There’s an inescapable air of Southern hospitality that fills your soul when you have a chat with Arewa Karen Winters. You can still hear a slight drawl in her words that belies her 50-year residency in Austin on Chicago’s Westside.
Her family and relatives made their way to Chicago in the early 1970s, relocating from southern Mississippi and Alabama and bringing that uniquely southern sense of community along with them.
“I’m from the South, I’m country,” said Arewa. “We just see people that we love and we want to care about.”
Arewa’s extended family was quick to put down roots in Austin, owning a grocery store, candy shop, pharmacy and a record store near her home. It was the sort of integration into a community that created a sense of belonging, a network on which to rely.
“We sat down for dinner together. There was a very strong sense of extended family in the community,” Arewa recalled. “I didn’t just have my mother, I had my friend’s mother. We were outside. We were engaged with one another.”
For her, the Westside was a model for what a community should be.
“Most of the businesses at that time in the community were owned by people who lived in the community,” she noted. “It was a lot of love and a lot of positive energy. It was something that I wish the children of today could experience. It really helped shape and mold a lot of us.”
While the blueprint for the Westside was right in front of her, it wasn’t a completely smooth transition for Arewa and her family.
By 1970, Austin was rapidly becoming a case study in white flight as it saw a dramatic demographic shift toward the end of “The Great Migration” that saw some six million African-Americans flee rural portions of the southern US states to urban areas in northern states. In less than two decades, Austin transformed from nearly 99 percent white to 75 percent Black.
“We were one of the first African-American families to purchase a home on the block where my family still lives.”
The shifting population in the area led to pushback that ranged from economic to personal. Blockbusting and redlining dealt a substantial blow to the economics in Austin, with devalued property and dwindling investment contributing to depressed economic conditions for its residents - a vacuum ripe for an influx of drugs and violence.
“I began to understand the impacts of things that happened in our community that caused a lot of the results,” Arewa said.
For Arewa, it meant watching her brothers be chased from playgrounds, taunted and harassed and taking extra caution for everyday activities.
It was a real-world, first-hand lesson in power dynamics and social justice.
The principle of justice is the central force in Arewa’s work, currently holding roles with a range of nonprofit organizations addressing issues of poverty, racism, human rights, and youth development.
“My father was a nurturer,” Arewa noted about her inspiration. “I love people. I love my community.”
Her community initiatives show the sort of love that grows and matures alongside her neighborhood, an evolution that confronts the issues of the moment, yet sets the table for the future.
One of those critical issues for her, a personal one, is reforming interactions between police and the citizens they serve. After her nephew was shot and killed by police, Arewa began advocating for victims and families impacted by gun violence.
“When we have a police department and a community that are truly engaged with one another, we can reduce the violence and the crime that is plaguing our communities,” she said about police and community partnerships. “That’s a bigger goal for me than anything else.”
She was elected to a seat on Chicago’s Police District Council in the 15th District in 2023 after serving as a co-chair on the mayor’s Use of Force Working Group.
“I want to listen to my community. I have ideas and thoughts, but this whole piece is about listening to the community,” Arewa said, but encouraged her neighbors to “bring your folding chair.”
Arewa sees the position as critical to return Austin to the self-sustaining, thriving community she knows it can be. But it takes community involvement.
“Holding them (police) accountable in certain areas is a point, but also look at how we’re going to hold ourselves accountable, now as elected officials, in this work. It’s a big deal.”
The entrepreneurial spirit that runs in her family is not lost on Arewa. In fact and in her vision for Austin, that spirit is critical to revitalizing the area.
“Everything I’m doing is about my children and my grandchildren,” she explains. “I want to retire from my own business, then I want to be able to put that business in my daughter’s hands or my grandson’s hands.”
She’s working on a business plan with her daughter to open a neighborhood restaurant, a snack shop, a community hub - a place for inspiration and motivation for young people. Arewa envisions a place where people can come, eat and learn about their history.
“I’m going to be right there on that corner,” she says, having already identified a location where she wants to open that shop honoring the legacy of her parents and family.
Valuing the people around you, the businesses they create, and their perspective on life can go a long way. For Arewa, it’s those simple acts of kindness and love things that will bring Austin back.
“Civility is the foundation for any civilization.”
Arewa Winters 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.
Arewa Karen Winters, Founder/Spokewoman for The 411 Movement for Pierre Loury. Hear more about her mission to change Austin community through police reform.