The Kehrein Center for the Arts is located at 5628 W. Washington Blvd. Credit: Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago

SOUTH AUSTIN — A West Side cultural center is inviting neighborhood leaders, advocates, artists and musicians to help plan a community event about systemic racism in Chicago and the organizing work helping to heal under-resourced communities.

The Symposium on Racial Reconciliation is scheduled for Nov. 5 at the Kehrein Center for the Arts, 5628 W. Washington Blvd. The event is being commissioned by the Austin Renaissance Council, and organizers are looking for individuals and organizations who want to lead sessions.

The goal is to help participants learn more about the West Side’s history of neglect and how public policies rooted in racism continue to burden the area and traumatize residents, organizers said.

By acknowledging that history, and educating people about valuable community work already underway, neighbors can begin to move toward a better future.

“In order for us to get to equity, we need to reconcile. We need to really look at how we got here, and begin to really heal from that,” said Vanessa Stokes, who is helping plan the event.

Though the programming is still being designed, sessions at the symposium will align with the issues tackled by the award-winning Austin Quality of Life Plan.

The plan is a blueprint to revitalize Austin through economic development, education, housing, public safety, civic engagement and the community narrative.

Neighborhood groups are making strides in each area, organizers said, while also dealing with the material repercussions of systemic racism in each field.

Proposals from residents and organizations will help shape the symposium sessions. Organizers want to create several avenues to start conversations about racial reconciliation, so the forum will include panels, artists, musicians and more, said Ethan Ramsay, of Austin Coming Together.

“This symposium has the potential to really be a quilted performance … where there’s artists, musicians, kind of approaching racial reconciliation, Black Lives Matter and the response to the murder of George Floyd,” Ramsay said.

Panel discussions will shed light on the “hidden history” of Chicago and the West Side, organizers said, and they’ll educate people on the suffering Black communities have endured that has often been erased and ignored.

That history of redlining, contract buying, segregation and neglect toward the West Side provides crucial context for the social conditions that lead to many of the issues residents now face, Stokes said.

“This is why the West Side looks the way it does,” Stokes said. “There’s a lot of things that have happened in our communities that we don’t even know about. That’s part of the reconciliation: to really get what it is that African-descended people have gone through in this country.”

Sparking these difficult conversations will also show residents how they can participate in the many local projects helping to restore the West Side, Ramsay said.

“It’s exciting that it’s not just going to be a bunch of lectures,” Ramsay said. “It’s going to be a number of different mediums as well as calls to action.”

But reconciliation cannot happen in just one day, Stokes said. The symposium is just the beginning of a conversation that will be continued with future events and programming.

“How can we make a long-lasting transformative impact in our community? I think it starts with really having uncomfortable conversations around things that people really don’t talk about, especially race,” Stokes said.

Anyone interested in leading a session for the symposium can submit a proposal by contacting Sharon Morgan at Submissions are due Oct. 16.

Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.

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