Recently, the Boston University Initiative on Cities released a study after reviewing the minutes of several local meetings that determined what many marginalized communities already knew. Countless examples demonstrated that the people who are going to the meetings are the people who have vested interests in making sure that distress communities remain distressed, and that older, more established (read: White) neighborhoods remain as pristine as possible. Those who go to the meetings are viewed as the real citizens of a city, whose opinions are sought even while they are unpaid. Frequently, they enjoy professional status outside the civic arena, having been fortunate enough to catch the attention of the public and private sector.
However, what if that is an incomplete story? In Austin, Texas, people of color are often chastised for not attending meetings or participating in the public process. What if that was an outright lie, maintained by people who have a vested interest in perpetuating that lie, either to keep a political office or to gain recognition as an advocate? Throughout history, people of color have consistently fought for civil rights even at the expense of their own lives, so why is that information missing from history? Of course, segregation is a big part of it, but there were people fighting against segregation, which is extensively documented through all kinds of mediums. Why is there little information about the history of people of color approaching their local governments just as actively as the predominantly White communities?
Reality is that even when organizers of color approached the meetings, they were ignored. Local governments showed them time and again that regardless of presenting facts, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the voices of communities of color were valued less than White voices. Activist groups, national and local, fought relentlessly to obtain agency when discussing what would happen to their neighborhoods. When segregation transitioned to zoning, they reinforced their communities through churches and social events. When the urban renewal scourge burned through the country, they did their level best to make their neighborhoods look as pristine as possible. They fought both at the meetings and in court, publicly and privately, but every time, they were made to feel less than the other organizers fighting against them.
Our most recent text Not in the Plan: Silencing Communities of Color in Austin’s Planning History discusses the ways in which local activist voices have been written out of Austin’s political and planning processes (Our in-process draft can be dowloaded at the link below). Our book is the result of maps, reading minutes, and extensive research into this question: Well, did they go to the meetings? (The short answer is yes, they did) Meeting after meeting, we see that activists showed up–but that does not mean commissioners or council people listened. Despite the dominant narrative, communities of color in Austin have always fought for their right to exist, whether or not those fights were heeded. Called “hooligans,” “thugs,” and “uncivilized,” they still dared to speak to those who so readily handed their neighborhoods over those in power. The decimation of cultural communities does not lie at the feet of those residents. It lies, as always, with the dominant narrative.