Just over a year ago, Rodney Williams, Director of Entrepreneurship and Development at Hand club for kids, 415 N. Laramie, sat in a circle of peace with a group of frustrated youth. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, protests sparked violent unrest in Austin and left By the Hand’s after-school program participants worried about their community.
“They were expressing their frustration,” Williams said. “They were seeing unrest in their community and were also grappling with COVID-19 lockdowns and virtual learning, but it was clear these kids were determined to build their community the right way. “
In fact, a liquor store right across from By the Hand had been looted and set on fire during a night of riots. By the Hand purchased the property and demolished the building within six weeks of taking possession. Frustrated students saw this as an opportunity to change their community from within and raised the idea of holding a pop-up market on the vacant lot left after the liquor store was demolished.
“Austin has a population of 97,000,” Williams said. “We had 17 liquor stores and only 3 grocery stores. It’s a food desert and the kids wanted to do something about it.
Initially, the entrepreneurial experience was only to last 12 weeks, but the community responded favorably to Austin Harvest, 423 N. Laramie, and plans for a second season evolved naturally.
Last week Austin Harvest, with the support of Sam Acho, a former Chicago Bear, and Athletes for Justice, learned that a WSCR-AM radiothon hosted by host Danny Parkins had generated more than $ 670,000 in donations to help build a permanent home for the pop-up market.
“We’re not going anywhere,” said Azariah Baker, Austin Harvest student employee. “A roof is the best way to show it. “
They may be selling products at affordable prices, but Williams is clear that the main goal of the program is to develop entrepreneurs. Students earn a stipend for their work at Austin Harvest and oversee everything from accounting and purchasing to uniform design and furniture construction. They manage partnerships with Jewel Osco and Flowers for Dreams to keep the market supplied. They worked closely with contractors to design the future brick and mortar building that will ultimately house Austin Harvest.
“Nothing gets done without their approval,” said Williams. “School is of course their top priority, but I’m here to work with the students and their families to make sure this effort is 100% student-led. “
The building is expected to be completed by the end of 2021 and has been designed to retain an open-air market atmosphere. The plans included retractable walls and expanded refrigeration as well as a stage for local musicians to use. The space will also be used to host community events like decorating pumpkins in the fall and other holiday events throughout the year.
“You can only dream what you see,” said Williams. “Some of the kids in our program have never been to Oak Park. They live in Chicago but have never seen the Bean. But this market shows them what is possible in their own community. The best thing people can do is go out shopping and cheer the kids on ”
Williams hopes the success of Austin Harvest will serve as a model for other organizations to do their part to improve their communities “in the right way.”
Austin Harvest will temporarily move across the street during construction, but the market will continue to operate at 423 N. Laramie on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 2 to 6 p.m. until they start digging.