Working For Climate Justice In Southeast Austin

Ricardo Zavala
Ricardo Zavala leads a breakout session at the Front Porch Gathering

“For a lot of us, particularly in the community we’re sitting in right now, Dove Springs, we cant pursue this conversation of climate justice without helping to couple those conversations with racial justice, with economic justice, with infrastructure equity, with education equity, with health equity.”

These were the words of Virginia Cumberbatch (director of the University of Texas’ Center For Community Engagement) at a climate justice event held earlier this week.

Dove Springs (located in southeast Austin) has suffered from a series of floods in recent years, including the Halloween Flood in 2013 that claimed five lives, damaged hundreds of homes, and raised a lot of concerns over inequities in disaster response and climate vulnerability in different parts of the city.

“So when we think back to some of the devastating floods that have happened in this particular neighborhood… It wasn’t just because of climate change,” Virginia said. “…It was also because of missteps as a community, as a city, in terms of people’s access to resources, people’s understanding of tools and resources, as well as infrastructure equity. ”

This was the topic of conversation at this week’s Front Porch Gathering, hosted by UT’s Center for Community Engagement. During the event, academics, community members, and flood survivors gathered together in small groups to “explore, challenge and collectively address the historic and ongoing effects of flooding and unequal climate precautions that negatively impact communities in Southeast Austin.”

For the past several years, the University of Texas has been hosting these Front Porch Gatherings on a variety of different topics, all with the goal of “co-laboring with the community” on important issues and elevating the importance of lived experience in policy-making and community engagement.

“We all have a lived experience in this city,” Virginia said on Tuesday. “And for many people, it’s that lovely sort of narrative that we love to cultivate, which is that we are a top tier city that’s progressive and liberal. But some of us have another lived experience, right? Which is an experience of living in a city that’s also undergoing mass gentrification and displacement and an equity and economic division.”

In order to elevate the words and wisdom of those who are already feeling the impacts of climate change in Austin, the Front Porch Gathering featured speakers from the Dove Springs community, who shared their feelings on the flood recovery effort and what has been done since to address inequities in our city’s disaster response system and land use policies.

Many residents spoke about a government response that was severely lacking and not well enough connected to the local community.

“We had a lot of people who were undocumented, spoke Spanish only, who were affected by the flood that didn’t really want government assistance,” explained Ricardo Zavala, founder and president of Dove Springs Proud (a neighborhood civic organization). “They just wanted community help. So if you told them you were FEMA, they didn’t want nothing to do with you. But if you told them you were Dove Springs Proud… that’s what they wanted to work with.”

In the end, the attitude was, “we’re going to lead the effort and the government will just support us,” Ricardo said. “We led the effort. The community did.”

Today, the community (in partnership with nonprofit organizations like Go Austin/ Vamos Austin) is working on improving local disaster preparedness and reducing the negative impacts of systemic inequities on things like infrastructure and land use.

“And what all that means is, we work with residents to empower them,” said Frances Acuna (a community organizer with Go Austin/ Vamos Austin) at the Front Porch Gathering. “To build that, I call it ganas, to build that empowerment, so we can be able to go advocate and go ask for our needs. We’re not asking for things that we want. We are asking for our infrastructure because it doesn’t have the capacity to hold that water…”

For Frances, what she said makes this work so meaningful, is that she is also a resident of the area and gets to serve her own community. “So my neighbors face my same issues. So I get flooded, I face displacement, I face gentrification, I face the same things that my neighbors are facing.”

Want to get more involved/ learn more? Here’s how:

  • Attend the next Front Porch Gathering, which will focus on the 2020 census. Tuesday, February 18th at 6:30pm at the Asian American Resource Center
  • Attend GAVA’s upcoming Climate Resilience Digital Empowerment Program, which will give you the technology tools and resources to anticipate, prepare, and respond when the next disaster strikes. Saturday, January 25th from 1pm to 3pm at the Southeast Branch Library. 
  • Watch all of the presentations from the Climate Justice Front Porch Gathering below.

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