March 12th, 2020 12:18 PM
A rendering of how the former Emmet Elementary School could look as the new Aspire Center for Workforce Innovation. (Photo provided by Lamar Johnson Collaborative)
Life isn't measured by time, but instead by moments. And for Austin, a critical moment is upon us.
Despite being Chicago's largest geographic neighborhood and having the second largest population, Austin has been historically overlooked. As a lifelong Austin resident, I know firsthand the challenges our community has to overcome, as well as our collective power to change conditions. Many Chicagoans haven't noticed our resilience and the momentum that's brewing here.
But the tides are turning. Austin is in the spotlight, and a newfound energy is driving a narrative that we've always known to be possible: Austin can be a thriving community that serves everyone's needs.
Across our neighborhood, new opportunities are arising for residents to not only lend a voice but a hand to move this Austin renaissance forward. At the same time, new partners are investing in our vision, bringing the capital needed to create change.
One of those new opportunities for residents has been the creation of Austin's five-year Quality-of-Life Plan (QLP), known as Austin Forward Together. Austin Forward Together is a blueprint for strategic improvement, generated and owned by community organizations, neighborhood leaders and residents, and operated by Austin Coming Together (ACT).
It details actionable steps for our community to enhance Austin's business corridors through physical redevelopment, as well as to address seven issue areas: Community Narrative, Economic Development, Education, Housing, Public Safety, Youth Empowerment, and Civic Engagement.
Between 2016 and 2018, ACT and a 20-person steering committee partnered with LISC Chicago to convene summits and meetings that brought together over 500 Austin community stakeholders to create this plan.
Since being published in December 2018, we have already seen Austin Forward Together spark productive discussions amongst neighbors and build critical partnerships.
Today, there are more than 40 dedicated volunteer members leading seven task forces to bring the plan to life. In partnership with ACT, these Task Forces have recruited 50 unique organizations as "Implementation Partners" and have initiated more than 30% of the plan's total actions.
These actions and these moments are what we've long been fighting for. Since ACT was founded in 2010, we've passionately advocated for strong collaboration in our neighborhood and have wholeheartedly recognized the need to center residents in our work.
As we've been charging forward, another group of stakeholders have come along on this journey. Funders, who provide capital to invest in our vision, have shifted how they think about community investment. They, too, are beginning to understand that our people know best what efforts will catalyze the greatest impact in our neighborhood.
This means ACT and other organizations we partner with will now have a seat at some of the most important tables in this city. In turn, so do you — our neighbors.
First, the City of Chicago has identified Austin as one of 10 neighborhoods that are primed and ready to be part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot's INVEST South/West initiative. In addition to a recent $10 million commitment from BMO Harris Bank, this strategic support will help bring Austin Forward Together to fruition.
We are contenders for another surge of investment, too. Our "ASPIRE Initiative," a plan to fund four strategic projects as a part of Austin Forward Together, has been selected as a finalist for the $10 million Chicago Prize. This grant from the Pritzker-Traubert Foundation will allow us to create the infrastructure and state-of-the-art buildings that would enable other parts of the QLP Austin Forward Together to proceed.
The projects outlined in the ASPIRE proposal will address low education outcomes, rising rates of poverty and the lack of homeownership in Austin.
"Each Chicago Prize finalist team was chosen because they understand their community and have the skills and vision required to make a difference," said Cindy Moelis, president of the Pritzker-Traubert Foundation. "Our goal is to empower communities to use their built environment as a tool for change. Each of these finalists are proposing big plans that make sense at this moment for their neighborhood."
With these resources and our neighbors' input, we're ready to tell Austin's narrative that we've for so long held in our hearts.
Our moment is here. Will you join us?
To see what other Chicago neighborhoods have partnered with LISC Chicago to implement their own plans, visit: lisc.org/chicago/our-work/comprehensive-community-development.
Learn about the ASPIRE Initiative at ChicagoPrize.org/#finalists.
— Darnell Shields, Executive Director, Austin Coming Together
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