Austin residents need more and better jobs, and their children need a good education.
Those two goals are at the heart of a new group, Austin Coming Together (ACT), which is harnessing the work of dozens of organizations already operating on the West Side.
The strategy is to find “a convergence of mutual interest,” said Rev. Reggie Bachus, hired in November as ACT’s first full-time staff member.
The minister, whose father leads Friendship Baptist Church in Austin, accepted the position over more lucrative job offers on the East Coast because he liked the idea of helping transform a community.
Bachus describes the group, which is less than a year old and still finalizing its bylaws, as being a facilitator of community-led movement of change.
“It’s bigger than us,” said Bachus, sitting in an office at Goodcity, a nonprofit incubator that’s helping ACT get off the ground.
It’s an office Bachus doesn’t use much. Instead, he spends most of his time in and around Austin meeting with any and everyone interested in joining the effort.
The group got its start in late 2009 when JPMorgan Chase Foundation decided to focus on Austin and two other Chicago neighborhoods.
Last year, the foundation gave about $1 million in grants to several groups doing work in Austin, and this year, that will double to $2 million, said Beverly Meek, who manages the foundation’s efforts in Austin.
The foundation wanted to target an area not being helped by LISC, another nonprofit group that’s poured millions of dollars into 16 neighborhoods through its New Communities program.
“We wanted to establish a collaborative of non-profits in Austin,” Meek said. “We wanted a community that was not a LISC community, and there wasn’t a lot foundation and other money going into the community.”
The foundation funded a study to evaluate Austin’s needs. The results of the study, conducted by the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement at the University of Illinois at Chicago, were shared in February 2010 with several groups, including the Westside Health Authority, Goodcity and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
From there, other organizations joined the effort, with dozens now represented at monthly meetings; the next meeting is Jan. 27. The coalition helped determine the two-pronged focus on improving economic and educational systems within Austin.
At the heart of the ACT’s mission is working with Austin’s youngest residents, starting with prenatal care and continuing through 2nd grade.
“We fundamentally believe education investment will equal economic growth,” Bachus said.
Through planning and assessment – and lots of community input, Bachus said – the schools will decide what they need; those needs could range from finding the money to hire an extra teacher’s aide to creating an alternative school, he noted.
Bachus said ACT will not provide services directly but working with schools, social service agencies and others to create an environment that will transform Chicago’s most-populated neighborhood.
“We’re proceeding slowly with thought and prayer.”
It will take years to get Austin to where the community wants it to be, Meek said.
“We need to instill in these kids that we’re not going to let them fail,” Meek said. “There are just some major issues. We know we can’t tackle all of them, but we can’t tackle education without tackling the job situation.”
Through a series of public meetings in coming weeks, ACT will work on strategic plans for both education and economic development. The next step: finding money for what needs to be done, Meek said.
“It’s a challenge, but I think it’s doable. We have a plan, and we have the right people at the table . . . People are ready for things to happen.”
ACT will host its first community “listening party” at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 25 at Austin Town Hall, 5610 W. Lake Ave. Follow-up meetings are scheduled for Feb. 22 and March 29, with an Austin Expo planned for April 30.
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