Austin anti-violence program shows West Side youth the world
Chicago Austin Youth Travel Adventures works to expose youth from underprivileged neighborhoods to other cultures, the city and career opportunities. But at its core, it’s an anti-violence program.
Cedric Stewart has lived his whole life in Austin. He grew up shy — could hardly look at people when he talked to them — and had never traveled outside the West Side. But that all changed in 2017 when he joined Crystal Dyer’s Chicago Austin Youth Travel Adventures.
“I was in a shell,” said Stewart, now 24. “You couldn’t get me to do anything. But being in different parts of the city, it opened up my horizons.”
Chicago Austin Youth Travel Adventures does that by exposing young people from underprivileged neighborhoods to other cultures, their own city and even career opportunities. But at its core, Dyer said, CAYTA is an anti-violence program.
The group, incorporated in 2015, offers programming for ages 8 to 23. There’s a $25 yearly membership fee — though scholarships help those who cannot afford it. Paused for two years by COVID-19, it will restart on April 1.
Dyer grew up in Englewood but was living in Atlanta in 2011 when her 18-year-old grandson was shot and killed. As she ran through the airport to catch a flight home, she already was thinking: What can I do to really help?
“I have three sons, and what helped them to be more progressive, to learn about life and the world, was travel,” said Dyer. “I thought … I can create a program where I can get kids out of their heads and into the world so they can be less sensitive to certain things which increase violence.”
The program includes working with Dyer’s travel company, Gone Again Travel & Tours, 5940 W. Chicago Ave., to learn basic business skills — and open their eyes to the possibilities of where they could one day go.
Participants visit the DuSable Museum of African American History, the National Museum of Mexican Art, the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture and the Swedish American Museum.
“We go to these different cultural centers so they could see we all had challenges,” explained Dyer. “I’ve seen astronomical changes in these kids when they realize ‘ain’t nothing wrong with me, I’m like everybody else and I’m working it out.’”
But the program also highlights different jobs, like trade careers. These opportunities were life-changing for Stewart.
Stewart graduated from Austin’s Michele Clark Magnet High School, and had been on his way to Western Illinois University.
But he wasn’t sure college was a good fit. Through Dyer’s group, he learned about other opportunities, such as job training offered by trade unions. He landed an apprenticeship with the Plumbers Local 130 and now has an interview opportunity with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 9.
But the one thing Stewart never got to do before aging out of the program was Dyer’s biggest trip: to Ghana, West Africa, all expenses paid.
Dyer came up with the idea of a Ghana trip in 2018. At the time, she had started adding more Black history into the program and a genealogy curriculum as well.
She felt if the youth could understand where they came from, maybe they’d have a better idea of where they wanted to go.
“Ghana is linked to our heritage in North America,” said Dyer. “There were different slave routes and North America was the destination for the people from West Africa.”
Dyer partners with a high school in Ghana, and students will greet her group as they walk off the plane — establishing that first “connection to the motherland.”
In Ghana, they travel to farms, learning about agriculture and entrepreneurship. Then, they’ll visit a government office and an orphanage, and have lessons on the Akan language. They also can create their own kente cloth.
The trip runs every other year, but was canceled in 2020 due to COVID, so the trip this August will be the first in four years. To qualify, youth group participants must work with Dyer’s travel company from April to August and attend other events through the program.
Donations and fundraising cover the $5,000-per-person cost, and Dyer’s goal this year is to raise enough for 20 students. She’s about halfway there, having raised about $50,000 so far. Her biggest donors are Austin’s Premier Trolley Company as well as a director with Mary Kay cosmetics who wished to remain anonymous.
The COVID pause means Stewart never got to go on the big trip. But he still plans to get to Ghana one day.
“I came in a boat,” Stewart said. “I’m going back on a plane.”
Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South and West sides.