BY LEE EDWARDS
If you can pay a kid ten dollars an hour to shovel snow, you could help keep him out of the drug business.
That might sound simple, but it’s one of the core ideas that’s driving the Good Neighbor Campaign, a group of community organizations, churches, and West Side residents who hope to empower their neighbors and transform their community.
The Good Neighbor Campaign (GNC) aims to forge mutually beneficial relationships among Austin residents, creating a safer, more vibrant community, according to Quiwana Bell, chief operating officer of the Westside Health Authority (WHA), and one of the campaign’s primary organizers. The first-year goal of the campaign is to connect at least 1,000 residents to one another by identifying those willing to volunteer or pay their neighbors for goods and services, employ local youth to complete tasks throughout the community, and partner with clergy leaders to “adopt” blocks.
WHA took the initial steps toward launching the GNC last summer by surveying Austin residents about what they wanted to transform in their community, eventually collecting over 500 responses. “Residents talked about the need to feel connected to the neighbors that are on their block, the institutions within the community, and [the] political process,” said Bell.
By talking to residents, WHA found that among youth who participate in drug sales, some earn as few as forty dollars per week. In a bid to replace drug-related income with legal wages, GNC searches within the community to find people who can pay a comparable hourly wage for household tasks like snow removal. Already, eight snow removers have been hired to clean up blocks in Austin and Oak Park for a payment of ten dollars per hour. (Young people ages 12 to 24 interested in becoming snow removers should call (773) 378-5034.)
At the campaign’s announcement in October, Lafrance Lucas, 19, an anti-violence advocate and GNC partner, spoke about the hardships Austin youth face.
“I know it sounds crazy, but we’re out here rain, snow, sleet, because [the gun violence] doesn’t stop. If it’s snow time people are getting killed, if it’s fall someone’s still getting killed, if it’s hot someone is still getting killed,” Lucas said to the crowd gathered at shuttered Emmet Elementary School, 5500 W. Madison St. “The main thing is to get everyone out the way from the shootings and try to make everyone successful.”
Two years ago, he was a homeless teen living on the West Side. Today, Lucas credits his WHA mentors for giving him an opportunity to find a job and showing him how the community can work together to lift up its most vulnerable members. Through GNC, Lucas has assisted other young people in finding jobs at the Handi-Foil of America factory in Wheeling, IL, where he works.
As part of GNC, Bell and former president and founder of the WHA, Jacqueline Reed, hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for over one hundred people. Reed said this campaign is unique in its commitment to crossing divisions in the neighborhood and its focus on resident input.
“The needs are so great and the mountain is so high,” she said. “We have many people with gifts within the neighborhood but they don’t have an opportunity to give them. The Good Neighbor Campaign gives people the opportunity to give their gifts.”
As of this month, seven Austin churches have committed to adopting a block through the GNC’s program, according to Bell. She hopes to get one hundred of Austin’s 400-plus churches to participate. Churches will hold meetings to connect with the residents and learn the needs and assets of each block, then find out how parishioners can help.
The Good Neighbor Campaign meets on the second Tuesday every month at 6 pm at 5437 W. Division St. To learn more about the Good Neighbors Campaign, call the Westside Health Authority at (773)378-1878 or text “goodneighbor” to 94253 to be added to their text-alert list.
This story was produced on partnership with the South Side Weekly.