“Building the Future of Our Children Together”
The University of Texas and J. J. Pickle Elementary School join together to make a difference in the St. John community

If you walked down the streets of the St. John community - located east of IH35 in Austin - years ago, you would have seen dirt roads with no streetlights, a dirty creek, and signs of city neglect. Generations of African Americans lived there and many dedicated residents spent
The participants gather in small breakout groups to share their dreams for the future of the children in St. John community.  CRP graduate students translate back and forth between English and Spanish.
years working to improve their neighborhood. Due to the efforts of community leaders over a long period of time, the City recognized that the St. John community required better services and a neighborhood school. The City of Austin began making improvements by paving the streets, adding streetlights, building a park and cleaning up the creek.

In 2000 AISD and the City of Austin partnered
to build J. J. Pickle Elementary School and a community center including a library, police substation, health clinic, and recreation center. The construction of the school and center sadly caused the removal of some of the original homes in the neighborhood, shifting some of the population to other parts of Austin. The school attracted a more diverse population to the area and by 2002 the predominantly African American community had become 72% Hispanic and Immigrant, 26% African American and 2% Anglo with over half the population non-English speaking.

It is challenging for the diverse people of St. John to understand each other’s culture and language. They are not aware they share many of the same dreams for the future of their
Participants share their hopes for the future and create Dream Posters to present to the whole group.
children and their community.

Betty Jenkins, an educator at Pickle, committed to bringing the community and the school together, was already partnering with local businesses for school resources and working with parents to form support organizations. When she was approached by Community & Regional Planning graduate students from the University of Texas asking if they could design an event for the purpose of uniting the community of St. John, she was enthusiastic and willing to lend her support.

On April 24, 2003, Building the Future of Our Children Together was held at J. J. Pickle Elementary School. Sixty local business owners, religious leaders, social service providers, teachers and parents attended the 2-hour event to discover what they like about their community and school, and to share their dreams of the future.

When the attendees arrived, there was plenty of food to eat and time to visit with each other. Blank story sheets had been sent home with all the schoolchildren weeks before the event. The
The residents of the St. John community discovered that they shared common dreams for the future of their children.
students and their parents and even grandparents wrote stories and drew pictures of their “best experience” in the St. John Community. Now a whole wall of the school was covered in “best experience” stories for all to read and share out loud. Betty Jenkins and some of the students from UT quickly translated the stories from English to Spanish and from Spanish to English so everyone could understand. The attendees began to realize that there were many things they all liked about their community and school.

The large group of attendees broke up into 4 small groups so they could talk together about their dreams for the future of the children of St. John. Language differences seemed not to matter any more, as the UT students translated back and forth. Each group created a poster of their dreams. When everyone came back together, self-appointed leaders from each group stood in front of the room and shared what their group had talked about. Some had never before spoken in front of a group. The results were powerful as people began to realize they all wanted the best for their children and their community and that many of their dreams were the same.

Some of their shared dreams are:
• Raise the children as a village-style neighborhood where everyone watches out for all the children.
• Safety for all
• Beautiful neighborhood
• More resources for the school and community
• Better education for all the children
• Bi-lingual community (everyone knowing Spanish and English)

Participants shared their dreams to have a village-style neighborhood and to be a bilingual community.
You could feel the excitement in the room as the attendees realized they shared many of the
same dreams. They started to think of ways they could work together to make their dreams come true. Attendees signed their names on paper “footprints” and taped them on the wall between the Best Experience Stories and the Dream Posters to form a bridge from Now to the Future.

Here are some of the ways the people of St. John have been working together to make their dreams come true since the April 24th event:

• Parents at J. J. Pickle Elementary School formed a Parent Teachers Association.
• Attendance at Neighborhood Association meetings has increased.
• Residents and the police are working together to make their neighborhood safer.
• Congregations in the area are organizing a mentorship program.
• Parks and Recreation cleaned up an abandoned park and swimming pool in the neighborhood and Home Depot donated money to beautify the park. In the summer of 2003 children began swimming there for the first time in years.
• The schoolchildren created an Appreciation Book to be displayed in the school foyer including the best experience stories and photographs of students and school activities.
• Beginning August, 2003 Spanish-speaking and English-speaking students will be mixed together in each classroom. The hope is that all the children, not just the Spanish speakers, will become bi-lingual.

How was the meeting designed?
Many community meetings emphasize what’s wrong. People come together to air grievances, to focus on problems, and to hope that someone in charge will do something to fix the things that aren’t working.

The UT students designed Building the Future of our Children Together by using a tool called
Appreciative Inquiry. Appreciative Inquiry is a process that asks positive questions to bring about positive change. It focuses on what’s right, what’s best that is happening now, and what
Individuals felt empowered to speak and to be leaders in making the dreams of the neighborhood come true.
is appreciated and valued. By focusing on the positive, groups are encouraged to dream a shared future and feel inspired to take positive action to make it happen. The Best Experience stories helped the community realize what they loved about their community, what they appreciated about each other and what they valued most of all. The Dream Posters provided a time for sharing their deepest wishes for the future of their children. As they shared their dreams aloud with the whole group, they heard many of the same dreams mentioned over and over again. It became clear that even though they had different languages and cultures - they all wanted some of the same things for their children and community. Their differences were no longer the focus and instead they saw what they felt in common with each other. The “footprints” which were signed by the attendees symbolized their commitment and choice to work together towards their shared future.

A Sample of Best Experience Stories
What has been your family’s BEST experience in the St. John Community?

Well the best thing that we like about living in the St. John community is that we have the school so close to us that sometimes we walk to school and that is great to my health. Also what we like is that some afternoons we go back to the campus and play in the playground and also we play some basketball and I love that and what else can I say – we all are just so happy to be part of the St. John community.
Told by a Kindergarten student

Excellent. I like living in St. John’s neighborhood. At my school I like it even more. At my school they have a lot of after school programs. They have art, safety patrol and other cool programs. Also the school I go to is J. Jake Pickle Elementary. I like the school because of my friends and because it is not that far. My old school was by Highland Mall in the street right in front of it. I consider this school closer. In the whole school building is a clinic and the public library. The clinic will help you like any other clinic. The only thing is that it is smaller. The public library you could play on the computer for 30 minutes and you could do your homework. I forgot there is also a recreation center. They have parties for holidays and you could sign up for sports if you want. I have played basketball with some of my friends like Mercedes, Mary and some other ones too. You could also sign up if you are in the 6th or 7th grade for other sports. I am sure they will be fun.
Written by a 5th grade student

Last year when my dad was coming home from the supermarket, his car broke down a couple of blocks away from our house. Our neighbor had seen what was happening and was nice enough to help my dad pull his car with a chain attached to the end of his car and the end of the chain attached to the front of my dad’s car. When my dad got home he thanked our neighbors and I think that was very generous of our neighbors to do so much to help my dad.
Written by a 4th grade student

Being able to move back into the community where my family was raised and sending my children to a neighborhood school. The St. John community has really grown since I was a kid. There were unpaved streets, no park or school and small dangerous bridges that connected both sides of the streets. With the help of my grandmother and other neighbor leaders the streets were paved, a park was built and the creek transformed from an eye sore to a flowing beauty. Unfortunately my grandparents and other family in the neighborhood are unable to share in the new community center and school, but I know they would be proud of the improvements. To honor their hard work, the city sponsors “Pioneer Day” and changed one of the streets to my grandmother’s name to honor her hard work in the St. John Community. Her name was “Sarah Hendricks.”
Written by a parent of a J.J. Pickle student

Patricia Wilson, Professor, Community & Regional Planning Graduate Program, School of Architecture, University of Texas

Julie Lame, Appreciative Inquiry Lead

Community & Regional Planning Graduate Students:

Monica Beard
Veronica R. Chapa
Sally Daguer
Daniella Hiche
Regan Lenehan
Elizabeth Reining
Vickie Vasquez