Oak Park group hosts meeting to get to know Austin neighbors

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Close to 200 people met at Oak Park’s Ascension Catholic Church last week to work on breaking down barriers between the suburb and Austin, and to learn how Oak Park can better partner with its Chicago neighbors.

The idea, said panel moderator Len Grossman, came about because of recent negative press of Austin.

“We need to get to know each other again,” said Grossman, president of the Oak Park-River Forest Community of Congregations, which organized the Sept. 30th event.

One by one, an 11-person panel made up primarily of Austin’s community leaders highlighted the positive aspects of the community.

But they didn’t shy away from the challenges Austin residents.

Kathryn McCabe, executive director of the Cluster Tutoring Program, said students from Austin are not well educated.

“I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anybody,” she said.

She’s been working with Austin students since 1990 because she believes that improving reading skills will help level the playing field.

But the program – which runs on Tuesday and Thursday nights throughout the school year – currently has 45 students on the waiting list because there aren’t enough tutors for Tuesday, the night students and tutors meet in Austin. The majority of tutors sign up for Thursday in Oak Park.

About 20 of the students on the waiting list can only come to Austin meetings because of transportation issues, she said.

She told the crowd she’s looking for some “adventurous” tutors who are willing to cross the Austin border.

Michele Zurakowski, executive director of the Oak Park-River Forest Food Pantry, said about one-third of Austin’s population, or about 34,000 people, face “food insecurity,” or are routinely hungry.

Twenty percent of them are single moms; one-third are children, she said.

Austin, the most populated of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods, has only 14 grocery stores, according to a 2013 count on the city of Chicago Data Portal.

Food deserts tie into poverty, and one-third of Austin residents live below the poverty line, according to the 2010 Census. That amounts to a family of four living on an income of $24,000 a year.

Christy Harris, executive director of Prevail, said she loses sleep over the level of poverty she sees in Austin.

“Once you’re in poverty, it’s darn hard to get out of poverty,” she Harris.

She told the group of mainly Oak Park residents that starting a dialogue between the communities is a good start, but she wants to see them make a commitment to helping their neighbors to the east.

Our partners at the Austin Weekly News also covered the forum.

Also on the panel were the Rev. Reginald Bachus from Austin Coming Together; Edward Coleman from Bethel New Life; Serethea Reid of the Central Austin Neighborhood Association; Lt. Frank Brim from the Chicago Police and Firefighters Training Program; Dr. Andre Hines of the Circle Family Healthcare Network; Lynda Schueler of West Suburban PADS; and Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago).

Rep. Ford told the group it’s important to recognize all of the good things happening in Austin.

“If Austin is weak, so is Oak Park,” he said.

There are a lot of problems that affect Oak Park because they affect Austin, he said, adding, “We need to come together and work together to make a difference.”

The key, he said, is looking at Oak Park, River Forest and Austin as one big community.

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