New project puts spotlight on local ‘everyday’ heroes

December 3, 2020
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“Everyday Activists” is a new project that aims to tell the stories of heroes whose contributions on the West Side are often unheard and overlooked.

Susan Stall, president of the nonprofit Arbor West Neighbors and chair of the group’s advocacy committee, wants to bridge the gap between Austin and Oak Park by uplifting voices in both communities. The collection of portraits and interviews will feature residents who are making positive changes.

Started in late August, the interviewing and photography will continue until April, with an exhibit to follow. With COVID-19 still surging, an exact date is still in the works. Organizers want to have two in-person exhibits – one in Austin and the other in Oak Park.

Stall, an Oak Park resident, was inspired to create an inter-generational, multi-cultural and multi-topic project after the protests following George Floyd’s death in May. She saw the diversity of people coming together to discuss issues surrounding race.

“You’ve got to really pay attention to all of the good stuff that’s going on. There are some very inspirational people that you don’t know about, whose voices are new to me,” Stall said. “This time is particularly important to continue to be inspired.”

With the help of a college intern, Tameka Wilson, the project has started to really come together, Stall said. Wilson is studying intercultural relations and photography at Triton College, which made her the perfect candidate to do the interviews and take portraits, Stall said.

When Stall learned of Wilson’s background and photographic talent, she could envision a new direction for “Everyday Activists” with Wilson onboard.

Something that Wilson has found interesting while doing the interviews is how many of the people she’s talking to don’t consider themselves activists.

Wilson has done eight interviews so far with a total of 18 to 20 interviews planned. The first interviews were done with people involved in Austin Coming Together. More activists were found through snowball sampling, or by subjects suggesting other community members for the project.

“People didn’t start doing what they’re doing to be called an activist; they started doing it because they felt like there was a need in the community for it,” she said.

“I hope that people learn that the smallest activities that they do can make a change,” Wilson said. “It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to take up a lot of your time and effort. It can be a small change in your life, and it can make a big difference.”

Austin Coming Together is working on a similar project titled “Austin has the Mic,” which aims to tell the stories of the community.

One aspect of Austin Coming Together’s quality-of-life plan is to tell more authentic stories about Austin residents’ lived experiences. Two of the non-profit’s strategy leads, who are journalists, suggested providing training to Austin youth on storytelling. (AustinTalks is involved in the project.)

Students from BUILD’s youth council and youth podcasting program, and a group of young people from Westside Health Authority worked on the project over the summer. A total of 30 youth met four times a week for several weeks over the summer doing interviews and learning how to do podcasts.

Ethan Ramsay, project coordinator at Austin Coming Together, said the goal is to empower youth to tell their narratives about their neighborhood, which too often is depicted in a negative light.

“The number of negative stories to positive stories about Austin is really problematic and starts becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is an effort to combat that through youth voice,” Ramsay said.

The youth had conducted about 20 interviews by the end of the summer. Some narratives detail how small businesses are being impacted by the pandemic, others are profiles of outreach workers at BUILD; and some young people opted to interview their family and friends.

One goal would be to have these stories broadcasted on a live radio show to give the community updates on what’s happening in the neighborhood through a youth-led lens. A definite date on when the project will be available to the public has yet to be set.

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