Making a Better Austin, One Volunteer at a Time
Opportunities to get civically involved this year
Just one week into 2020, and it already feels like the doom and gloom that dominated the late 2010s is taking root in the new year. Our increasingly unhinged president continues to march toward a new Forever War in the Middle East; wildfires have engulfed Australia, giving us a visceral glimpse of a disastrous future shaped by climate change; and, closer to home, Gov. Greg Abbott continues to incite fear and animosity against some of society's most marginalized – those without homes.
But our giving into despair is how doom and gloom wins. Let's leave our anxiety that nothing we do matters in 2019 and begin the new decade with the energy that motivated progressives in the wake of Donald Trump's election, knowing that small, manageable acts of civic participation – especially by those who historically have been denied that opportunity – will create a better society. Here are some suggestions for ways you can act in 2020 to make a better Austin, Texas, and beyond.
The Counts That Really Count
The Ending Community Homelessness Coalition is gearing up for the federally mandated annual census of homeless citizens in the Central Texas region, and they need about 400 more volunteers to help with the effort.
Point in Time Count volunteers will canvass the county looking for people living on the streets or in their cars, to provide a rough count for local, state, and federal agencies of the number of people living unsheltered on any given night. The count is not perfect (people who are chronically homeless but temporarily sheltered, jailed, or hospitalized are not counted), but it's critical to ECHO's mission; federal funding for programs to address homelessness is directly tied to the count.
At the local level, the PIT Count helps policymakers understand the scale of homelessness, and thus how much and where they should invest in needed programs. Volunteers will use a web app to conduct one of two surveys during the early morning shifts. One is a simple "observed" survey, when a person is located but unwilling to talk. The second, preferred survey involves a brief interview to gather demographic information and specifics about the person's circumstance to create a more detailed picture of the population in our region.
Axton Nichols, a program specialist with ECHO, said the count can be an "enlightening experience" for volunteers. "If someone's only interaction with a person experiencing homelessness is walking or driving by them on the street," Nichols told me, "they're not understanding them as people. Helping with the count can facilitate face-to-face interactions which can bring more humanity to debate over the issue."
The 2020 PIT Count is scheduled for the early hours of Jan. 25. To sign up and learn more, visit www.austinecho.org/pit.
The other big counting effort in 2020 comes with higher stakes – how City Council districts are drawn, who represents you in Congress, how much money Texas gets for health care programs, and so much more. The decennial U.S. census officially "takes place" on April 1, Census Day, but local and regional groups are already working hard to ensure the 2020 count is as thorough as possible.
You can help right now with the upcoming complete-count effort, considered to be one of the largest peacetime mobilizations of people in modern history. For those who have the time, the U.S. Census Bureau is accepting applications for part-time enumerators – the people who will be sent door-to-door to help people fill out the census.
Outreach is critical to ensure census participation among those of us who fill out our forms on our own. The state of Texas devotes basically zero funding to that outreach, for familiar political reasons, and federal funding (which is legally mandated) is less than in previous decades. Local and regional organizers – such as the Complete Count Committee partnership formed by the city of Austin and Travis County, or the United Way – are providing grants to support the grassroots efforts to communicate the importance of the census and overcome any reservations about participating.
John Lawler, program manager with the City/County CCC, says, "We have to think about the census in terms of a grassroots organizational effort. We'll be coordinating with community leaders to learn how to talk with specific neighborhoods about their concerns and questions about the census."
By the end of this month, the CCC will have a new website with detailed information about how individuals can volunteer their time. Another way to help? Fill out your form early. Mariana Salazar, United Way's Census 2020 project director, explained that thousands of workers will be sent out in May to collect responses from people. "If you don't procrastinate," she said, "those workers can spend their time on people who are hard to count or need more help."
Make Local Government Better
The city of Austin has over 70 commissions, boards, task forces, and intergovernmental bodies that are critical to the function of municipal government, and they all have one thing in common – they rely on volunteers, appointed by the mayor and each Council member. These groups help craft recommendations to elected leaders that influence the broad range of City Hall policies, from police oversight to how residents can access energy efficiency rebates. Some boards and commissions, such as those dealing with land use, have sovereign power granted by state law.
Interviews with Council members reveal a few common sentiments. Their jobs would be impossible without these volunteer appointees; in a city approaching a population of 1 million, it's unrealistic to expect Council offices – most with just four staffers – to be conversant with every issue that's important to the people they represent. Commissioners serve as the eyes and ears in the community, providing feedback from constituents in addition to their own policy expertise. CMs also agreed that boards and commissions bring a range of voices to the table for policy discussions that impact every race and class of Austinite, but that historically have been dominated by the wealthy and privileged. "Diversity of thought and lived experience is important to create policy that accurately reflects the values of our city," Natasha Harper-Madison told us. Kathie Tovo, herself a former Planning commissioner, added that "they bring together people of different expertise and interest, which expands our knowledge and idea base when crafting policy."
Generally speaking, anyone can apply for any board or commission, but some bodies have a steeper learning curve (an understanding of the Land Development Code, for example). They also require varying degrees of time; the Planning Commission meets almost every week, usually for 4+ hours, while other bodies meet monthly, for 2-3 hours at each meeting.
CMs encourage everyone, especially those who think this kind of work "isn't for them," to reach out and ask about opportunities. One unlikely commissioner, Nakyshia Fralin, was appointed to the Resource Management Commission by Harper-Madison in 2019 as a 19-year-old college student. She says she was initially intimidated by the work, but thanks to other commissioners who have mentored her, she's grown into a more confident, contributing member of the group. "I've learned that I'm needed and valued in this space," she said, "because there's not a lot of diversity of race or age in the commissions. My being in the room contributing to policy helps change that."