First Person with Aisha Oliver: Changing a Community from Within
When leaders at the Patrick M. Magoon Institute for Healthy Communities decided to launch comprehensive neighborhood-based initiatives to improve child and adolescent health, they focused on Belmont Cragin and Austin, the two Chicago neighborhoods with the highest admission rates to Lurie Children’s Emergency Department. An experienced and savvy community outreach coordinator was needed to help establish and advance programs, as the Magoon Institute is committed to collaborative, community-driven programs. They found a rock star in Aisha Oliver.
An Austin native, Oliver was hired in early 2021 as the Magoon Institute’s Community Engagement Specialist in Austin on the strength of her community outreach experience on the West Side. There’s a wide scope for her talents: the neighborhood-based initiatives include mental health, substance use prevention, food access, support for pregnant and parenting teens, violence prevention and more. And a big vision is taking shape for a joint clinic/community center in Austin that will address the health needs of West Side youth. In this interview, Aisha shares her work in Austin, the results the community has already seen in violence prevention and her secret to being a change agent.
Q: How did your career in community outreach originate?
A: My grandfather was a precinct captain in Austin and I grew up seeing him door-knocking and meeting people. Like him, my parents were community builders. Their home was always a safe haven for kids in the neighborhood. I grew up interested in making those natural connections and was volunteering in the community even in high school. Later I worked for seven years for the Chicago Park District, teaching and creating programs for children and youth, and through those young people I got connected to their families. The programs began to snowball because the programs I was creating were based around what young people said they liked to do and wanted to do. I love to listen to youth and feel that the more I listen, the more I learn. When young people feel they’re in a safe space and are not being judged, they come up with innovative ideas on their own; I don’t always have to lead the conversation.
Q: Tell us about your work in violence prevention in Austin.
A: I’ve worked with a group of a dozen young men and one girl, all aged 14-21, who have come over to my house on a weekly basis for a few years. We eat together and talk about their lives and aspirations around issues like violence and safety in the community. I took notes on the conversations and a year into the pandemic, I organized all their ideas and we went through them to see what they were most interested in doing. Those ideas grew into ASAP, the Austin Safety Action Plan, created to help address gun violence. It launched last summer and was so successful we’re doing it again this year. The ASAP members host weekly events, including basketball tournaments, at Austin Town Hall and the Austin branch of the Chicago Public Library. We bring seniors, adults, teens and children to a safe space for planned activities. It’s really a village-building initiative and it’s been a success. A Chicago Police Department sergeant who came to our launch event last year tracked data all summer long for metrics like shootings in the area and police calls. He compared the pre-ASAP stats of 2020 with stats from 2021, and said the data showed that calls and shootings dropped significantly while ASAP was active. We want ASAP to be a blueprint for other communities. The ASAP members can do the training.
Q: What motivates you?
A: What motivates me is not just seeing change but being a change agent. I’m supposed to pass on what I know to the next generation. Everything I do is a training moment to show them how to change the community they live in. It’s not often explained to them that they have the power to change the things that need changing. I feel like it’s my job to show them and teach them how to be change agents and advocates of their community. We don’t have to wait for help--we can start now and others will join us along the way. This is the next generation of leaders. Since no civic engagement is taught in schools, it’s up to us to show them we can be the leaders. I want to see change happen from within – it should start with us.