March 21, 2023
Healthy Schools Campaign’s (HSC) work to make schools healthier places for all students is guided by the priorities and needs of the entire school community. That means supporting students, teachers, administration and school staff, while also building relationships with parents, caregivers, neighbors and community groups. Kenneth Varner, HSC’s Community Engagement Manager, has been actively working with schools in the Austin community for several years; he has found that effectively supporting schools and families often takes him into the broader community. HSC’s commitment to healthier schools is deeply connected to and in support of community development strategies taking place across Austin.
A core tenet of HSC’s Space to Grow program – which transforms outdated school grounds into vibrant and safe shared spaces for learning, play and connecting with nature – is to ensure that everyone who uses the green schoolyards has a voice in the design, and is welcomed and encouraged to use the space. This requires actively meeting, engaging and building deep relationships in the communities where Space to Grow schoolyards are built.
To date, Space to Grow has built two green schoolyards in the Austin community area. Austin, located on Chicago’s far west side, is the largest community area in Chicago, and has the second largest population of any Chicago community with over 96,000 residents. 76% of Austin residents are Black, and 17% are Latin(x), and the community has suffered from racist policies and disinvestment for decades.
While doing outreach to support the first of the two Austin Space to Grow schoolyards at Leland Elementary, Kenneth was introduced to Austin Coming Together (ACT), a community-based organization. ACT was taking the lead in developing a quality of life plan in the Austin community, and Kenneth got involved. “My main intention was to represent how schools can contribute to and benefit from community development,” he says.
Kenneth was asked to co-chair the Community Narrative Task Force of the quality of life plan, now known as Austin Forward. Together. The plan focuses on action items in several areas including education, economic development and housing. Kenneth’s work with Space to Grow and his dedication to community driven investment made him a good fit for this role, and the process has shown what is possible when community members are given the opportunity to express their wants and needs.
The high level of participation by community members in the quality of life planning and implementation phases has reinforced the importance of community design processes. Kenneth noted, “When people are actively involved in planning a project, and know that their ideas are represented, they are more inclined to be involved in future phases of said project.” Space to Grow has proven that community members are more inclined to use a space that they had a hand in designing.
The Austin Forward. Together. plan has been in the implementation phase for three years, and part of that has been seeking community input as well as updating community members on the progress. “Not only do community members have a voice, but this entire process was developed by and implemented by community members,” Kenneth says. “We are bringing to fruition the vision that community members have for their own neighborhood.”
Kenneth helps coordinate the efforts that are focused on improving health and wellness in Austin, developing authentic stories for media, and improving opportunities to engage in art and cultural expressions in the neighborhood.
Kenneth also ensures that schools – and in particular the outdoor spaces at schools – are included in the conversation. “In my opinion, many times schools are left out of community development strategies,” he says. But schools are often located in the center of a neighborhood or community, so part of Kenneth’s work with the plan is identifying barriers to community use of the schoolyards and how the plan can help mitigate those barriers.
The Austin community has seen more investment since the implementation of the plan and that’s poised to continue. “I am excited to see how the community will make substantial changes,” Kenneth says. “Austin has been disinvested in for decades. I am excited to see how the community will thrive when it is being intentionally supported.”