Sharif Walker is known as one of the West Side’s movers and shakers. A community and youth advocate, he’s worked for After School Matters and is a commissioner of the Chicago Park District. As a former board chair at Austin Coming Together and current president and CEO of Bethel New Life, he is committed to the Austin community professionally and personally.
Walker’s roots in the community go back to his parents. In the early 1990s his parents were looking for more space for their family than their Howard Street-area home could provide, but they wanted to stay in a community where they could give back some of the support they had been given on their upward trajectory in life.
According to Walker, they saw Austin as that type of community and realized their money would go farther in Austin than it did in West Rogers Park. Walker was away at college when his parents made Austin their home, but he moved back to Chicago after school, staying with them for a stint.
When a job transfer moved his parents to Atlanta in the late 1990s, they wanted to keep the house in the family. Walker tried to maintain the family home and his own on the South Side and found it a challenge.
His parents eventually moved back to the area, and the family invested in turning the third floor of the house into a suite with a bathroom and kitchen for his parents. Walker, his wife and daughter lived in the house with them.
It wasn’t just any house, either.
The Walkers lived in one of four architecturally significant homes designed by architect Fredrick Schock in Austin. The Walkers’ house was designed in 1887 for Schock’s aunt, Catherine Schlect. The Shingle Style home with recessed porches and projecting bays has been featured on Open House Chicago and is a historic anchor of the community.
For Walker, the home has been a great place for his family.
“My sister is adopted, my aunt is adopted and we recently adopted a young woman who went to the college I went to, and she’s a young mother,” Walker said. “We are trying to support another generation of young people. We have a dog, too. It’s enough to make a television show out of.”
Walker recalls getting a call in 1999, learning that the home had been designated a Chicago Landmark. At the time, he was working for After School Matters, which was across the street from the city’s Cultural Center. He remembers walking down the Cultural Center’s hall one day and seeing a photo of his house on the wall.
“It took me aback,” he said. “You grow up in the hood with a couple of holes in the wall, and you end up in this house that’s being heralded for preservation excellence. It’s a big step.”
In 2020, Walker was just getting his consulting business off the ground when he was asked to consider taking on the CEO job at Bethel New Life. Walker was already a board member at Austin Coming Together due to the recruitment efforts of community icon Mildred Wiley.
She passed away before he joined Bethel New Life, but he credits her influence in the role he plays in the community today.
“She was a big advocate for the Austin community,” Walker said. “She worked at Bethel New Life for over twenty years.”
Bethel New Life has a nine-acre West Side campus that includes more than 200 units of senior housing. When Walker took charge, all other activities on the campus had halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Walker wanted to return the organization back to its original vision and more.
“With COVID, equity, police violence, George Floyd — the whole country was going through a transition,” he said. “A lot of the work we began strategizing around was through that lens.”
With proximity to Humboldt Park, Cicero, Oak Park and Austin, Walker saw a need to focus on the wellness spectrum, both physical and mental, and saw Bethel New Life’s large campus as a plus for this kind of work.
The original St. Anne’s Hospital on the campus dates to 1902, and Bethel New Life recently received a HUD grant to convert the hospital to senior living. Walker has eyes on expanding the wellness and social services to all aspects of the community.
He is partnering with over 50 organizations and recently launched a capital campaign to build the Mildred Wiley Wellness Hub.
“Our campus is within six blocks of the area with the most gunfire in the city,” Walker said. “It needs investment.”