Back to Basics: Building the Austin We All Deserve

Morgan Witt Uncategorized

Howdy, Austin. 

Let’s face it folks, we’re actin’ like a $6 can of Lone Star at a Snow Patrol concert: Too much money, too little fizz. Between a global pandemic and a modern day civil rights movement, it’s become undeniable that the ‘Austin’ experience we so often rave about isn’t everyone’s experience. We’re not just going in the wrong direction; we’ve been heading this way for quite some time and we’re about to go the way of Thelma and Louise.

Sure, we may be ‘weird’, ‘musical’, the ‘blue island in a red sea’… but upon closer examination, Austin consistently falls short of its progressive ideals. We remain one of the most economically segregated metro areas in the country, and our schools the most segregated in the state. Even as we grow, Austin’s Black community shrinks. While we tout our successful response to COVID-19, the Latinx community endures the disproportionate impact of infection and death. Austin brags about its welcoming vibe and booming economy, while also being ranked the worst city for the minimum wage workers.

Now as a proud born and raised Austinite, these are difficult facts for me to face. I grew up in this town, and let me tell you, it was great. I remember the first rock concert my dad took me to at La Zona Rosa. We’d spend summers eating snow cones and playing putt putt at Peter Pan, or the afternoon out on the lake. I dreamed of living the comfortable middle class life my parents had. But fast forward two decades, I’ve learned that Austinites face challenges just making a living, accessing essential services, or engaging with their representatives. 

I eventually came to realize that even I’ve been affected. I guess there’s something to be said about the decidedly American “martyr” complex. We have a tendency to silently endure hardship and make do with poor circumstances, often not demanding better or even considering it as a possibility. It took years to dawn on me that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are cities in the US that solved these problems, and we can, too. 

As the possibility of a better life dawned on me, I started to get frustrated. I’m getting pushed out of my own hometown… and didn’t even know it. I was simply adapting to being a teacher, and now tech professional, who rents in a district — a city — I can’t afford to buy in. I assumed steady rent increases and frequent moves were the norm. I resigned myself to never living in central Austin. I didn’t really consider a world without the soul-sucking commute. It never occurred to me I could live in a community where I feel heard and represented by my City rep.

What I find most infuriating, though, is that Austin’s had years to solve these problems. 2020 has no doubt exposed and worsened many of Austin’s long-standing issues as small businesses and residents alike face an economically uncertain future. But looking back a few decades, we clearly see these problems have been kicked down the road for future generations to handle. Well, the future has arrived and it’s kicking down our front door. 

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” (Sun-Tzu) In this time of anger and confusion, fear and frustration, there’s also hope and opportunity. Despite the chaos, time spent cooped up at home has given many of us the chance to reflect on our city, our nation, our values in ways we wouldn’t have otherwise. As division grows both here and across the country, our rights as US citizens and as human beings all seem to be a matter of contentious debate — with heated disagreement from all sides. 

How did we get here? After intensive reflection of my own, I’ve arrived at some conclusions. 

First, we get what we think we deserve.

We shouldn’t just suck it up and deal with crappy circumstances. We’ve lost sight of our rights as humans, and as residents. We’ve been fed a bunch of bull about how hard city leaders fight for all of us — nah, they can do better. We’ve been told basic necessities aren’t realistic — nah, actually they are. Struggling to afford rent or utilities, not having access to affordable healthcare (or any at all), a 50-mile commute… none of these are normal. We shouldn’t put up with it. Say it with me: This isn’t normal, and we shouldn’t put up with it. 

Secondly, the basic right to a decent life shouldn’t be up for political debate.

This is an objective truth that ought to serve as the underpinning for every policy or law we make. As the Founding Fathers did for our nation, what rights will we hold as self-evident for everyone who lives in our city? Not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors — not just for the present, but for generations to come. We have to set the standard by which all legislation will be measured. We must document our commitment to these basic rights by drafting our own bill of rights. To that end, I present to you my drafted proposal for Austin’s very own

Bill of Human Rights for the 21st Century