Friday, November 4, 2011

October 2011 Essential Class - A Crash Course in Austin's Plan

Guest post from Essential Class of 2012 participant Monica M. Williams. The October 2011 class day theme was "Demographics and Growth: Creating a Baseline."

Our first Essential Class day hit me in the middle of the busiest week of the year for the Austin Community Foundation, where I'm Communications Director. But considering the content of that day, maybe the fact that I was already running at a breakneck pace was for the best.

Because in a way I probably was more prepared for PowerPoint presentations that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Who knew +40 page slide shows could be so riveting? And yet the presentations from Ryan Robinson and Jon Roberts were just that.

Robinson, the City of Austin's demographer, also happens to be a born-and-raised Austinite. His presentation of the top-ten demographic trends in Austin showed that he loves the city and he loves his work. Roberts, an economist, used his expertise to help us connect the dots, too. His presentation about the future of Austin's economy was no less than thrilling - and I hated economics in college. Together, it was a one-two punch of some pretty heavy stuff.

So first we got the city's data, then we got the city's plan.

In the afternoon, we heard from Imagine Austin about the city's comprehensive plan. There were some disconnects and lots of questions. Overall the effect of the day's presentations was a little like Charlie's tour of the chocolate factory.

Based on the information I have now, I have come to a few conclusions that are probably premature, uninformed and way too simple. (Maybe I'm taking this too personally?) Here they are:
  1. The way we talk about racial inequality in Austin needs to change. In the nonprofit sector, where I work, we talk about diversity. Clearly, according to Robinson's presentation, we are a diverse city.

    It's time for us to talk about integration.

    Now I for one hate both of those words. They sound archaic and forced, corporate and nebulous. In my gut it feels like we're all at the eighth-grade dance and no one wants to be the first to make a move.

    But I'm a Mexican-American who's used to being one of the few - if not the only - Hispanic at every job I've ever had. Trust me, it's only as scary as we make it. In about 15 years, we're all going to have Hispanics in our family (by marriage) anyway, so it will be less of an issue. In the meantime, let's dance!

  2. What's good for the Austin economy ignores the population that's growing the fastest in Austin: poor Hispanics.

    Roberts described a steep decline in manufacturing jobs across the country and how Austin's economic growth has been tied to its ability to create an "ecosystem for innovation." He concluded that Austin's growth opportunities for the next decade include international tourism, a medical school and more corporate headquarters.

    But Robinson had just told us that the gap between the have and have-nots was increasing. That the fastest-growing population is mostly poor and undereducated Hispanics. Is it the destiny of the city to become a bunch of janitors at hotels catering to F-1 fans and SXSW geeks? (Sorry. I can get overly dramatic.)

  3. Sustainability is the "central policy direction" of the Imagine Austin plan, but I wish that word hadn't been co-opted by environmentalists. Because it's a fitting word, but it implies that we should focus our efforts on the planet over people.

    My impression from the day's information is that most of our policy direction should be in growing Austin's middle class, particularly by providing mentoring, education and training ladders for our growing, young Hispanic population.

    This could resolve many of our current issues, including the racial divide, the economic gaps, and public-education shortcomings. And it's less about "helping the less fortunate" than it is about investing in one of our natural resources - people.
Robinson talked about the new, growing barrios in Austin and how they can either be a toehold for Hispanics to step into middle class or a trap. We already have them in a trap. Are we going to let that happen again?

Monica M. Williams is Communications Director at the Austin Community Foundation and Editor-in-Chief at GivingCity Austin Magazine.


  1. I'm with you Monica and you're not alone. We have a leadership gap in Austin and when nonprofit organizations start to include more Latinos and leaders of color in the boardroom, that's when we'll see the difference and truly address the disparity issues. Adelante!


  2. Thanks for sharing this, Monica. No surprises, but still good to keep beating the drum. It amazes me that we continue to be slow in addressing the needs of the Hispanic community, not just locally, but nationally. It is the fastest growing segment of our population in the U.S., and there is power in numbers. In Austin, the entire community needs to be focused on supporting Latinos in any and all efforts that drive opportunity and change. Embrace diversity - I need a bumper sticker.