Making Communities Resilient

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were one of the most shocking and horrific natural disasters in recent memory. I know because I lived through both. Like the coronavirus is doing now, Katrina and Rita exposed societal ills, especially a vast racial divide. Katrina’s silver lining, though it came at a terrible cost, was that it gave New Orleans and other cities in Louisiana a chance to rebuild more equitably. Rita made the same changes to the South West part of Louisiana, including my homestead known as “Acadiana.”

Austin, Texas, where I’ve made my home since 2008, now also has a unique opportunity to hit the reset button and address systemic inequities. Many people are surprised to learn that Austin is consistently ranked as the most economically segregated city in the country. COVID has been called the great equalizer, but as the writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in a New York Times op-ed a few weeks back, COVID is a social virus exposing the inequalities that are part of American life. “If anything good emerges out of this period, it might be an awakening to the pre-existing conditions of our body politic,” he wrote. I hope to see the same kind of rebuilding that took place in New Orleans take place in my new home as our pre-existing conditions are exposed. I believe we can learn and grow from this. 

A Trust Like No Other

I sat down with my friend Rubén Cantú, Executive Director of The Office of Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Texas at Austin, to learn about how The Community Resilience Trust is seizing the moment and turning it into a movement for social justice. Rubén is part of this collective of more than 100 community leaders representing nonprofits, business owners, students, activists, and elected officials working to ensure an equitable response to COVID-19 and laying the foundation for building a more equitable, just future for the city. They have met daily on Zoom for the past two months, fired by this question: how can we make Austin the most equitable city in the country?

Ruben Cantu

The Trust met for the first time when COVID shut Texas down in early March with the goal of forming a plan to deploy resources to the most in-need community members. As this work got underway, the group recognized the unique opportunity on their hands: around the virtual table were organizations that historically had collaborated very little or not all. What kind of an impact could they have if, together, they shifted social justice and equity efforts to being proactive instead of reactive? 

Among the first challenges, they have tackled are ensuring COVID testing gets to more people in the community and influencing foundations and nonprofits to distribute funding more equitably.  Oftentimes small, elite groups of senior philanthropic leaders or board members make decisions about who gets funding instead of a more egalitarian approach that would enable the community to help determine who and what gets funded. A lot of the efforts are focused on Austin’s “eastern crescent,” where many low-income families live, which runs from South to North along the city’s east side. 

“By taking a systems-based approach, we can get to the bottom of what’s holding [Austin]  back. It’s a whole new way of operating,” says Ruben. “And we are living the core values of equity and cultural sensitivity on the daily call.” 

Forum for the People First

Typically, in the nonprofit space, as in the business world, it is those with the most power, money, and influence who dominate the conversation. The Community Resilience Trust does just the opposite, opening the forum first to people and points of view that are underrepresented or suppressed, then opening it up to others, and then workshopping issues during the second half. 

Central Texas Leaders at Work

“I’m a native Austinite and I have been involved in social justice work my entire career,” says Rubèn. “I cannot remember ever seeing a Blacks, Asians, Whites, and Hispanics in Austin come together this way on a regular cadence to work together on solving problems. It’s beautiful and humbling. There’s a radical level of authenticity, transparency, integrity. People are listening, and people feel heard.” 

Like Rubèn, I know how rare it is for true, authentic collaboration, where power dynamics are set aside and there’s an even playing field. To me, that is so exciting, a true hallmark of a growing social justice movement. One of my favorite quotes is from writer Charles Bukowski: “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”

I believe Austin’s future will be very bright thanks to the work of The Community Resilience Trust and other radically transparent, equitable organizations that are showing us just how well we can walk through fire.

About the Series: #BeTheLight is a special campaign of #MovementMakerTribe that aims to bring positivity, optimism, and hope during these uncertain times as a result of the Corona virus. This is the last article in the series.

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