In this post, we highlight the local organizations, government departments, and advisory boards and commissions that influence racial justice and policing policies in Austin.
With all of the national news coverage of protests and social media activism, it can be easy to forget about the opportunities to make a difference right here in Austin. And for those who are new to political engagement, it can be hard to understand exactly how our local government structures work… and how to get more involved within them.
That’s why we’ve put together this little guide, highlighting some of the basic ways you can learn more/ get involved in racial justice and policing policies in Austin. Below, you’ll find information about relevant city departments, boards and commissions, and nonprofit/ advocacy groups.
Please take the time to look through it and if you’ve got any questions, don’t hesitate to send us an email at info@theaustincommon. We’re here to help you take your first steps forward in getting involved in local advocacy and government!
The city’s budget
One of the biggest ways to have an impact on our city and its policies/programs is through the budget process. After all, the budget determines where the city is going to spend its money during the upcoming year. What percentage is spent on swimming pools, housing, or small business programs? That’s what is decided during the budget process.
In Austin, our annual budget is about $4.2 billion and includes everything the city spends money on, including our utilities, like Austin Energy and Austin Water.
But the part of the budget that tends to get the most attention and debate is called the General Fund. At about $1 billion, this is the section of the budget that includes funding for the police and fire departments, parks & recreation, libraries, and public health.
This is where advocates are pushing for change.
“Our call is to divest from the police and to put more money into housing, health, and public programs,” explained Maya Pilgrim, in an interview with The Austin Common.
Maya is a member of Communities of Color United, a grassroots organization that fights for racial justice in Austin. Together with several other local advocacy groups, CCU has been asking City Council for years to reduce the police department’s budget in favor of other social programs, but this year, there seems to be heightened momentum behind them.
“What actually keeps our community safe is making sure that folks have housing security, food security, and access to health,” Maya said. “And that’s what actually contributes to our community’s safety.”
Right now, Austin spends about 40 percent of our General Fund budget on the police department.
Interested in getting more involved in the city’s budget process?
Here’s how it actually works.
Every year, around this time, the City of Austin Budget Office begins collecting public input on budget priorities. They do this with an online survey that allows you to share your opinions about where the city should be spending more or less money.
The Budget Office and the City Manager then take all that information and use it when writing up the city’s draft budget, which is presented to City Council in the summer.
After that, City Council spends a good portion of August editing, changing, and debating that draft budget. (There are additional opportunities for you to get involved in the budget process once the draft gets sent to City Council as well). The city’s new budget then goes into effect on October 1st.
Office of Police Oversight
The Office of Police Oversight is a city department (independent of the Austin Police Department) that “provides impartial civilian oversight of APD and prioritizes accountability and transparency in policing.”
On the Office of Police Oversight’s website, you’re able to:
Look through a history of complaints of police officers and see the discipline or action taken in response
Learn more about your rights when interacting with police
Apply to serve on the Community Police Review Commission, a volunteer group that makes policy recommendations about police discipline, training, and community relations, as well as reviews cases of police misconduct.
Want to learn more about the Office of Police Oversight? The office posted these 5 ways to support their mission of police accountability on Facebook:
Contact us – If you have experienced or witnessed police misconduct or want to submit a Complaint or Thank You, contact our office via our online form at www.atxpoliceoversight.org, or call us at 512-972-2676. You can share photos/videos, and you can remain anonymous.
Share information – Share the work of our office widely with your community. Help make sure that others are informed and know that OPO is a resource available to the community.
Collaborate – Reach out to our community engagement team at email@example.com to bring us to your virtual event or meeting to discuss the work of the office.
Advocate – If you have concerns or ideas about specific issues of police accountability in Austin, you can always contact your City Council member. Find your council member here: www.austintexas.gov/GIS/CouncilDistrictMap/
“The Equity Office was born out of community, and what we try to do is to empower the community,” explained Joshua Robinson, commission liaison with the City of Austin Equity Office.
The Equity Office was officially established in 2015 (in response to calls from the public and advocacy groups) to “achieve the vision of making Austin the most livable city in the nation for all,” as is explained on the city’s website.
“We’re about outcomes and results,” Joshua said. “…Until the outcomes of black and brown people are no longer at a disproportionately low rate, we will continue to do this work.”
But first, a quick definition…
“Racial equity is the condition when race no longer predicts a person’s quality of life outcomes in our community,” Joshua said, sharing the office’s definition of equity. “The city recognizes that race is a primary determinant of social equity, and therefore, we begin the journey toward social equity with this definition… That’s why we lead with race.”
As it explains on the Equity Office’s website, different than equality (in which everyone is given the same resources), equity “requires us to give people what they need to get them where we want them to be.”
So what does the Equity Office do exactly?
The Equity Office works on lots of different projects and initiatives, but to highlight a few…
-Equity Assessment Tool
The Equity Assessment Tool is basically a set of questions to guide city departments in discovering their impact on equity. The goal is to help staff understand who their work serves (and who it doesn’t) so that disparities can be reduced.
In other words, “we push every department to lead with equity in what they do,” explained Joshua.
By the end of 2020, the Equity Office will have gone through this Equity Assessment Tool process with every city department.
The Equity Office also acts a bit like an internal consulting/research firm, analyzing city projects and releasing reports on their equity impacts. Recently, the office has issued a report on CodeNEXT, as well as racial profiling within the police department.
How to get involved with the Equity Office
-Join the Equity Action Team.
With over 400 members, the Equity Action Team is a volunteer group that collaborates with the Equity Office to ensure that the city’s work is reflective of the community and the community’s goals. Meetings take place once a month and include updates/presentations from the city, as well as the opportunity for members to discuss major policy decisions and their impacts on equity.
According to Joshua, the Equity Action Team is also about “building relationships… helping community be able to network and be able to organize with each other.”
The Equity Action Team is open to everyone. You can sign up here.
-Participate in an Undoing Racism Workshop.
Facilitated by the People’s Institute For Survival and Beyond, this 2.5 day workshop “takes participants through a systemic analysis of race and racism, and how the history of this country continues to create outcomes to this day.”
So far, the Equity Office has taken 400 Austinites through this program, including city staff and members of the general public.
If you’d like to participate in this workshop, you can apply for the waiting list here. (It’s a popular program and there are only a limited number of spots each month, so you might have to wait a bit.)
One last tip from Joshua – “One thing I always tell people is that it’s important to organize, to strategize, and to mobilize when it comes to interacting with municipal government.”
City Boards and Commissions
In case you’re not familiar, the City of Austin has dozens of boards and commissions, made up of residents who volunteer their time to advise the City of Austin and City Council on important issues. We have commissions on nearly every topic, from food access to women’s rights.
Attending (or during COVID, tuning in virtually) to boards and commission meetings is a great way to learn more about the local topics you care about, meet local leaders, and push through new policy ideas. Oftentimes, it is these boards and commissions who propose new programs, policies, and budget recommendations… and then officially share and recommend them to City Council.
Many boards and commissions address racial justice and police relations in some way or another, but the most relevant are:
Public Safety Commission – advises on budget and policy for the police department, fire department, and EMS
African American Resource Advisory Commission – advises on quality of life for Austin’s African American community and makes recommendations for programs that alleviate economic and social inequities
Human Rights Commission – advises and consults on all matters involving racial, religious or ethnic discrimination and devises practices to promote equal opportunity.
Firefighters’, Police Officers’, and Emergency Medical Services Personnel Civil Service Commission – regulates the promotion, suspension and termination of firefighters, police officers and EMS
Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission – recommends programs and policies to alleviate inequities confronting Hispanics and Latinos in economic development, housing, health, transportation, etc.
If you are ready to take things to the next level, you can also apply to serve on any of these boards or commissions by filling out this form.
Community and Nonprofit Orgs
One of the very best ways to learn more and make a meaningful impact is to follow or join a local advocacy or nonprofit organization. These are groups who have been doing this work for years, attending the all-night Council meetings, organizing the protests, writing the letters and reports, and making the art. They are knowledgeable not only about the issues they advocate for, but also about how to get things done (community organizing, door-to-door canvassing, Council meetings).
The list of local organizations who work on policing, equity, and racial justice is long, but here are a few to get you started:
Austin Justice Coalition – “a Racial Justice Group that educates and builds community power for people of color who live in Austin, Texas that need support, community, and liberation during a time of systemic injustice in America.”
Communities of Color United -“a coalition of individuals and grassroots organizations fighting for racial justice in the city of Austin.”
Grassroots Leadership – nonprofit organization that “works for a more just society where prison profiteering, mass incarceration, deportation, and criminalization are things of the past.”
Measure – empowers “communities with data and education to eliminate social disparities.”
Community, Advocacy, and Healing Project – nonprofit “rooted in human centered, culturally appropriate, and trauma informed advocacy and healing experiences.”
Texas Appleseed – “promotes social and economic justice for all Texans by leveraging the skills and resources of volunteer lawyers and other professionals to identify practical solutions to difficult, systemic problems.”
Rosa Rebellion – “a platform for creative activism by and for women of color.”
A few quick tips for getting involved with a new organization…
Start by following them on social media. Most advocacy organizations are really good about posting regular action items and updates on their Facebook and Instagram pages.
Attend a meeting. Many of these organizations have brought their meetings online, making them easier than ever to tune into.
Listen to leadership and discover where your skills and talents are most needed. The organizations listed above are very intentional about being led by the communities they serve. If you are not a member of that community, but are interested in being a co-conspirator/co-agitator/ ally, just be sure to listen to the ways that leadership is asking for your help.