GABC Pictures Black Austin
#iamblackaustin showcases a diversity of black Austinites
When first asked to consider the top job at the Capital City African-American Chamber of Commerce, Natalie Cofield wasn't interested. "I didn't want to move to Texas," recalls Cofield, who has now been president of the chamber – today called the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce – for three and a half years. "It was no disrespect, but you know, I'm a New York woman," she says. "It's kind of a hard sell sometimes for Northeasterners."
At age 29, having been declared a "Top 30 Under 30" by Ebony magazine and a "Top 40 Under 40" by her alma mater, the Howard University Business School graduate was not hard up for a job, much less did she feel compelled to restart her life in an unfamiliar place in the South. But then she found out about Austin. "Austin is Silicon Hills, what? Facebook is there? I had no idea about any of this stuff," she says.
With more than 100 people moving here each day, Cofield wasn't the first young professional lured by Austin's charm. Yet, while following one demographic trend, Cofield was bucking another, as an African-American moving to the city rather than away from it. As has been much publicized recently, Austin is the only city of its size to be losing black residents even while its overall population balloons. Not only are longtime black residents getting priced out of Austin's prosperity, but African-Americans in general are increasingly absent from the broader cultural narrative of what Austin is as a community. Cofield hopes to help change that narrative.
"East Austin was a geographical hub of what would be considered quote 'blackness,'" she says. "Well, East Austin has significantly changed, and how do you still fill the sense of community for people who don't have a geographical base of what that means historically?" GABC's answer to that question is #iamblackaustin, a social media campaign and portrait series showcasing a diversity of black Austinites – from skateboarders and hipsters, to East Austin retirees, West Lake families, tech entrepreneurs, doctors, pastors, and more. "It's important for people to see the multidimensionality," says Cofield. "And then for that community itself to see that, too."
The campaign's first portrait series features figures both well known (City Manager Marc Ott) and lesser known ("kidpreneur" Mikaila Ulmer of BeeSweet Lemonade). Many share their thoughts on Austin. Some describe their love of Austin's trails, food trucks, and music. Others share their concerns. Spoken word artist Ebony Stewart writes, "In Austin, I can go a whole day without seeing another black person."
Cofield hopes the campaign helps rebuild a sense of community. "Communities are collections of people with similar interests and objectives and goals, and they can form in the ether or in person," she says. If you follow the hashtag or visit the site, "You'll see black people are in this city – even though you may be the only black person you ever saw all day."
Portraits are on display online (www.iamblackaustin.org) and will be shown at the Dedrick-Hamilton House, 912 E. 11th, starting Feb. 16.