Photography by Emily Sobecki
Even as a young black man growing up north of Portage Avenue in South Bend, Austin Gammage, 29, saw the potential in South Bend.
Back then, the city looked different. There were not new businesses popping up every other week, and there was not the same excited energy that can be felt today coming from young professionals working to make South Bend a competitive and thriving city. Even so, Austin says he always knew the downtown streets he walked as a child could one day become more than empty storefronts and forgotten hopes.
“South Bend now is a really exciting place because of the potential it has,” he says. Sitting inside downtown’s WXYZ Bar, Austin can barely finish a sentence in between fielding greetings from community members and businessmen wearing crisp grey suits. “When I was younger, it wasn’t a place where people had a lot of excitement. It was better to leave South Bend after graduation from high school or college. Now, I see it as a place people are interested in coming back and participating in the growth of the city.”
Now, Austin is an active participant in the city’s revival and is making sure that the new South Bend carves a space for people who look like him.
Austin, a South Bend city employee who works as a business development manager in the community investment department, is dedicated to creating diverse and inclusive spaces in the city’s business community. In addition to the work he does with the city, Austin volunteers with the Young Professionals Network of South Bend, 100 Black Men of Greater South Bend, the South Bend chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and 466 Works.
Much of the volunteer work he does involves planning events and networking opportunities that allow local people of color to be engaged with South Bend’s business community and economic growth, which is also the goal of his personal business, A. Gammage Solutions.
Every event he plans is designed to invite and include people of color by arranging keynote speakers of a variety of different backgrounds and experiences or planning activities that celebrate different cultures through the arts.
“In my free time, I focus on doing the things that bring people together,” Austin says. “I think there are great spaces here in South Bend, and there are great organizations like YPN. There was an opportunity to expose and invite people who don’t typically attend those spaces or go to those places. There was an opportunity to bring them to those spaces and make them more inclusive.”
Even since the days when he played football in Clay High School’s colors of purple and gold, Austin has known the value of creating and celebrating diversity. In high school, Austin says he grew to have friendships with people of all ethnicities and backgrounds, which he believes helped to him to be able to see things from different points of view and expand his horizons.
He got his first taste of creating diversity through event planning while attending Ball State University, where he graduated in 2013 with a degree in organizational communications. When he returned to South Bend in 2017, Austin says he knew he wanted to create the same atmosphere in his home town.
“I wanted to come back to South Bend because I wanted to add value and participate in all the great things taking place. We are a diverse city, so it benefits our economy when everybody is included in the great things that are happening in the city,” Austin says. “I want to take my upbringing and help make sure other people have that same experience.”
With South Bend’s economic revival taking place, it is more important than ever that the city work towards diversity and inclusion, Austin says. It will take people of all backgrounds — black, white, Latino and otherwise — to ensure that the community keeps its momentum and continues to grow.
“It’s about getting people to a place of pride where they can invest in their community,” he says. “If we can invest in people and continue to have them invest in the community, we can continue to go on the great trail we are on now. I love South Bend. This is where I’m from. I want to continue to see the city thrive. I want to see the city continue to be a great city for everybody, all different groups, races, ethnicities. I love the community, and I want to see the momentum carry on, and I want to see it continue to be a place where people from all different backgrounds can participate.”
In the next five, 10, 15 years, Austin says he wants to see the city of South Bend grow and be a place where young people of color, including his 9-year-old daughter Kyra, can be proud of and want to give back to. For that to happen, Austin says that young people now need to take an active role in moving the city forward.
“I want South Bend to look like a place where she will be excited and want to participate in and invest in,” Austin says. “We do have great leaders from all different groups — black, white, whatever it may be — so I would encourage young people to reach out to them to see where there are opportunities for them to get involved. YPN is a great resource. So is 100 Black Men and the NAACP. Many other organizations are in need of young talent.”