It was an unseasonably warm late October afternoon in the Austin neighborhood of West Side Chicago. A steady stream of school children and their parents stepped into the office of Increase the Harvest at 221 S. Central Ave to pick up their box lunches.
It was the first day of the organization’s after school food distribution program for children. The box lunches are provided through a Chicago Public Schools program. Increase the Harvest volunteers completed a 6 hour training program so it could become a certified vendor.
Michelle Young of Increase the Harvest, explained one of the reasons for the food program,” Right now we are feeding the children after school box lunches because perhaps a lot of them may not even have enough to eat when they get home.”As a largely African American community, Austin has been hurt by disinvestment as businesses and non-profit organizations have abandoned the community. Helpful government programs have been cut back. Austin was hit hard by the school closings of 2013. There is high unemployment and underemployment. Crime and violence including police brutality are serious problems.
As Increase the Harvest volunteer Zerlina Smith, an Austin resident often says,” When I walk out my door, that is not the vision I want to see.”
Yolanda Hoskins of Increase the Harvest greets each person who walks in to pick up their box lunch with kind words and a smile as she notes down their names. The modest basement office of Increase the Harvest is across the street from Oscar DePriest Elementary School and the program is available from 3-6 pm, Monday through Friday, with different box lunches on each day.
A veteran union and community organizer, Yolanda Hoskins told of how she had canvassed the neighborhood,”Putting up signs. Passing literature out and knocking on doors.” Hoskins believes that by feeding the children after school, they will do better on their homework when they get home. By the end of the first week, the program was so successful that the box lunches were gone before the 6 pm closing time. Hoskins is now calculating how many more box lunches to order.Increase the Harvest is a new community organization which grew out of Zerlina Smith’s’ 2015 aldermanic campaign in Chicago’s 29th Ward. Running as an independent, Smith did not make it to the runoff election, but vowed to continue her advocacy on behalf of the Austin community. A parent leader in the education justice movement, Smith wants Increase the Harvest to roll out new programs based on community discussions and resources available.
Austin parent Nichole Brown stopped in for the food program, but also said she wanted to join a women’s group who could discuss common issues in the community and find ways to seek help. Like many Austin residents she interested in job training and job placement.Michelle Young wants Austin residents to come in to discuss their problems and get help finding resources to deal with their issues. Young said,”We can’t promise them anything, but we do promise we will fight for them.”
For the activists of Increase the Harvest, the food program and the other programs they are planning will help build human relationships and strengthen a community that has been battered by decades of racism and bad economics.The Chicago Department of Health has compiled a hardship index where Chicago neighborhoods are ranked by statistics such as poverty levels, per capita income, and unemployment rates. Austin ranks among those communities with the most difficult hardships. The mostly white affluent neighborhoods like Near North and Lincoln Park have the least difficult hardships. Race and class matter in Chicago. They matter a lot.
But Austin does not define itself by those hardships. It also has local businesses, block clubs, churches, schools and community organizations who are determined not to let hardships prevent them from improving the community. Increase the Harvest is now among these neighborhood institutions and the mood around the office is one of optimism and hope.Along with their non-profit community service wing, Increase the Harvest also is organizing for social change. On the table next to the office entrance is a stack of leaflets announcing a planned mass march through downtown Chicago for a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to join a union.
The idea is to combine direct social service with social activism.
Not surprisingly, informal discussions about politics often take place at Increase the Harvest. People there are generally suspicious of the racist corporate driven politics that come from City Hall in Chicago and the State House in Springfield. Voter turnout is low in Austin and many residents have basically given up on the political process, feeling that it is stacked against them.However there is also a fledgling independent political movement emerging within the community, one that steers clear of the subservience to Big Money and its army of corrupted politicians. This movement is often the subject of discussion among Increase the Harvest activists.
Yolanda Hoskins feels that most politicians do not fairly represent their communities and are actually actually harming them by taking from neighborhoods instead of helping the people who live there. She is especially concerned about the lack of meaningful programs for young people.
“That’s why I’m giving back to the community. I want to help our community. To build it up. Not to bring it down. That’s why I got involved with Increase the Harvest. This is my passion.”