where the 2025 collective impact goal is that all generations will be participating in repairing harm in the Austin community.

Sherman works tirelessly to organize groups of neighborhood residents, who as participants of a Restorative Justice peace circle, are empowered to resolve neighborhood issues without police intervention.

“Thriving in peace, joy, love and happiness, that is what we all want to do to take back Austin,” she says. “I see all the negativity, but I do see beyond it.  I think there has been a breakdown in communication and compassion for others in the community.  But, that is why I bring together block leaders, seniors, and youth and say hey, let’s talk.”

Giving peace a chance

In 2016 A.C.T. launched its Safe Neighborhoods’ Restorative Justice initiative, to proactively deal with high rates of interpersonal, institutional, and structural violence, said Darnell Shields A.C.T’s director of operations. 

Sherman is one of the A.C.T. staff members who hosts the conversations of elders, block leaders and youth who have issues with each other to come together to hash out their personal issues in a safe space, with the guidance of a trained facilitator.

Shields says the idea behind a restorative justice peace circle is to give everyone at the table a voice “to the point where the leaders help the individuals who have been involved in the situation to make amends, and so forth,” adding that A.C.T. will be offering more peace circle facilitator trainings, to scale up and afford more residents an opportunity to attend one.

Other groups in the schools, including organizations such as BUILD, have been in the trenches doing this work, as well. 

Whenever and wherever she can, community organizer Dollie Sherman is also bent on beautifying what she calls “a bunch of community eyesores,” starting with two dilapidated vacant lots located on her 600 block of Lorel.

“This lot is going to be a Block Club Garden.  I am going to have benches out here for anyone to come and sit, and a table that will be cemented in here with an umbrella.  There will be shrubs and raised beds,” she said.  “We are going to grow vegetables and flowers [because] this is not a hood.  It is a neighborhood, and when you put the word neighbor in front of hood, it builds the whole meaning of the word up.”

Austin Coming Together

Complete address: Austin Coming Together, 5049 W. Harrison Street, Chicago, IL, 60644

General office number:773-417-8618

Website: www.austincomingtogether.org

Leadership contact name & title: Darnell Shields, Executive Director

Statement of purpose: Austin Coming Together coordinates its 70+ member organizations in order to impact the quality of early learning, neighborhood safety, access to living wage careers, and the the housing market in the Austin community.

How long have you been in existence? 6 years

Ways volunteers can help: Event assistance

To volunteer, call: 773.417.8612

Useful donations other than money: Office supplies, beverages, auction/raffle items, professional services

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....