Black Austinite coalition: build economic justice into the city budget

Racial Justice & Equality Movement

AUSTIN (KXAN) — When Austin City Council discusses the city’s proposed 2020-21 budget on Thursday, a new coalition of Black Austinites will be calling for economic justice to be built in.

The Black Austin Coalition’s co-founder Nook Turner, a music artist and lifelong Austinite, spoke to KXAN on Wednesday.

Turner said some of the groups involved in this coalition include: the Austin Area Urban League, Six Square, Greater East Austin Youth Association, and the African American Youth Harvest Foundation.

Austin artist Nook Turner at the rally for Black Lives and Black Voices in June (Courtesy of Nook Turner)

This group says they formed as momentum was gathering nationally in protest of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police — and in Austin after Mike Ramos was shot and killed in an incident with the Austin Police Department.

The coalition has been crafting a plan to ask for allocations in Austin’s budget that support Black businesses, Black infrastructure and resources to help Black Austinites succeed economically.

Behind the scenes, the coalition has been speaking with community groups and Austin Mayor Steve Adler. But with city budget discussions looming, Turner didn’t want to wait any longer to hold city leaders publicly accountable to the reforms his group is calling for.

What the coalition is calling for

“It’s real simple, we want to stimulate a Black economy,” Turner said.

He said that means helping educate and offer Black Austinites resources so they can build their own businesses.

Turner said that also means helping Black Austinites access trade schools, programs, and technology in order to get hired for the many new jobs coming into the Austin area.

Turner said he also wants to see funds available to invest in Black developers and areas where larger numbers of the Black Austinites live.

“If you are a black business in this city and you need to have every resource privy to your fingertips be the best business you can be,” he said.

City Manager Spencer Cronk has already made it clear that “Black Americans, Latinx Americans, and other non-white ethnic communities” in Austin have been disproportionately impacted by injustices in the criminal justice system.

Rally for Black Lives and Black Voices at Huston-Tillotson University (KXAN/Todd Bailey)

Cronk has said a significant feature of this year’s proposed budget is starting the process for “reimagining public safety” to address the disproportionate impacts on communities of color.

Does the proposed budget in its current version meet the economic justice demands the Black Austin Coalition is calling for?

“Not even close,” Turner said.

“It don’t even make me feel good,” he added. “A lot of times they make you feel good so you chill out. This don’t even make me feel good.”

“The time is now”

Turner said when his coalition first formed, they helped out with the Black Lives and Black Voices rally in June, which brought thousands of people marching from Huston-Tillotson University to the Texas Capitol in near 100 degree temperatures.

While the rally focused on addressing violence the Black community has experienced at the hands of law enforcement, rally organizers also insisted that “economic brutality” Black Austinites experience needs to be addressed.

These issues, they say, include food deserts, housing hurdles, and lack of healthcare near historically Black neighborhoods.

Turner noted the issues addressed at the rally aren’t new for his community.

Rally for Black Lives and Black Voices at Huston-Tillotson University (KXAN/Todd Bailey)

“We die yearly on the streets,” he said. “The school-to-prison pipeline happens daily. We fight for youth on a regular basis to try to keep them from being in that system.”

Now, he believes people quarantined at home are spending more time reflecting on the systems that impact the realities Black Austinites face.

“The thing that’s changing now is that people are opening their ears to be willing to help and see it,” Turner continued.

“We’re starting to see that people are willing to become our allies and support us actually getting the infrastructure in the city. So it’s just like the time is now,  like the universe lined up and said ‘Everything y’all been fighting for the past 100 years, here’s another opportunity for you guys to go in and make that happen.’ I just don’t want to miss that boat. “

Nook Turner, artist and Co-Founder of the Black Austin Coalition

Turner said his family migrated to East Austin from St. John Colony, a freedmen’s community in Caldwell County. According to the Texas State Historical Association, the colony was started by a group of Black families who traveled there from Webberville to purchase land.

After the Civil War, former slaves settled all around Austin in these freedmen’s communities. These communities dissolved after the city’s Jim Crow laws in 1928 pushed black Austinites to east Austin.

Now, gentrification is pushing many of those families out and east Austin has become a “hot real estate market” seeing the largest increases in property value in all of Travis County.

“We always have to fight for resources and work on minimal budgets,” Turner said. “I’m not saying any other ethnicity don’t go through that. I’m saying that we need the resources to be able to get out of the mode of surviving and get into the mode of thriving.”

Those are the same ideas Turner said his coalition brought forward to Austin Mayor Steve Adler in June.

Turner said he asked Adler to sign a statement from the coalition, cementing the mayor’s commitment to the ideas the group is working toward. The Black Austin Coalition provided KXAN with a letter dated June 9 as well as their correspondence with the mayor’s office.

“He signed it without a problem,” Turner said, noting that the mayor even built upon the statement originally sent to him to add emphasis.

“Now that next step is let’s turn that ink into action,” Turner continued. “I want to make it known that he signed this and make a public call that we now have to hold  him accountable.”

KXAN reached out to Adler Wednesday for comment on this commitment of support and received the following response:

“I believe there are no civil rights without economic justice. I am committed to doing everything within my power to put money and resources behind achieving economic justice for African Americans in our community. The upcoming budget must contain concrete steps to start undoing centuries of discrimination. It is encouraging to hear so many thoughtful proposals from the community. The Council’s real work begins now.”

-Austin Mayor Steve Adler

The start of a long process

Turner acknowledged what his coalition is calling for may not be possible in the FY 21 budget.

But he said his coalition at least expects the Council to make amendments to the budget to set aside some funding so this group to get their process started.

The coalition’s full plan, which Turner said will be released at a later press conference, accounts for the next ten years of budgeting. Turner also recognizes that all of the coalition’s goals may not be achievable with city dollars, so the group plans to look to private entities in Austin for help as well.

The coalition expects to reach out to all 11 Council members to ask for their support.

KXAN reached out to the City of Austin Wednesday to see what measures the city has taken so far in the proposed budget to address economic justice and recieved the following response:

“The proposed budget is designed to address racism and advance equitable outcomes across Austin. We are working to transform local government from the inside out, eradicating disparities, and ensuring all community members share in the benefits of community progress. While the City is taking new steps to confront and end the long history of systemic injustices experienced by people of color by our public safety institutions, we recognize that our responsibility to ensure equity does not end with public safety—it requires a comprehensive vision that encompasses the full breadth of city services and functions. This budget reaffirms our shared commitment to expanding equity across all aspects of the City.”

City of Austin spokesperson

The City of Austin budget does have components across different departments that are designed to promote equity for Black Austinites, for people of color generally, and for low-income residents.

For example, the African American Resource Advisory Commission recommended the city re-evaluate its current processes to ensure fair housing practices and the city’s housing department has programs that support that recommendation.

$7.7 million in the FY21 budget is allocated to the Housing Trust Fund Transfer — $5 million of which is proposed to go toward displacement prevention programs for communities of color and low-income households.

The Neighborhood Housing and Community Development Department says these anti-displacement programs will include things like eviction prevention, emergency rental assistance, legal assistance, relocation help and “an affirmative marketing focus to be intentional with reaching the Black community and other community members of color.”

The African American Resource Advisory Commission also recommended more resources to address the continued disproportionate number of African Americans experiencing homelessness in Austin, and the city allocated $60.9 million in the proposed budget for homelessness services which reflects a much larger investment in homelessness services than in city budgets prior to FY 20.

Austin’s Economic Development Department is investing around $3.1 million into workforce development programs in the proposed budget that are tailored to the skills employers are looking for and that are designed to prepare economically disadvantaged Austinites for careers.

Austin’s Public Health Department has set aside more than $80 million in the proposed budget for “Health Equity and Community Engagement” funding, including $1.5 million for African American healthcare outreach.

Quincy Dunlap, president and CEO Austin Area Urban League, said he hopes the city considers areas of the budget where there may be waste or duplication of funding which could then be redirected to economic justice efforts.

“It’s about time to make a strategic investment into the Black existence, Blackness or the Black experience here in Austin in any of the key quality of life areas,” Dunlap said.

He also believes, “from an investment standpoint, parity has not happened for the Black community, it has been terribly under-invested in and underfunded.”

“When they are making decisions, consider that,” he added.

Dunlap thinks coronavirus has changed business as usual and that it has given a variety of groups the opportunity to “correct some wrongs.”

“Cities like Austin that present a progressive, tree kissing, dog-loving, eco-minded environment — for Black people to still be marginalized in ways, for any non-white [individuals] to be excluded in any way concerning quality of life, we have to take a serious look at ourselves and hold ourselves accountable to how we make decisions.”

Quincy Dunlap, president and CEO Austin Area Urban League

Austin City Council will be meeting to discuss the proposed budget tomorrow. It will be the first of several steps that will bring the council to the budget adoption process in mid-August.

The FY 2020-2021 budget adoption timeline for the City of Austin. Courtesy City of Austin PowerPoint.

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