For communication and leadership sophomore Emily Anaya, learning about the predicament endured by residents in the Colony Park neighborhood was one of the first experiences that informed her commitment to social justice, community and equity.
“Meeting community leaders from Colony Park and learning about the inequities that residents in Austin were facing really taught me how important it is to use my position within the university to connect with the broader community,” Anaya said. “There’s still so much more we can do to help support them and meet community priorities, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we can help uplift, advocate for and support them in the future.”
The Colony Park neighborhood in northeast Austin is geographically isolated from retail and infrastructure, including large grocery stores. This community’s lack of access to healthy and affordable food, and other quality of life resources, brought Moody College students proximate to the problems that are fueling protests and broad calls for racial justice.
Now coming into focus and attention are issues of police brutality, criminal justice and systemic racism, which accounts for longstanding inequities in health coverage, employment, residential segregation and quality of life.
Together with the UT Center for Community Engagement, Moody College students are learning first-hand from residents and activists about systemic inequalities. Last spring, Moody College’s Honors Program hosted a classroom panel featuring Colony Park residents and community leaders.
“I don't think that there would have been a community on the west side of I-35 that would have been left to its own devices the way that we have been out here,” said Barbara Scott, president of the Colony Park Neighborhood Association who has lived in Colony Park since 1974.
Years of self-advocacy have paid off, however, as Colony Park became a partner with developers and the City of Austin to create a Colony Park Master Plan in 2014.
Funded by a $3 million grant the City of Austin won in 2012 from the Department of Housing and Urban Development's Sustainable Communities program, the initiative is an opportunity to develop the 208 acres of property in northeast Austin and to revive the neighborhoods nearby, where residents have historically struggled with crime and a lack of available transportation, retail and entertainment options.
“During this process with the city, we came up with eight pillars of need that we gave to them,” Scott said. “One of them was access to parks… and it’s taken years, but we now have a park. We had a grand opening on March 7, and it's a beautiful park.”
Carol Fraser is a food systems programs coordinator for the City of Austin who works with the Colony Park neighborhood.
“(Colony Park) is essentially an area of the city that is under-resourced and under-invested both by the private sector and the city but has a lot of potential and has a lot of community organizing involvement,” Fraser said. “People who live there really care about their community and are really engaged to make it better for the long haul.”
Students learned more about the obstacles residents face in their daily lives as a result of racist policies of the past and neglect in the present. They also witnessed community leaders’ dogged persistence to make their grievances heard and addressed.
They are inspired to help empower their voices through video and film. The campus dispersion due to COVID-19 has caused the students to delay their plans.
“We had hoped to follow through and help amplify their stories,” Anaya said. “We were doing a lot of brainstorming about how to use our communication skills to tell their stories through film, interviews and more.”
The City of Austin’s 1928 city plan pushed the city´s Black population east of what is now Interstate 35; decades of housing discrimination have persisted. Gentrification in more recent years has pushed many Black residents further east. Income inequality, and lack of access to infrastructure and resources continue to be a reality for many neighborhoods in what is sometimes referred to as the eastern crescent.
“The eastern crescent runs from southeast Austin to northeast Austin, and all of these areas have a history of being neglected by the city,” said Laura Cortez, whose consulting firm works alongside the city for the Colony Park initiative. “These are high-minority population areas with a high number of African-Americans and undocumented Latino families. Colony Park is unique in itself because all of the other areas of Austin that have been gentrified have come with resources, whereas Colony Park has not.”
Though the pandemic halted their efforts, Moody College students will continue supporting the Colony Park community through collaborative engagement work.
“I really hope Moody keeps working with Colony Park, and that other UT organizations take up the cause as well,” advertising student Hanna Tinsio said. “We hold privilege as university students, and we owe it to our community to use our platforms to amplify their voices and help them meet their priorities.”
Commitment is important to UT’s Center for Community Engagement as well, which has continued to stay involved with Colony Park since a service-learning collaborative with Austin Community College in 2015.
“We went in hoping that we could elevate the voices of the community and build capacity for the work that they valued and wanted,” said Suchitra Gururaj, Assistant Vice President for Community Engagement and Economic Development at UT Austin. “I’m very proud that our Center for Community Engagement continues to work with the Colony Park neighborhood association. After all, it’s not enough for UT to start a project, parachute in, and then leave. It’s critical for real community building that our partnerships be sustained.”
The next phase of implementation for the initiative involves adopting the master plan and setting the stage for development. They will build on the work that has already been established by residents and utilize the community's eight pillars of needs to focus their work.
“There’s so much to be said about Colony Park,” Fraser said. “In some ways, the story of the neighborhood has been told many times, but it doesn’t always get heard.”