On Saturday morning in the auditorium of a high school in Austin, nearly 300 people gathered to take the work of this neighborhood’s next five years on their collective backs.

It was inspiring, daunting, realistic and celebratory.

The event at Michele Clark High School, Harrison and Laramie, was the unveiling of a Quality of Life Plan for our neighbors to the east. The ambitious project was led by Austin Coming Together, a collective-impact nonprofit. Two years it took. Four hundred people had a hand in it. Seven key issues were addressed with goals and strategies and measures. 

At the top of the list was not economic development or education, safety or housing. No, the first order of business on this five-year journey was headlined as “Community Narrative.” That’s the story Austin tells itself. About itself. To itself. True stories. 

Neighborhoods have to define themselves because surely others will be happy to define them for their own purposes. A factoid in the handsome brochure accompanying the presentation was that in 2017 there were three negative stories about Austin for every positive story. Honestly, I’m surprised the ratio of bad to good wasn’t higher. Watch TV. Read the dailies. Look at your own social media feed, Oak Parkers. You find crime. And crime. And crime. And bad schools.

For most of the 38 years I’ve been publisher of the Journal, our small company has also published the Austin Weekly News. And while our newspaper is imperfect and short of resources, often this is where you will find the real Austin. At least that is our attempt. The stories of innovation, perseverance, compassion. Stories of elders and of youth. Stories of frustration over again being forgotten at City Hall. Stories of disinvestment. Stories of hard-won success, of possibility, of winning.

What I see in Austin — and it was on display Saturday — is growing confidence, stronger and widely spread leadership, a more assertive, politically savvier, more fed up community with a growing sense of its own worthy identity.

This is not an Austin beholden to politicians who historically failed to lead. Hell, 10 percent of the 20 candidates for Chicago mayor are Austinites. This is not an Austin in the thrall of endless pastors sometimes of dubious motive. Hell, several of the pastors driving the political narrative of the city are from Austin. This is not an Austin of siloed social services intent on protecting their share of the spoils from the city, state or feds. Hell, a whole batch of those agencies collaborated on this new plan.

This is not an Austin waiting and waiting some more to be given something, usually handed down. There is something powerful, demanding and positive going on in Austin.

Oak Parkers can ignore it and keep being captured by their fear of Austin, but in that auditorium Saturday morning there was a subset of Oak Parkers. Village government was represented. Social service agencies. A local banker. The head of the Community Foundation. A good many active volunteers. Some from the Community of Congregations.

My sense is that those Oak Parkers who were present, got it. We’re welcome as allies, needed as allies. We have a place at the table. It is about four chairs down on the far side. These two neighbors have a better future together than the past 50 scarred years looked like. But it is as equal partners, not as donors and recipients. As partners who have a lot to learn from and about each other.

It was a heady morning Saturday in Austin. And that is all good for Oak Park.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...