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At a time when many of our neighbors continually encounter the potential of violence, one community in Chicago is joining to celebrate their neighborhood and each other at Auburn Gresham’s 79th Street Festival.

The event was started about thirteen years ago by community organizer and activist Carlos Nelson. Nelson, who is the executive director of Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC) a partner organization of United Way of Metropolitan Chicago’s Neighborhood Network Initiative, was in high demand Saturday. In between running from booth to booth, Carlos shared the history of the festival. “We created this event to showcase the great work of the GAGDC and to celebrate all of the local culture in the neighborhood.”

Carlos Nelson (left) and Alderman David Moore at the 12th Annual Gresham
Renaissance Festival.


Fast forward twelve years and Nelson’s festival is bigger then ever before–hosting around 15,000 people who come out annually to enjoy the local food, retailers, organizations, and a wide variety of music. Father Michael Pfleger, a well-known catholic priest and social activist in the community and Chicago, has been coming to the street fest for many years. He said the event Nelson has organized is unique to Auburn Gresham. “It’s a day of fun in a city plagued with an enormous amount of violence and problems,” said Pfleger. “We need time to come together and celebrate one another.

Father Michael Pfleger enjoying the 12th Annual Renaissance Festival. 

Father Michael Pfleger enjoying the 12th Annual Renaissance Festival.

But the festival is more than a celebration with food and fun, it also serves as a resource fair for community residents with information booths connecting residents to healthcare, education supports, senior care, and housing options. This year Illinois State Treasurer Mike Frerichs was in attendance promoting the importance of investing in higher education for children.  “We are out here trying to sign some kids up for a college savings program in hopes they can realize there full potential,” said Frerichs.

According to Frerichs, young people with a college savings account are seven times more likely to attend college.
As part of United Way of Metropolitan Chicago’s Neighborhood Network Initiative, a strong effort is being made to highlight the importance of education in the community. Improving the overall culture and climate of Auburn Gresham’s five community schools, engaging parents, and strengthening community partnerships are identified as key objectives in moving the community forward. Iona Calhoun, the United Way’s community engagement manager works very closely with the Auburn Greshman team on strengthening their education goal. “I am a change agency in Auburn Gresham, I see my role as critical to galvanizing resources, people, and business to generate a better quality of life especially for Auburn Gresham’s youngest residents,” said Baptiste.

The Annual 79th Street Renaissance Festival encompasses all of this work. It showcases collaboration through organizations that have worked tirelessly to provide resources to those in need. It builds community by bringing people together in a fun and peaceful environment. Finally, it is a reflection of a better tomorrow and a brighter future in Auburn Gresham.

The Neighborhood Network Initiative takes some of the best thinking, proven strategies and experts in 10 of the regions most challenged neighborhoods and sets bold goals to solve community identified problems. In 2013, the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago implemented the Neighborhood Network Initiative in 10 communities across the Chicago region, including Brighton Park, West Chicago, Evanston, Austin, Little Village, Bronzeville, Auburn Gresham, Cicero, and South Chicago.

Keywords: Auburn Gresham, Community, education, Ren Fest, Renaissance Festival, United Way, United Way Neighborhood Network

Posted in Education, Auburn Gresham in the News, Community Highlights


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