Close Austin’s Empathy Gap!

Close Austin’s Empathy Gap!

Improving Austin takes more than a new zoning plan: It requires a coherent social initiative that brings together the public and allows them to create a collective vision for the city.

I’ve been a westsider for thirteen years now, and considering that Austin is consistently ranked as one of the most economically segregated metros in the country, I know that such a cross-community movement is far overdue.

For the past year and a half, I’ve researched segregation and gentrification in Austin by doing everything from giving a TED talk on the issues to exploring communities different from my own.

Looking back, I’ve realized one thing from all of my experiences: Austinites’ vastly polarized opinions on race and class not only make meaningful social change impossible, but also result in undeniable social regression.

Take, for instance, the violence of the 2017 anti-gentrification protest at The Blue Cat Café. Reading between the lines of red bandana protesters and the hipster cafe, it’s clear we are left with two general groups who don’t share the same understanding of what gentrification means.

For white tech workers moving into the Eastside, gentrification is revitalization—for pre-existing poor black and Latino residents, it’s an invasion.

Considering the vastly different interpretations between gentrifier and non-gentrifier, the result was always inevitable: violence and arrests, rather than compromise and problem solving.

In other words, gentrification, by overlapping two competing polar opposite groups, reveals yet another nasty fault line that runs through our city: Austin’s empathy gap.

When the rich and the poor live as far away from each other as they do now, how can one group possibly be understand the other, beyond shallow stereotypes and caricatures?

Moreover, how can Austin’s youth, growing up in their respective bubbles of either uniform affluence or poverty, become effective future changemakers in the city’s sociopolitical arena?

The answer for both questions: they can’t.

The truth is that the in-group, outgroup instinct is outdated—a vestige of humanity’s time as cavemen.

No longer does our society need the “us vs. them” mentality cooked up in segregated cities. Rather, as Austin faces pressing 21st century issues like social inequality and growth, Austinites must get out of the stagnant status quo and expand the way we think about the issues.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the government must force everyone to share the same neighborhoods or schools, as I doubt sincere citizens want the race riots and turmoil of bussing during the ‘70s.

Rather, the beauty of a well-constructed social movement is the flexibility that comes from balancing the individual and the government, the East and the West, the right and the left.

Envision Utah, a nonprofit public-private partnership formed in Salt Lake City during the ‘90s, is the holy grail example of what this type of social movement should look like in Austin.

According to Jonathan Rose in his book, The Well-Tempered City, Envision Utah, when tasked with solving a declining downtown and traffic filled suburb, “brought together” everyone: city officials, fiscal conservatives, developers, and residents of every demographic.

Envision Utah went all out, conducting public values research, hosting more than two public hundred workshops, and challenging residents to develop their own zoning plans for the city.

Without filing an environmental impact statement or regulating growth, Envision Utah allowed an “informed and empowered public” to realize the need to make their city more environmentally sustainable and socially equitable for themselves.

The results today speak for Salt Lake: the city is “frequently listed as one of the top ten best places to live in America,” boasts a high performing economy, and is one of the most “income-equal communities in the United States.”

Truly, Envision Utah shows us Austinites how meaningful social change is accomplished.

In order to resolve segregation and gentrification, Austin must embrace the philosophy of “societal integration.” No longer can we seek political or social change without addressing the empathy gap among ourselves. No longer can Austinites make political decisions without understanding the people they will affect.

In short, Austin nonprofits and government agencies must bring the people together to overcome the blindness and ignorance of division. Everyone’s voice must be heard in Austin’s social initiative, and a collective vision of equality must be created and executed by and for the people and the city.