Bridging Austin Blvd.

            Community of Congregations President Leonard Grossman opened the community meeting his organization sponsored on Sep. 30 at Ascension Catholic School by saying to the over 150 people in attendance, “Recent publicity (eg online, Scenes of Chicago’s Austin Neighborhood, Chicago Tribune, 9/27) has presented a one dimensional portrait of the Austin neighborhood. Tonight we hope to broaden our understanding of our neighboring community.”

            The objective of the meeting was to balance the negative images in the media of the Austin Neighborhood with testimonies from the directors of ten non-profit organizations and one state representative that many good things are happening on “the other side” of Austin Blvd.   The theme of the meeting was Our Neighbors to the East.

            Edward Coleman, Vice-President in charge of Economic Development for Bethel New Life, talked about jobs.  He touted his organization’s entrepreneur training program in which 27 of the thirty people enrolled last year graduated and a pilot program with COMED which trains people for jobs in utility construction.

            Serethia Reid, President of the Central Austin Neighborhood Association (CANA), told how her group is working to revitalize her part of the city sixteen blocks at a time.     CANA won the 2011 Chicago Beautiful Award for their efforts at making the neighborhood more beautiful and acquired the assistance of the ACLU in suing the City of Chicago to get more adequate police resources in their part of town.

            Lieut. Frank Brim described how the Chicago Police and Firefighters Training Program involves 250 teenagers “from every corner of the city” each year and exposes them to the work that the police and firefighters do on a daily basis.  On completing the program, the young people receive EMT certification.  Brim is also the president and founder of the Garfield Park Little League which he uses to teach kids discipline, accountability and respect.

            Kathryn McCabe, the Executive Director of the Cluster Tutoring Program, talked about education.  Since 1990 Cluster Tutoring volunteers have been driving to the Pine Avenue Church to help neighborhood children improve their reading skills and thereby become more successful in their studies.  “About 70% of the children who came to Cluster last year,” she said, “were reading at least one year below their grade level.  When we evaluated our students last May, 73% reading at least at their or grade level and 53% were above grade level.”

            Dr. Andre Hines told the audience that her agency, Circle Family Health Care Network, has been serving the Westside for the last 36 years with affordable health care from cradle to grave.  She is particularly proud of her organization’s ability to deliver primary mental health care at 21 sites where people who are homeless or at risk of being homeless gather and of the health center located right inside Austin High School.

            Michele Zurakowski, the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, reported that her agency supplied emergency food last year to over 16,000 families, 60% of which reside in Austin.  In addition the food pantry is working with 20 other pantries in Austin and around the Metro Chicago Area to develop better food chain protocols and maintain a transportation coop.

            LaShawn Ford, State Representative for the 8th District, urged the audience to think of Austin and the Near West Suburbs as being mutually interdependent.

            Cristy Harris, the Executive Director of Prevail (formerly the Walk In Ministry) told about how her non-profit helps people who are in a financial crisis to not only get out of it but also receive training and resources to move into a position of greater financial security.

            West Suburban PADS Director Lynda Schueler said that even though PADS does not run a homeless shelter Chicago, 19% of the 540 people who used shelter services were from the Austin Neighborhood.

            Rev. Reginald Bachus, Executive Director of Strategies for Collaboration (ACT) said that many of the organizations doing good work east of Austin Blvd. were doing business in “silos,” i.e. independently without connecting with other agencies.  The goal of his organization is to promote collaboration.  For example, ACT hosts a monthly meeting in which representatives from non-profits can “share successes, take notes, help each other grow, build trust and unity among leaders and address issues in a comprehensive and systemic way.”

            The Rev. Walter Jones, the Executive Director of Fathers Who Care and a mentor for the West Garfield Park Youth Council, declared, “When real men come together and address men’s health and parental involvement, and are able to get decent employment, men can change their community.”

            The mood at the event was positive and energized, but what was apparent was that in order to provide context for their successes, all the speakers had to acknowledge how deep the social/political/economic/educational/attitudinal hole is out of which they were trying to climb.  In their celebration of the Austin glass being half full, they could not ignore that it was still half empty.

            Edward Coleman, for example, was proud that 27 of the 30 students in Bethel New Life’s entrepreneurial training program had graduated, but he prefaced the report of that small success with the statement, “In order for west side to catch up with rest of city ten years from now 27,000 new jobs need to be created for people who are not working today and another 36,000 new jobs created for people working in positions which do not pay a living wage.”

            Prevail’s Cristy Harris said, “What keeps me up at night is once you’re in poverty it’s darn hard to get out of poverty.  It’s really complicated.  Starting a dialogue, starting a relationship is a good thing but it’s going to require that long term commitment to maintain that relationship.  I challenge all of you here to commit yourselves to that challenge.”

            Responses in the question and answer period following the presentations and then after the meeting ended were all positive. Euclid Methodist Church’s pastor, Dr. Marti Scott, summarized the mood after the presentations this way: “The Community of Congregations gathering was the most exciting and hopeful event I have attended.  I began to see Austin Blvd. as a meeting place, not a dividing line.

“Last night demonstrated how people have for years put words into actions. My favorite moment happened after the benediction, when people were rushing the table of speakers to make connections and share thoughts. It was a critical and holy moment of what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther called ‘Beloved Community.'”

            Many were asking, “What’s the next step?”  Oak Park resident Jerry Lordan said, “I think the next step is to find projects to pursue for Oak Park and Austin residents to interact together. The more things we do together, the better we will get to know and trust one another.  One such project could be mutual engagement with the Blue Line Visioning Project.”  He argued that the 63,000 jobs needed don’t have to be created entirely in the neighborhood.  Extending the Blue Line would provide Austinites access to jobs further west.

            Lordan added, “We need to find ways to bring Austin residents into contact with other people/places in the Metropolitan Region. The formation of an Austin service club like Kiwanis or Lions or Rotary is one way to do that.”

            Rev. Kathy Nolte, the pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Oak Park, said that on a personal level she and her husband already volunteer with Duane Ehresman’s Kidz Express (not part of the panel).  In addition she has made the commitment to bring some of her business to the Westside and to begin connecting with some of the leaders she met at the event.  She also intends to continue conversations with her congregation about how to build and maintain bridges across Austin Blvd.  Austin Avenue is not the Wall of China,” she declared.  “There should be more fluid movement across the line.”

            Rev. Scott said, “I left feeling compelled to recruit medical personnel from our cluster of churches to volunteer in the Circle Family HealthCare Network. I realized that the newly launched healing ministry at our church was too narrowly defined and its service area too small.”

            “I would also call on the Arts communities in both Austin and  Oak Park,” she added, “to write a new story, a play, offering a vision of what a new Austin Blvd. could become for all our sakes.”

            After the event Cristy Harris focused on what people on both sides of the Boulevard have in common. “At Prevail, we meet individuals from Austin every day.  We all want the same things – security and happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.”

Dawn Ferencak, the local advertising consultant for the Austin Weekly News and the Wednesday Journal,  and the director of the AWN West Side Business Network, said, “From the energy evident at this discussion, people clearly want to help bridge the gap between the West Side of Chicago and Oak Park and other Western Suburbs. But this conversation must continue as we come together, not as two divided communities, but on common ground. The door opened tonight to new opportunities to form relationships.”

Rev. Sally Iberg, the Senior Pastor at Pilgrim Congregational Church, emphasized follow up as well.  “Pilgrim Congregational Church,” she said, “will build on this experience and the experience of the summer. This is a people to people campaign. As we get to know each other better, the walls come down. I don’t think there is one magic effort. This takes long-term commitment from all of us.”

            Despite all the challenges mentioned that night,” said Many Gawf, the congregational liaison at West Suburban PADS,” many strengths of the Austin, Oak Park and surrounding areas were also revealed. One strength that was highlighted for me was the strong, active, and innovative faith community in this area. I think the network of congregations is a significant community resource of great potential that we should remember as we work toward becoming a community of greater wholeness.”