Just one year ago, Rodney Williams, director of entrepreneurship and development at By the Hand Club for Kids, 415 N. Laramie, was sitting in a peace circle with a group of frustrated youth. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder area protests led to some violent unrest in Austin and left participants in By the Hand’s afterschool program concerned for their community.

“They were voicing frustration,” said Williams. “They were seeing unrest in their community and were also grappling with COVID-19 lockdowns and virtual learning, but it was clear these kids were committed to building their community the right way.”

In fact, a liquor store located directly across the street from By the Hand had been looted and burned during a night of rioting. By the Hand purchased the property and tore down the building within six weeks of taking ownership. The frustrated students saw this as an opportunity to change their community from within and raised the idea of hosting a pop-up produce market on the vacant lot left behind after the liquor store was demolished.

“Austin has a population of 97,000,” said Williams. “We had 17 liquor stores and just 3 grocery stores. This is a food desert and the kids wanted to do something about that.”

Initially the entrepreneurial experiment was supposed to last just 12 weeks, but the community responded favorably to Austin Harvest, 423 N. Laramie, and plans for a second season evolved naturally. 

Last week, Austin Harvest, with support from Sam Acho, a former Chicago Bear, and Athletes for Justice, received word that a WSCR-AM radiothon hosted by talk host Danny Parkins, generated more than  $670,000 in donations to help build a permanent home for the pop-up market.

“We are not going anywhere,” said Azariah Baker, Austin Harvest student-employee. “A roof is the best way to show that.”

They may be peddling produce at affordable prices, but Williams is clear the primary focus of the program is developing entrepreneurs. Students earn a stipend for their work at Austin Harvest and oversee everything from bookkeeping and purchasing to uniform design and furniture construction. They manage partnerships with Jewel Osco and Flowers for Dreams to keep the market stocked. They worked closely with contractors to design the forthcoming brick and mortar building that will eventually house Austin Harvest.

“Nothing gets done without their approval,” said Williams. “School is their top priority of course, but I am here to work with students and their families to make sure this effort is 100% student led.”

Blossoming business: (from left)  Student leaders Kyndra Washington, 14, Neveah Hester, 16, and Azariah Baker show off an assortment of cut flowers and house plants available at Austin Harvest. Credit: Melissa Elsmo

The building should be completed by the end of 2021 and has been designed to maintain an open-air market feel. Plans included retractable walls and expanded refrigeration as well as a stage for local musicians to utilize. The space will also be used to host community events like pumpkin decorating in the fall and other holiday events throughout the year.

“You can only dream what you see,” said Williams. “Some of the kids in our program have never been to Oak Park. They live in Chicago but have never seen the Bean. But this market shows them what is possible in their own community. The best thing people can do is come out to shop and encourage the kids”

Williams hopes the success of Austin Harvest will serve as a template for other organizations to their do their part to improve their communities “the right way.”

Austin Harvest will temporarily relocate across the street while construction is underway, but the market will continue to operate at 423 N. Laramie on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. until they break ground.

Confident leader: Rodney Williams oversees Austin Harvest and ensures the entrepreneurial effort is 100% student led. Credit: Melissa Elsmo

Editors Note: This article has been updated to reflect the name of the pop up as “Austin Harvest.”

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