She is unapologetically her.
She doesn’t fit in your box. She’s authentic. She’s true to herself and to her kids.
Aisha Oliver, the founder and executive director of the Root2Fruit Youth Foundation, may not take the most traditional approach to youth engagement, but she’s getting results and providing the next generation of leaders on Chicago’s Westside with the know-how to uplift their community.
“There are so many elements to who I am.”
Aisha grew up in the LeClaire Courts public housing project on Chicago’s southwest side, just a couple of miles north of Midway International Airport. Her family made the move to Austin when she was in middle school and has called it home ever since.
“It was a community that had a lot of ‘lack,’ but a lot of potential and a lot of potential that’s untapped.”
And despite what it may have lacked, it was home. Aisha’s parents made sure of that.
“I didn’t have material things, but I had a lot of love in my life,” Aisha said. “My parents’ house was the safe house. Kids always drifted to my house and my parents opened their doors to them.”
The Chicago Housing Authority razed the LeClaire site in 2011, but the impact of the community that existed in her earliest days has resonated with Aisha.
“Growing up in the projects taught me what community was,” Aisha recalled. “I knew everybody, everybody knew me. I felt like I had several sets of parents, so many eyes on me.They cared enough to make sure I didn’t do stupid things.”
That sense of community, and the way it sustained itself, is the cornerstone to Aisha’s approach to what she calls “village building.”
“We’ve gotten away from that idea of community. We’ve been broken down into neighborhoods, and there’s a difference. A community helps itself. It builds within itself. That’s what the projects did, everybody helped everybody.”
It’s a lesson well learned at home.
“Everything I do, I learned from watching what my parents did when I was growing up,” said Aisha. “They understood what it meant to give a kid love.”
For Aisha, family is everything. At the base level, it’s the reason why her Root2Fruit Youth Foundation exists.
“My goal was always to build a family of my own,” Aisha remarked. “A family outside of my home, with my community.”
Root2Fruit serves Westside youth through positive reinforcement and by providing young people a unique vehicle to learn life skills that are oftentimes difficult to convey in a traditional classroom setting. It puts the world at their fingertips.
“We are doing the work that flies under the radar,” said Aisha. “I teach them, firsthand, how to do the work. I put them in spaces where they are charged with doing the work.”
But this isn’t a work-study program. In fact, the notion that you’d even call Root2Fruit a program at all is borderline offensive to Aisha. To her, a program is ephemeral, something you do at summer camp. What she’s doing is laying foundations for success, both individually and for the community.
“I didn’t want to be a program. That’s not how we operate. That’s not what I’m doing,” she commented. “What I’m doing is sowing seeds that are going to last a lifetime. My goal is to touch generations through the efforts I’m doing now.”
“If we had more judges, doctors, lawyers and teachers that lived in our neighborhoods and talked to our kids and interacted with them, imagine the type of inspiration that would flow through our communities,” Aisha imagined. “That’s how you alleviate these generational curses.”
It’s a monumental task. One that takes a genuine, dedicated effort to connect with young people - her “kids” - from an early age to help them avoid the trappings of the neighborhood.
“I honestly believe that me sharing those experiences is what helps me connect with people,” Aisha reflected about telling her personal story. “A lot of what I do is built on engagement, and connecting with people to understand them better and solve problems that way.”
There’s a realness to Aisha in everything she does. It shines through in her smile as much as it does in her open embrace and encouragement for people to be themselves.
“For Black people, we’ve been taught how to navigate in spaces so that we don’t come off too aggressive, or too hood, or too this, or too that,” she lamented. “What it does is it teaches us to minimize who we are in order to fit into certain spaces.”
That minimization, to her, undercuts the voice of the community.
“What I found is that people gravitated to me more because I was being authentic. I can’t take what has made me who I am and put it on the back burner to make you feel comfortable, or to make you feel less afraid. So I encourage people.”
Aisha isn’t hoping an outsider comes in with a solution to reduce crime in Austin, she thinks the solutions are already there - if you care to listen to the kids and give their ideas a platform. That’s exactly her approach with the Austin Safety Action Plan (ASAP) initiative she began with about a dozen Root2Fruit members in response to a spike in gun violence during the summer of 2020.
“This is why I talk to kids and not adults. I’m not doing the things that I think are going to work. I’m doing the things that they told me are going to work, and those are the things that are working. If nothing else, I have learned to listen.”
ASAP’s approach to activating public spaces has worked, dropping year-over-year violent crime as much as 52 percent, according to the Chicago Police Department.
“It’s an interesting way of doing things,” Aisha conceded. “It’s youth-led, it’s organized around them. I’m putting 150 percent behind them all the time.”
Aisha knows that she and her kids face an uphill battle, filled with roadblocks and pitfalls that can take an emotional toll. But she also knows that in the end, they have what it takes to lead their own community into the future.
“They’ve learned how to organize within their own community, so that they can be the next generation of leaders,” she said of the untapped talent of her kids.
“We are sometimes hopeless, but we are not helpless.”
Aisha Oliver is one of 18 up-and-coming Westside leaders selected to be a part of the inaugural cohort of Community Leadership Fellows. Community Leadership Fellows (CLF) is a leadership development experience that involves educational workshops, tactical training, collaborative learning, coaching, mentoring and networking. We believe that the investment in homegrown talent will lead to sustainable, vibrant communities.
Aisha Oliver, Founder and Director, Root2Fruit Youth Foundation. Hear more about her mission to train the next generation of leaders to take her place.