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A group of youth in the Austin area of Chicago’s Westside initiated an Austin Safety Action Plan to help combat the violence in their neighborhood. The plan was designed to encourage community engagement by partnering youth with older adults, creating events and activities in areas where crime has been prevalent.
The youth began putting this plan into action after three-year-old Mekhi James was shot and killed on June 20, 2020, followed by seven-year-old Natalia Wallace on July 4, 2020, in South Austin.
These children were two of the more than 100 people shot within the first few days of summer, with James being the youngest of several children killed during that time.
More shootings coincided with the 4th of July fireworks across the city that consisted of six people in North Lawndale, including teenage boys and one 20-year-old woman who died of her wounds, along with eight people shot at a gathering in Englewood, where four were killed, including a 14-year-old boy.
Aisha Oliver, a community organizer who helped the youth develop the Austin Safety Action Plan, stated that the youth decided to create the safe zone in South Austin as “our own area where we control the narrative of what happens and take back those spaces where people have started to do idle things in.”
After concentrating on the causes of violence in their community, the youth gathered together to find solutions. They spoke with Oliver about how they were depressed, afraid of leaving the house, and other issues that kept them from living a normal teenaged life. Finally, they decided to take back the places in their neighborhood where the adults had taken over.
Austin Townhall and the Austin Branch Library are places where the youth had participated in activities and felt safe. Therefore, they decided to call the space between the institutions the safe zone, giving young people the feeling of being protected like when they were actively involved in the aforementioned buildings.
From early July till mid-August, the youth organized a plan to utilize the safe area between the hall and library to engage young people in constructive activities such as an outdoor five-week basketball tournament, a community art project, and a plant-growing workshop.
One of the plan’s goals is to encourage mentor-type relationships between the youth and adults that would make them accountable to each other, thereby promoting the sense of a safe community.
Davonte Dudley, 19, explained:
We want to give people something. They’re going to find something to do if they don’t got nothing to do. We’ve got to target the youth because we’re the people of tomorrow. We just try to get everybody engaged.
The Field School is an intentionally diverse, classical Christian elementary located in Oak Park but will move into the former Key School at 517 N. Pine for the 2022-2023 school year. It assists in a community art project across the safe zone that will “give young people a chance to decorate their community with art inspired by a theme of “peace in Austin,” Oliver said. Additionally, the nearby Harambee Community Garden, located at 500 N. Waller on two oversized lots in Austin, will host workshops on gardening.
Harambee has hosted numerous community organization activities, including The Chicago Public Library, and is dedicated to creating opportunities for people to connect, learn, and discover the joys of growing their own food.
Other events will include yoga, meditation, live jazz music, and dance lessons, Oliver said.
Jeremy Mann, Dean, and Jessica Chang, Chief Advancement and Partnerships Officer of The Field School, have built a relationship with Oliver through community engagement in preparation for the restoration of the former Key Elementary building and have helped with the development and implementation of the Austin Safety Action Plan. Mann says he is inspired by Oliver’s knowledge of and love for the youth of Austin; she empowers them, connects them to resources, and puts in the time to enrich the larger community.
If somebody feels some type of way about something, it should be some way that we can resolve that. It’s not no places around here where people can go to if they’re feeling down. It’s so many things we can change.
For a list of safety zone events, go to Oliver’s Instagram page — root2fruit.youth.
Written by Brenda Robinson
Edited by Cathy Milne-Ware
Block Club Chicago: West Side Teens Create A ‘Safe Zone’ In Austin With Events To Reclaim The Neighborhood From Violence; by Pascal Sabino
Block Club Chicago: GoFundMe Launched For Family Of Mekhi James, Toddler Fatally Shot In Austin; by Alexandra Chaidez
CBS Chicago: Natalia Wallace, 7-Year-Old Fatally Shot July 4th, Was ‘Sweet, Shy, Loving, And Good At Math,’ Family Says; by Marissa Parra
Neighbor-Space.Org: Harambee Community Garden
Interview: Jeremy Mann, July 22, 2021
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Daniel X. O’Neil’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image Courtesy of Howard County Library’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy of Dele Omotosho’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License