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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Austin’s New Nelson Mandela Center Would Offer Food, Housing Help And More

The organization will provide housing help, HIV/AIDS testing, domestic violence resources and more for neighbors.

The site of the Nelson Mandela Center in Austin set to open later this year.
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AUSTIN — Two nonprofits are teaming up to open a community health center in Austin so they can provide hope, education and a safe space to neighbors.

To Walk in My Shoes and the Herbert F. Ballard Foundation plan to open the Nelson Mandela Center at 4752 W. Madison St. as soon as this fall. The center would help residents with food, housing, employment, HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, violence prevention, domestic violence resources and substance abuse treatment.

The nonprofits were founded by brothers Marnell and Malcolm Brown and Shrone Conaway to provide temporary housing, COVID-19 testing and substance abuse counseling. The three pooled their resources last year and bought a storefront for $500,000 to turn into the Nelson Mandela Center.

“We’re trying to save a community that saved us,” Conaway said. “These folks trust us because we got the resources they needed [during the pandemic] to help them. We have to give the community some hope.”

Marnell Brown said they chose to honor Mandela — the famed South African leader who fought for the end of apartheid — in the center’s name because the area has an honorary street designation for him and because of Mandela’s resilient spirit in the face of suffering. They anticipate the center will predominantly service young people, they said.

“Austin has some of the poorest health care in the city,” Marnell Brown said. “Most of us are not prone to seeing a doctor on a regular basis. I know this center is going to bring the community closer together.”

The organizers are trying to get a Neighborhood Opportunity Fund grant from the city to refurbish and remodel the building. Rep. Lashawn Ford said he will lobby to secure the funding, saying the community needs the facility to combat high unemployment and HIV rates.

“We have an opportunity to help organizations that actually make a difference,” Ford said. “There’s treatment out there, and [neighbors] don’t know where to go nor trust people with their struggles.”

Black Chicagoans still represent the majority of new HIV diagnoses, and North Lawndale has been among the neighborhoods hit hardest by cases in recent years.

Marnell Brown, a 50-year resident of Austin, said he wants to repair the community after years of it being neglected.

“I watched this community literally burn to the ground after Dr. King’s assassination and how it changed the community for decades,” Brown said. “Now it’s the time to create our own services to help us.”

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