City Hall Hustle: New Lease on Quality of Life

Will we leave African-Americans waiting for a super plan?

Nelson Linder
Nelson Linder (Photo by John Anderson)

It was easy to miss the recommendations from the African American Resource Advisory Commission during last City Council meeting. Punted from council's Dec. 9 meeting to Dec. 16, it didn't garner half the ink of either the Marshall Apartments controversy or a preliminary discussion about our new central library. Hell, the Hustle wasn't even in chambers. (Blame our weekly News staff meeting. Seeing as how we hit the streets the same day council convenes, something's got to give – so let's move council meetings to Wednesdays.)

That's a shame, because it's hard to imagine a topic deserving of deeper attention. And the commission's findings should be attention-grabbing: While Austin's black community continues to shrink, opportunities are coming fewer and farther between for those who stay here. "The Hispanic population has increased by 75,300. The Asian population has increased, but the black population has decreased," said Austin NAACP President Nelson Linder, comparing census data from 2000 against 2010 estimates. "We're the only group that has decreased in population." And while African-American family income has risen somewhat (10.6%, compared to a 30.8% rise in Anglo wages – while Hispanic income has fallen by 6.4%), "the greatest concern in the entire study," said Linder, is the black unemployment rate. In 2000, he said, "we had an unemployment rate in the city at about 4.4 percent. African-Americans were 7.9 percent. Today, African-Americans stand at a 15.3 percent unemployment rate. That's 15.3 percent. The overall rate for the city is 7.3 percent. That disparity has actually increased." It should serve as a wake-up call that despite all of Austin's accolades as a comparatively recession-proof city, that prosperity hasn't applied to everyone.

The commission emerged from the city's African Ameri­can Quality of Life Initiative, which in turn was prompted by the 2005 Midtown Live firestorm in which a handful of police officers and firefighters made jokes and cheered as the popular African-American haunt (and persistent source of police calls) burnt down. The Quality of Life Initiative featured 56 recommendations organized into six categories, addressing issues from cultural arts to police training. And while some have been adopted, our city's occasional race-related freak-outs – like 2009's citywide cold shoulder to the Texas Relays, which treated visiting African-Americans like felons, not tourists – illustrate how much work still remains.

The commission had a few recommendations of its own: creating job training programs for non-college-bound students, diversifying the occupations and industries recruited to Austin by city incentives (both of which would be a boon to the city in general, as well), and asking council to create a task force to address issues raised by the community.

Some of those issues – business development, youth programs and mentoring, continuing education, and job training – may be addressed through an initiative Mayor Lee Leffing­well announced at the end of the presentation. He said the city, along with the county, Austin Independent School District, and others, is working to bring an outpost of the Manchester Bidwell project here. Founded by Bill Strickland, the project includes the Man­ches­ter Craftsmen's Guild, which provides art, education, music, and design training for at-risk students in Pitts­burgh, and the Bidwell Training Center, which offers occupational associates degrees and job placement.

Strickland is a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, and he recently appeared in controversial charter-schools doc Waiting for 'Superman.' Moreover, according to former Delta pilot Lef­fing­well, "he's an ex-airline pilot, so we had several things in common. But he is the kind of man that makes things like this work, and I'm very confident he will make it work here in Austin."

The mayor was light on other details – including what iteration of the project would arrive here in Austin – other than to say it would be under way in a year to 18 months, and that it's "a program that has demonstrated success in dealing with at-risk youth, unemployment, excellence in education, and workplace issues."

Linder lauded the program's success, but noted that, oftentimes, "in those kinds of programs, money comes down to the top people, and never gets to the community. So I would challenge you to make sure when the money comes down, you go out and find folks to do the work and make sure you fund them first. You typically bring in the intellectuals – there's nothing wrong with intellectuals – but let's make sure the money gets to the proper source.

"Historically, not just you," he told council, "but America does a poor job of giving folks the chance to solve their own problems. If the money is there, these are very bright folks. Let them solve their own problems. I think you might find a much better result."

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African American Quality of Life Initiative, African American Resource Advisory Commission, Lee Leffingwell, Bill Strickland, Manchester Bidwell Project

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