How to Support the Black Community in Austin Right Now
#BlackLivesMatter always and everywhere.
The horrific events of this past summer served for many as an awakening to the racial discrimination and violence that those in our country’s Black community face daily. Since then, though, it seems the Instagram shows of support and the drive towards activism has somewhat tapered off. Consider this a reminder—while your social media feed may have moved on, the injustices experienced by BIPOC have never ceased to exist. With this in mind, Thrillist spoke to business owners, nonprofits, and organizers in Austin’s Black community on the ways we can continue to support them year-round—since the fight for civil rights is ongoing, our efforts must be as well.
Preserving the Black cultural heritage of Austin with Six SquareTo begin to understand the importance of Six Square, a nonprofit which works to uplift and preserve Austin’s Black cultural contributions and legacy, look no further than the organization’s name. “It references the six square miles that used to be the former ‘Negro District’ in this city,” explains Lauren Lluveras, Six Square’s project coordinator. While the impact of gentrification has undoubtedly altered those six square miles in East Austin, Lluveras and her colleagues have a mission to address “the widespread disparities, racial biases, and decreasing black population” in this area—which carries the historical weight of being the first Black cultural district in the state of Texas, and the only cultural arts district in the city of Austin.
Shelbi Mitchell, Six Square’s Director of Cultural Experiences and Expression, notes the work to do so “comes in many different forms—from grants, to providing platforms, to opportunities to work with individuals and their craft, and pay them their worth.” Recently, in response to the devastating impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the lives of Black creatives, Mitchell mentions how Six Square has provided multiple rounds of relief grants to “help people pay their bills and follow their dreams.” However, Mitchell notes, the fight for economic survival in marginalized communities extends far beyond the events of 2020—“around the city, people of color are exploited in many industries, not just creatives. We take the opportunity then to find them and work with them.”
Although the pandemic has altered Six Square’s traditional volunteer opportunities, there are still substantial ways that individuals can support the nonprofit’s vision. One of the ways to do so is by attending the wide variety of programming that they host. Following Six Square on social media (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) and subscribing to their newsletter are two easy ways to stay in-the-know about any upcoming events. As with any nonprofit, donations are also vital to supporting Six Square’s various initiatives. Additionally, Lluveras is sure to mention that “we always have space for those who want to donate in kind—if people are interested in helping us with marketing, with our website, all those things are welcome.”
On a final note, Regine Malibiran, Six Square’s Director of Programs and Innovation, points out that a crucial part of truly supporting Austin’s Black community is being dedicated to doing so on a continuous basis. “People hyper-focus on February,” Malibiran mentions in reference to Black History Month, “but what’s important is to make sure your support of the Black community is something that has longevity—'cause it is relevant year-round.”
Learning about Austin’s Black history with the Black History Bike RideWhen Talib Abdullahi first had the idea to put together a bike tour of 12 sites that showcased Austin’s black history, he expected “a dozen or maybe twenty of [his] friends” to show up to the event. Instead, the post to his personal Instagram “started getting shared all over the place on social media”—and blew up into an event, the Black History Social Ride, that gathered around 400 people in front of the capital to be led on Abdullahi’s tour.
While the response was unexpected for the life-long cyclist and self-described “amateur history buff,” he saw the experience as a chance to educate—“we have many new transplants to the city and it’s important to share the city’s history. Because, if there aren’t any resources, people aren't going to be aware of the struggles of African-Americans in Austin.”
Since that event, which took place in June 2020 (as a way to mark Juneteenth, the national celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States), Abdullahi has been working on a website that allows people to take the tour on their own. “With COVID being as high as it is right now, and with the way it affects Black and Brown communities,” he explains, “our goal was really to create an immersive, beautiful way for people to do this on their phones, and digitally if they want to stay at home.” The website, BlackHistoryBikeRide.com, allows people to discover the stops on Abdullahi’s original tour, which includes locations important to the former freedman community of Clarksville and the historically black Huston-Tillotson University, in exactly this way—with descriptions for each location that provide a comprehensive look at its importance to the history of the city and its Black inhabitants. “I think it's important for us to really understand that the civil rights movement happened in every city across the nation and it wasn't just one single individual or a couple—it was the entire Black community and their allies working to bring about change.”
For Abdullahi, an understanding of the struggles and accomplishments of the Black community in Austin is a key component to being a better ally. “Educating people or people educating themselves, having these tough conversations—doing the anti-racism work is very, very important.” He also notes the ways in which donations play a helpful role in allowing community initiatives like his own to move forward—those who wish to support his project can do so via Six Square (just be sure to note funds as “c/o Black History Bike Ride”).
As for a future group ride? The rightful priority of keeping people safe during a pandemic makes Abdullahi hesitant to plan one for the time being, but he recommends following the organization’s Instagram for continued updates. And, as he points out, the “good news is all this history is still there. It’s not like us doing the big bike rides is stopping anyone from learning.”
Supporting Black artists with InterfacesAfter moving to Austin around two years ago, KB immediately went about immersing themselves in the city’s art scene. “The way I feel most connected to a place is through its art scene,” they explain, “for a solid month, I was like ‘I’m going to every single event that I can see while I can.’” Amidst the event spree, it became clear to them that there was a disconnect between Austin’s reputation as an artist’s mecca and the actual reality of its cultural scene—“whether it was in the drag scene, the music scene, or the poetry scene, it was always more focused on privileged identities. Whether that be white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied. And when it was a space that did include a specific marginalized identity, there wasn’t always a competency around the totality of who people were.”
From that major discrepancy, a question formed in KB’s mind: “What would it look like if we did an intentional outreach to artists of marginalized identities and what kind of impact would that have on arts in Austin?” They put that idea into action through forming Interfaces, a community initiative that nurtures & amplifies marginalized artists through IDEA (which stands for inclusion, diversity, equity, and access)-conscious arts programming. Soon enough, their popular open mic nights had local bookstore, BookWoman, packed to the point of it becoming a fire hazard—and they had to change locations to another Austin bookstore, Monkeywrench, in order to accommodate everyone coming to their events.
However, like all organizations who powered through 2020, Interfaces was forced to reframe their format and programming to fit the new, entirely virtual world. They did so with an incredible tenacity—providing money for artists, continuing to develop events online, and putting out a zine, do you want a revolution? ATX Artists on the Carceral State. The zine, which quickly sold out in physical format but is still available for purchase online in digital form, further showcased Interfaces’ commitment to their founding values—75% of the profits from its release were donated to Black-lead organizations Black Trans Leadership of Austin, Austin Black Pride, and 400+1.
Considering that achievement, KB seemed the perfect person to ask how the citizens of Austin can best support the Black creatives in our community. Their answer came under the headlines of three big concepts: doing so fiscally, socially, and politically. “Fiscally-wise,” they explain, “hire Black people to come do your shows, hire Black leadership for your arts venues, really intentionally look into your spaces and think ‘am I perpetuating anti-blackness in any kind of way?’” Moving into the social sphere, KB points to the need and necessity for organizations to diverse their hiring—“and not just in entry-level positions, there should be Black leadership at the top.” Finally, politically, they see advocacy as a crucial action for all allies: “It can be Black people for the next fifty years talking about the same things we’ve been talking about or, it can be our counterparts also doing the work, also calling out those things, and also redistributing the wealth.”
KB points out plenty of opportunities for those looking to get their boots on the ground at Interfaces alone. Of course, donation is a huge way to support the organization—“if we want to continue to put money in the hands of marginalized artists, we have to have the money to keep our programs running and to pay those marginalized artists.” Attending Interfaces’ events, following them on social media (Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter), reading their blog, and subscribing to their newsletter, which features updates on local artists and social justice-related news, are all great steps as well. Helping work towards Interfaces’ goal of ongoing accessibility for all is just as important. “For all our events we need moderators to make sure things are respectful to the artists we bring into our space,” KB mentions, “we want to make our events accessible so that takes ASL interpreters, Spanish interpreters, and translations of the material we want to bring out.”
Finally, KB stresses the importance of consistency in the efforts to support Austin’s Black community: “We need people who are dedicated to us not just for a season or not just when the news makes them feel bad. Don’t just support us on Black History Month, it should be a continuous effort and an effort you are willing to work at. Maybe you're going to be wrong, maybe you're going to be uncomfortable, but be willing to listen.”
The importance of sustaining Black-owned businesses with eleMINT Skin Health & Wellness StudioWhile many count skincare as a personal obsession, for Shauntavia Ward, it became a calling. During her years as a Nurse Practitioner in medical aesthetics, she realized how the “unrealistic visualization and narrow beauty message” promoted in our society “often negatively impacts emotional and mental health.” Motivated to change that narrative, she opened eleMINT Skin Health & Wellness Studio in East Austin “on the principles to make skincare inclusive, accessible, and affordable.” Alongside her team, Ward offers bespoke botanical facials and clean beauty products to an ever-growing fan base of Austin beauty devotees.
“Simply being a Black entrepreneur in America is a challenge in itself,” she points out, “our best efforts are systematically muted by the ongoing racial wealth divide and racial economic inequality as a whole.” And, while Austin may “reflect a supportive climate,” in truth, there is “a well-documented history of blatant racial and social segregation that, to this day, still contributes to the obstacles Black business owners face in the city.”
In facing these deeply-rooted, systemic challenges, Ward draws on her own strength and perseverance: “As a Black woman navigating business in Austin, I quickly learned to get comfortable being uncomfortable by inserting myself into spaces that were not intentionally created for me, or didn’t expect me to show up!” While being a Black, female, business-owner has been no easy feat, it has given her additional motivation in the pursuit of her goals. Her choice to center her business in the historically Black neighborhood of East Austin serves as just one example of the ways in which she puts resilience into practice, describing the “ability to sustain our physical space in a historic Black neighborhood, despite the gentrification happening around us” as “our most impactful protest.”
When it comes to supporting the city’s Black entrepreneurs, Ward offers a variety of suggestions. There is, of course, making a conscious effort to spend those hard-earned dollars at Black-owned businesses “on a regular basis, not just when Black culture is at the forefront of media outlets.” Equally important is “employing Black leadership and board seats, offering your mentorship, and favoring more diverse and inclusive practices in your own business operations.” Putting these ideas into practice is not only important but, even more so, necessary—as Ward puts it best, “Black businesses stabilize communities like Austin.”