She's one of gay Austin's most stalwart allies, with a history in the community as deep and wide as her collection of big-brimmed, Sunday-go-to-meetin' hats. She's a diva of dishy proportions (a dish you wish to not be on the wrong side of!). She's a bon vivant, a raconteur with stories that could make your head spin (especially if you're featured within). She's outspoken, outrageous, and an outlet of local history. She's a supporter and champion of underdoggy causes. She had a cool old disco back in the day called Friends & Lovers. She bottled and distributed her own beer. And best of all, she's got a real tough job: Choosing and scheduling the hot, cut go-go boys who dance at gay bars throughout Texas and the lower South as the proprietress of the hunky Men of Manwatch. Yeah, tough job. Somebody's gotta do it.
When word came down from the UT Tower that the lights were dimming on the Cactus Cafe, everyone was shocked. Yet it was the Student Friends of the Cactus Cafe, spearheaded by Hayley Gillespie and Zachary Bidner, that campaigned against the closure, demanded documents explaining the administration's high-handed decision, and busted the myth that students didn't care about the beloved UT institution. And guess what? The lights aren't dimming after all. Score one for the good guys.
Student Friends of the Cactus Cafe
Since 1999, the president of Education Austin has been the champion of teachers' rights and the bane of trustees in the Austin Independent School District. Now he's off to become the secretary-treasurer of the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Monday night board meetings won't be the same without him, but the Legislature will learn what the trustees already know: When he's giving committee testimony, you better listen.
In March, University of Texas-Austin students approved a $5 tuition increase to finance sustainability efforts on campus. In doing so, they joined university students around the state – including those at Texas A&M, UT-El Paso, UT-San Antonio, and the University of North Texas – who also voted this year to establish campus green funds. Their efforts are part of a growing movement led by ReEnergize Texas, a student coalition pushing sustainability as a way both to improve energy efficiency and reduce operating costs on campuses around the state – a win-win for the students of today and tomorrow.
Think Green Fund
After 50-plus years in rented storefronts, this neighborhood favorite has finally landed a brand-new forever home – this one tucked into a corner lot at South Fifth and West Mary. Many of you will remember this spot as the old South Austin Post Office, from which some bricks were salvaged and reused in the eco-friendly construction of the new digs. In keeping with the reuse theme, the branch also features an old-school salute to literature and sound, thanks to artist Stephanie Strange's creation of a mobile made from dozens of old typewriters. What a fitting key strike for a branch born in the nifty Fifties.
The welcoming air of this Eastside cultural hub sets the scene – whether that scene is a Capoeira Angola class, drum circle, open mic, film screening, or hip-hop throwdown. The center's young leaders and members clearly desire to unite and empower the local black community while promoting cultural diversity. Events like the Black August festival, Griot Soul open mics, and Favela Vibes break the lines of segregation in a city so scarred by them. The center's open-hearted themes encourage neighbors, children, families, and soul-seekers alike through social events and artistic exploration – just the beginning of what Orun hopes to accomplish!
In this day and age, who has time for glue, staples, and other adhesives? The folks at Origami Austin teach you to sculpt using paper and only paper. At the helm is bicycle warrior and chronic Chronicle letter-to-the-editor writer Amy Babich. Check the group's website for the location and times of the monthly meetings, get a lesson in the history of the art form, and walk away wearing folded paper pants. And you don't want staples in those.
Want to make the switch to an electric lawn mower but can't quite afford it? Thanks to Scott Johnson of the Central Texas Electric Lawnmower Program, families all around Austin are trading in their old gas-guzzlers for electric models to share with their neighbors. All it takes is five families each to pitch in just $40 or turn over an old gas mower for recycling. In return, they share the new mower, the maintenance costs, and the global-warming-fighting glory while cutting expenses. Johnson's 2010 program has ended, but he's always happy to share info on coordinating your own group trade-in if you don't want to wait till next year.
Central Texas Electric Lawnmower Program
Back in the day (and occasionally still), activists liked to talk about "organizing the working class." The WDP doesn't just talk about it – it is it. The project formed initially on the simple proposition that a day's work deserves a day's pay – and began successfully pressuring irresponsible contractors to indeed pay their employees. Since then the group, composed primarily of Latino/a workers, especially those in construction (supplemented by volunteers and some foundation support), has branched out into workers' safety and job rights. It's won passage of safety ordinances at City Hall and recently formed a historic partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor. Every successful step taken is a battle won for all workers – pretty much all of us – and for the principles of human rights on the job. ¡Sí, se puede!
Representing one of the most precarious of local occupations, TDAA is a fledgling attempt to give the four-wheel cowpokes a voice at work, at City Hall, and on the streets. Although the mythology of hacking is steeped in urban romanticism, the reality is hardscrabble for small reward, and it may take years before the Austin drivers are sufficiently organized to earn the rewards and respect they deserve. With the help of the good folks at Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, they stood up and spoke up this year in defense of drivers' rights and livelihoods. May their long, hard fight be rewarded.
Taxi Drivers Association of Austin
Austin brims with labor-of-love stories, but sometimes one of them reaches out and clutches the heart, hitting it like 1,700 volts of an emotional defibrillator. Susan and Don Cox lost their beloved daughter Christi to a drunken driver back in 1985. Instead of internalizing their devastation, they founded For the Love of Christi, a free grief support network, in the spirit of the ever-flowing resource of love that we all carry within, and with the wisdom that sharing stories of grief assists in the recalibration of hurt for those seeking solace. Every week, a number of groups – defined by region (East Austin, Williamson County, etc.), by loss, by age, or some other commonality (e.g., groups for kids, crime victims, teens, those who've suffered loss of spouse, and so on) – meet together with a facilitator to tell the stories of their loved ones. At times intimate, harrowing, and heartwarming but always, always patient, the groups offer a platform for what's in each and every participant's heart – for the love of love.
New members sign commitment sheets with short- and long-term goals toward decreasing carbon footprints, and volunteers renovate the houses of qualifying low-income homeowners to provide a healthier, more affordable living environment – doing everything from upgrading to Energy Star appliances to installing rain collection systems, working from a checklist of sustainable, energy-efficient practices for great progress in the homes and in their communities. Under the umbrella of the nonprofit A Nurtured World, this innovative program puts green smarts and big hearts together, one little house at a time.
1 House at a Time
Unpaid. Unpopular. Yelled at in public meetings and browbeaten by the Texas Education Agency. On Thursday nights they receive a huge folder full of campus data that they have to wade through before the long board meeting on the following Monday night. Why anyone would want to sit on the Austin Independent School District board of trustees is a puzzler, but these nine brave souls give up countless hours of their lives to navigate the maze of educational administration in this state and keep our schools open.
This is a woman who knows how to take the heat, as well as give off some sparks of her own whenever she appears in uniform. And it's not just any uniform. As chief of the Austin Fire Department, Rhoda Mae Kerr presents an authoritative figure in her crisp white shirt embellished with her status and provenance, paired with perfectly tailored slacks that keep your eyes glued to her even as she glides from a room, blond hair swinging. And don't mistake the nature of our focus: There is absolutely nothing frivolous about this woman's job or the woman herself. Definitely one of Austin's best, Chief Kerr exemplifies great leadership peppered with sparkling wit and abundant charm.
Any given day, Michael McGill is all over Downtown Austin – sitting on the boards of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association and the Austin Parks Foundation, spreading performing arts awareness with Catalyst 8, or working magic with the Downtown Austin Alliance. And if that's not enough, he's also the cultural liaison for the Hideout Theatre. And because he's a man on a mission to keep Downtown Austin growing smart and strong, he lives and breathes these Downtown alliances and humbly champions others at every turn.
When a sudden illness took Señora Barrientos last December, it stunned her family and the whole community. Eulogized by her spouse, former Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, as his inspiration and strength, she was an unassuming but tireless activist for Mexican-American advancement, progressive politics, and a wide range of creative arts institutions. A founding board member of Mexic-Arte, she helped found Roy Lozano's Ballet Folklórico de Tejas and served as board chair of the Austin Museum of Art. Other than her family, her (long-delayed) crowning achievement was the facility that now bears her name, the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center – a wonderful gift to the whole city of Austin, as was the lady who embodied the "Best of Austin."
Beginning in the spring of 2008, city Fleet Services Manager Daniel Lomas began reporting to his supervisors apparent problems with the department's accounting of parts inventory, particularly tires. His concerns received only shrugs and reprimands from his bosses. He didn't give up, continuing to keep meticulous records of his exchanges and sending them along to city managers. After more than a year of official inaction and silence, he finally spoke to the Chronicle about the problems, and a series of documented stories by Jordan Smith finally got the city moving to clean things up. There's plenty more to do – and Lomas' dogged honesty and courage remain an inspiration.
City of Austin Fleet Services
Oh, luminous, silvery blue-gray, blind amphibian with salt-and-pepper spots, we look for you in the bottom of the springs, in the caves and rock crannies around the creek, hiding in the algae. You're our canary in a coal mine, our endangered salamander that lives nowhere else in this whole wide world but our fair Barton Springs. Eurycea sosorum, we'll keep the waters pure for you.
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