East Austin has only recently become home to craft cocktail bars, yoga studios, high-end vintage clothing stores, art house movie theaters, and food trucks lauded by the New York Times dining section. For someone new to Austin, unfamiliar with its complex history, it is difficult to imagine that these neighborhoods were intentionally segregated by city planners, that I-35 once demarcated the racial division of the city. However for many native Austinites, this history is part of their lived everyday experience. Though the explicit segregation of the city is no longer its law, many of Austin’s vibrant communities remain geographically, economically, racially, and culturally divided. These communities are all affected by many of the same issues—housing costs, education, transportation, healthcare, legal services—and Virginia Cumberbatch believes that the best way that they can be addressed is for members of these communities to come together.
For Cumberbatch, Director of Community Engagement at the Division of Diversity and Engagement at UT-Austin, the university is an institution with deep financial, medical, and educational resources. The purpose of the Community Engagement Center is to integrate UT’s resources into the community. One of the ways that it does this is through the Front Porch Gatherings, a series of events that bring members of the Austin community together with faculty, nonprofit organizations, community religious and activist leaders, and others, to talk about many of the issues faced by Austin’s most underserved communities. I spoke with Virginia Cumberbatch to learn more about the Front Porch Gatherings and their role within the larger goals of the Community Engagement Center.
Can you talk to me a little bit about the Front Porch Gatherings and how they got started?
The Community Engagement Center focuses on connecting the resources of the university to the community. We leverage the financial resources, the leadership, the research, and the students of the university to address priority issues facing our most underserved communities here in Austin. One of the ways we have tried to facilitate that is through our Front Porch Gatherings.
This was a renewal of a concept we had done a few years ago called Community Dialogues, which were about hearing from the community about the most pressing issues like health or education. After about a year of Community Dialogues we realized that we wanted to make sure that we were not just scratching the surface, so we created a new model of what Community Dialogues should look like, and we called it the “Front Porch Gathering.” We consider ourselves the “front porch” of the university: people coming onto a front porch and talking and keeping constant communication and contact. We are the community’s first entry-point into getting resources from the university.
We launched the Front Porch Gatherings in fall of 2016 to create time and space to explore priority issues collectively as a community. For us, that meant taking away what is often a top-down approach—where thought-leaders and experts talking at the community in a panel style or a presentation, so the agency is taken away from the community. We want to reposition residents as experts in the room. What we try to do with the Front Porch Gatherings is invite all of those various perspectives.
What goes on in these meetings? What do they look like?
We really try to customize what the Front Porch Gathering experience will be like based on the topic, and then from that, we do small group break out sessions that are facilitated by experts in that space, and they have predetermined questions that they walk people through, through their own lens and experience. We are creating a space for that kind of dialogue and actionable conversations. You see partnerships form—maybe this organization did not know that this individual was the person to talk to about an issue—people realizing what happens when you are in a room together and everyone is given the same sort of agency.
At our seventh Front Porch, for example, we talked about immigration, particularly speaking about how federal and state immigration policy shape the local landscape here in Central Texas. What we try to do is ground the conversation in personal narrative and experience. We opened up the evening with two people—one was a Dreamer, the other a DACA recipient, sharing their stories about living in a mixed-status house, which means that some people may not be documented. It set the tone for the rest of the evening, and people took that to their conversations rather than just talking about the data and statistics.
Another example is the first Front Porch we did in September about education, equity, and East Austin. We talked about the disparities in public education as well as the opportunity gap in East Austin, which we opened up with a talk from Dr. Terrance Green, who has been developing this access model of how to improve schools in underserved communities.
How do you reach out to the community? Who is the audience you are looking for, and how do people find out about these events and participate in them?
We do this in a variety of ways; one is that we reach out to our nonprofit organizational partners because they may be have immediate contact with people who might be experiencing the ramifications of some of these institutional issues. Additionally we team up with churches and schools to get the word out.
We need to know what the proper channels are to connect with depending on the topic. So for immigration, we know this is a sensitive topic, and some people might be reticent to engage in the conversation—so we held that Front Porch Gathering in a church, hoping that that would create a sense of safety and intimacy for that conversation. Another way that we create that space where residents want to come is that we are really adamant about making sure that we are in the community hosting these events rather than asking people to come to UT. As much work as we have done at the university for the community to become more trusting of it, it’s still an intimidating space, spatially as well as culturally.
How do you select topics for the Front Porch Gatherings?
Our topics are based out of our four areas of focus at the Community Engagement Center: health disparities, education equity, criminal justice or law, and housing and affordability. For example our affordability and gentrification conversations are aligned with the work of Dr. Eric Tang at the Social Justice Institute, which is one of the programs that we incubate.
The health disparities Front Porch Gathering was based on the work of the moving-in of the resources of the UT Medical School but realizing that that’s not going to solve all the problems where there are gaps. Then there are community members who come to us with issues they are seeing and want to discuss. This second year we are really seeing more of a response.
What kinds of feedback have you gotten about the Front Porch Gatherings so far?
At our Front Porch Gatherings, we always have a survey about things that are missing and ways that we can dig deeper in a particularly nuanced part of a conversation. We are going to be talking about gentrification again in December, but this time we are going to be talking about affordable housing and how appropriate it is to retain the needs of populations. We’re not talking about the displacement—we’re talking about how Austin is building all this affordable housing, but is it appropriate for the mother of three, or is it appropriate for the single person who is college-educated?
The surveys are great—they are very concrete. But what I really lean on as my measuring stick about the usefulness of this program are just emails I get and people I have talked to afterwards. For instance at our immigration program, I had someone come up to me…and I am only going to reveal his race because it gives context to his comments. He was a Caucasian pastor of a predominantly white church here in Austin, and he told me that the conversation was an amazing opportunity for him to hear about how this policy was affecting not just some theoretical person but someone living in this city, someone who is right down the street. It gave context to what often times can feel like a very distant conversation. He talked about how he really wanted to recreate that experience for his congregation. For me, that was really great, continued affirmation that our approach to this is resonating with people.
You started up the meetings again during the 2016 election…did that have anything to do with people wanting to be more engaged with community-level political organizing? Or is that just circumstantial?
It was not intentional prior to the election, but it was definitely a driving force for the need of something like this. People feeling—on an institutional level as well as an individual level—that they want to have spaces where they could explore and learn more about particularly pressing issues that are sometimes divisive or sometimes misunderstood or sometimes, unless it is your lived experience, you don’t know about. I think we saw an uptick in people’s engagement because of the sort of sociopolitical climate happening at a national level. One of our most well-attended events was about gentrification. Another really popular event was one about reentry and affordability for people moving out of the criminal justice system back into the community but don’t have the support they need to do that successfully. These are things that, taken out of national context, are often in the news, are highly politicized—I think people’s interest in that is definitely connected to the fervor felt pre-election and post-election. I also think that people are actively seeking ways that they can engage themselves in a meaningful and productive way.
How did you end up working at the Community Engagement Center? Did you grow up in Austin or go to UT?
I am a native Austinite, born and raised here. I did not go to college here—I went to school in Massachusetts—Williams College. I came back to Austin and worked in Public Affairs and Public Relations, and then I went to graduate school at UT at the LBJ School in Public Policy. I was offered a fellowship—a Graduate Assistant position in the Division of Diversity in Community Engagement. While I was in school, and prior to that, I was really involved in community work focused on social advocacy—particularly to underserved communities of color. The work that I did while I was a graduate student was primarily focused in documenting stories of the integration of the first black students into UT. That turned into a project and then a book.
Culminating all of those experiences, the Community Engagement Center had been without a Director for about a year, so they were looking for someone to come in and provide infrastructure. When I went into my second year of graduate school, the position was offered to me, and I actually took it before I graduated. I have been the Director here for a little over a year.
Clearly your research is intrinsically linked to community engagement and public scholarship already. How has working on the specific Front Porch Gatherings project and Community Engagement Center contributed to your research, professional development, or the kinds of projects you want to do in the future?
Lately what I consider to be my purpose is being a bridge-builder and reconciling fractured community relationships. Especially having grown up in this city—and as amazing a city as I think it is and all the things it has given to me and others—I still feel like there is a façade around Austin as being progressive and liberal that oftentimes masks a very inconsistent reality of problems and inequities of the city, being one of the most economically segregated cities in the country, and the historical narrative around segregation in this city that for some people is still very much a reality in terms of where resources are and where they are not. I see that and know how very much it is still a part of our stories, however we have not always had—and I don’t think we still do across the board—an understanding that we are not as cognizant as we should be at a systematic, institutional level of how these things are continuing to build inequity and division in our community.
For me, the Front Porch Gathering is a microcosmic example of what can happen when we allow our history, our stories, and our lived experiences to provide understanding and context of how we can move forward in rectifying particular broken practices or policies. The point of Front Porch Gatherings is not necessarily to come up with solutions, but instead to be a stepping stone in shifting that policy or abandoning that particular practice. For me, it has reinforced that as a practice of something not just tangible but productive—creating time and space for people to share their lived experiences, and doing it in a constructive manner. We are very particular about the questions we ask and where we bring our conversations, and if we could do that on a city level, on a national level, then we would probably make headway—at least a little bit quicker than we are doing.