Austin's Landscape: Searching for Equality in an Emerging Green Economy

Austin is a place like no other in the country. It is a town full of green and blue, with nature and humanity in a precious balance, and pulsing with liberal ideologies, bustling businesses, and diverse ideas. It is full of conscious people and very active organizations, working to improve the city and the world in various ways. While at times the world of Austin activism and organizing can seem small, it still falls victim to silos that separate people who could otherwise be working together.

Austin also falls victim to denial of its incredibly racist and classist history and politics, typical of a town where the liberal values of privileged people with the best of intentions often blind them to the searing injustices suffered by low-income communities and people of color.

East Austin Murals, 1978

But at its best, Austin is a town of aware people who care. It is the perfect place for dialogue and communication to break such barriers and bring us into a real progressive change that benefits everyone.

The other day I had a great conversation, over vegetarian tamales and enchiladas, with my friend Carlos, a co-founder of Third Coast Workers for Cooperation (TCWC). This new organization seeks to help develop and launch worker-owned cooperatives, for the planet, and for the people, as well as help democratize existing workplaces and bring justice to workers, especially low-income people of color. Carlos and I discussed a paradox: Austin's abundance of entities providing services and job training to people who need it most. With all this training and education, why are there so few folks of color with living wages? Where are the local businesses owned by people of color?

In order to understand Austin's landscape, one must first understand that historically, for the last 80 years, there has been a distinction that created "two Austins." That divide is marked, in part, by Interstate Highway 35, separating the city into East and West, the "haves" and "have-nots," or white communities and communities of color. This distinction was created in 1928 by a Master Plan, which segregated the city and relocated communities of color to East Austin, zoning neighborhoods adjacent to industrial facilities.

As a result, the vast majority of hazardous industry and contamination has occurred on the East side, where African American and Mexican American neighborhoods have coped with a lack of services, resources, and good schools. This landscape continues to influence the mission of many organizations, including PODER, which seeks to redefine environmental issues as social and economic justice issues, and address these as human rights.

PODER runs a youth leadership development program in the summer with East Austin teenagers, called the Young Scholars for Justice (YSJ). In this program we discuss that landscape in detail, and train youth in community organizing, advocacy, and artistic expression. In this dialogue the youth feel they belong. They understand where they fit in the story, and this helps them identify the ways in which they want to participate and make a difference in their own communities. This job is not just another summer job for them. For many it is the beginning of understanding meaningful community work, with a purpose. They are main players, because they understand where they fit in.

The YSJ program teaches community organizing and advocacy, not green job training. But the analysis and story telling aspect of the program is the kind that would give a job-training program in green building, conservation, or community food systems a whole new meaning. That same analysis is a part of TCWC's mission, which is why I believe TCWC can be so effective in plugging people with new skills into meaningful and transformative players in the green economy.

Organizing and facilitating strategic conversations between these key organizations and community groups is how I will focus my energy during my term of service as a Green For All Fellow Candidate.

Initiatives like Southwest Key Programs' Green Construction Training Program and American YouthWorks/Environmental Corps' Casa Verde Builders program are turning out young people of color with skills highly demanded in the green economy. They also attract workers who want to start their own businesses. Groups like Third Coast Workers for Cooperation seek to help skilled workers organize to create local business with a democratic and environmentally just purpose. Coordinating these efforts is a critical component to building a movement for an inclusive green economy in East Austin.

If we can combine that skills training with empowering analysis that helps people see their role in this movement, then I think we have a much better shot at improving the lives of those most impacted by joblessness and environmental racism.

The result is a movement that heals Austin's scars of racism, classism, and segregation, and builds a stronger local economy truly reflecting the beautiful diversity of this city.

That is the Austin I want to call home.