When you invite neighbors and
begin to talk about problems over a
meal—it’s magic.

At this affordable housing complex, the new management and the residents all wanted to turn things around. A common table helped them invent solutions together—from a health clinic to a student mentoring program, right in their own home.

Three years ago, the Oakley Square apartments were no place to live.

The complex at the corner of Jackson Boulevard and Western Avenue was in dire need of repairs, and crime was a near-constant danger. The situation was so bad that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development asked national nonprofit development corporation The Community Builders , or TCB Inc., to step in and take over the management.

TCB’s approach is to build community among the residents of its affordable housing developments by providing support services and bringing in outside partners. One of its first steps was to take a survey of residents, recalls Rose Mabwa, senior manager at TCB-Oakley Square.

“We asked, ‘What would it take to make Oakley Square a place you would want to call home?’”

That conversation unfolded just as The Chicago Community Trust launched On the Table, an initiative which brings together individuals to share a meal and discuss strategies to solve the problems facing their communities.

So, one night in May, 14 people came to On The Table, including the local police commander, young residents and the alderman. Some surprising insights emerged.

One helped adults at Oakley Square understand why the kids, with so many activities available nearby, still desperately wanted “something to do”: Fear. They were afraid to go to a nearby Boys & Girls Club, because “they would have to cross gang lines”—a very real danger, says Mabwa.

That’s why this evening, if you stop by Oakley Square’s community kitchen, you’re likely to find a group of young people busily chopping vegetables, whisking spices into salad dressing, cutting bread into cubes for panzanella, a rustic Italian bread salad.

The young cooks gather every other week for lessons on healthy, affordable cooking, hosted through a partnership between Oakley Square and Chicago Cares. There are also hip-hop dance lessons, tumbling classes, an open-mic night and an annual camping trip.

And, through an innovative partnership with the nearby math and science-focused Phoenix Military Academy, the kids not only receive math tutoring but also learn to build and race boxcars—a fun competition that TCB hopes will spark young people’s interest and guide them toward STEM careers.

After TCB-Oakley Square’s first On The Table helped lay the groundwork for initiatives like these, it became an eagerly anticipated annual event.

“Everyone talks about it. They’re waiting for it to happen,” says Shaun Reed, community manager for TCB-Oakley Square.

In the second year of On The Table, the conversation turned to common health concerns. Managing chronic conditions and getting routine checkups felt out-of-reach for many residents.

That’s where Rush University Medical Center stepped in. After the management company reached out to them for guidance, a partnership was born—and Rush opened the doors to an on-site clinic within the year.

Nurse practitioner Terry Gallagher says the community’s leadership was key to her decision to apply for the job of supervising the clinic. “It wasn’t Rush going out and saying, ‘We want to do this.’ The community wanted it,” she explains.

Residents can now easily get blood pressure readings, wellness checks and information on managing chronic conditions such as asthma and diabetes.

Clinics like this one—easily accessible, fully equipped and run by trained medical staff—provide an important weapon in the fight to improve health outcomes for lower-income African Americans, like the residents of Oakley Square.

“People really want to get engaged and do things, and dialogue is the key. Dialogue needs to happen,” Mabwa says. “And dialogue over food is magic. When you invite neighbors over and begin to talk about problems and ask each other ‘How can we resolve these problems together?’ over a meal—it’s magic.”

Building trust in each other’s skills and talents is also essential.

“Being trustful enough to reach out to neighbors and talk about how we can leverage resources— that conversation is really powerful,” Mabwa says. “When people talk and start taking ownership of their community, it not only raises issues, but solutions.”

“You have to acknowledge that people have talent and give them a platform to show their talent,” Mabwa adds. “It’s an interchange of talents and gifts.”

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