An Open Letter from Jenny Byelick
When you walk down the 1900 block of South Avers, you can see why community residents and leaders directed our site search for the student housing program to the area. Beautiful, historical homes with well-kept lawns and gardens line the block. Many residents are proud homeowners, living in homes their grandparents purchased and where they and their children have grown up. A community garden sits on the corner of 19th and Avers. The quiet, peaceful ambiance of the block is a stark contrast to many nearby corners in a neighborhood struggling with blight, violence and years of oppression and neglect.
My first task as Program Manager for the initiative was to learn from existing programs and build community relationships. North Lawndale blew me away with the number of nonprofits, collaborations and leaders committed to improving their community. I joined a few of these collaborative partnerships, and these leaders (many themselves longtime residents) helped guide our search for a building. We purchased the building on Avers, and met with public officials to share our plans. We were met with some strong concerns; how would a housing program for youth change the block, would it create or “bring” all the violence to the area, would struggling families be unjustly separated, who were we and could we be trusted? All valid concerns. I was fortunate to attend a community planning event in early spring, where a public official introduced me to one of our neighbors. A small group of neighbors met with me and guided our outreach strategy; they knew what it took to reach their neighbors and share our vision for the program. One of their comments has stayed with me, “It’s all about relationships.”
We hosted a number of town hall style meetings, inviting neighbors from the block and surrounding blocks. Many neighbors were very concerned that all the plans were already set – we had bought the building and we were asking them for their feedback only as a formality. We were committed though to truly collaborating with our neighbors; and we knew building a sustainable, impactful program could not just happen on our end. We developed program plans in conjunction with input and discussion from the school community, and brought our thoughts to the greater community. We hosted a few BBQs over the summer at the home; it started to feel less of a formal meeting and more of neighborly relationship building. People started to ask more detailed questions, and admitted they didn’t want to appear negative in the town hall meetings, so they never raised their concerns publicly. Many heard of the program from their neighbors, and were confused and worried about what this meant. We followed up with door to door outreach, sharing program information and meeting residents in person (many of whom are elderly and cannot attend community meetings). I spent many afternoons working from the front porch, tending to the flowers and meeting neighbors as they passed by.
As the summer outreach continued, I noticed neighbors started answering their doors more, and took time to stop by and say hello. They truly listened to my explanation of the proposal, and started sharing that they honestly had been against the program at first, had even gathered with their neighbors asking if they wanted such a program on their quiet block. Many had misconceptions about the program, that it would serve youth coming from prisons, or youth would be given keys with no supervision. Many others fully understood the program, yet didn’t know who we were, and didn’t yet have the trust that is critical to offering their support.
One neighbor explained it to me very succinctly, had we opened without building relationships with our neighbors, even with the best of intentions, they would have protested, and not because it wasn’t needed or wanted, but because the process neglected the community. To truly have an impactful program, where students can grow and thrive, we need strong neighborhood support. Neighbors have since gone above and beyond offering their support, many want to mentor the students, cook with them, remind them to do their homework, even eventually work there as staff. It’s been a beautiful process, and one that often does test the balance of being collaborative and being efficient. Community leaders too have emphasized we are doing this exactly as it should be done, and more often than not, programs quickly move in and relationship building is secondary. We have been welcomed by many neighbors to the family. We are proud to be in North Lawndale, and on Avers, and we know these relationships will provide the community, the family, that our students need.