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People of the Year 2020: Pamela Benson Owens

Pamela Benson Owens has three names and she wants you to use all of them.

As a longtime Black Austinite (at a time when gentrification drives Black people out of their original neighborhoods), entrepreneur and nonprofit leader Benson Owens leverages her unapologetic spirit to uplift her community and fight tenaciously for some of the most disenfranchised in Austin. Mention any major local brand (Huston-Tillotson University, Kendra Scott, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, to name a few) and Benson Owens has likely consulted on leadership development or diversity education. Recently, her fight for diversity, equity and inclusion has manifested more directly in her position as the interim executive director at Six Square—Austin’s Black Cultural District.

In the midst of what she calls “the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism,” Benson Owens has navigated unpredictable challenges to provide her community with what they need: compassionate leadership and decisive action. In just six months, she raised over two-thirds of Six Square’s yearly operating budget, focusing on paying her staff—who are all BIPOC and 80 percent female—as well as keeping up the nonprofit’s momentum when it is most crucial.

“If can’t help you course-correct your priority list, I don’t know what will,” Benson Owens reflects. “You are either going to roll up in a fetal position and act like it’s not happening, or you’re going to lean into it and extend heaping doses of grace and bandwidth around humanity.”

Under Benson Owens’ leadership this year, Six Square focused on providing direct support to Black creatives and entrepreneurs in Austin, particularly those economically affected by COVID-19. The nonprofit has directly disbursed over $46,000 to Black artists and business owners affected by the loss of work opportunities due to the pandemic. Six Square also provides restorative spaces for those traumatized by this year’s events through Black Minds Matter, a program that invites Black therapists and healing practitioners to help community members navigate trying times.

2020 has been nothing short of a leadership boot camp for Benson Owens. Through this year’s challenges, she’s learned not just how to be a boss in a pandemic, but also how to take care of herself and others to ensure longevity in the fight. Ultimately, her leadership style prioritizes a “people first” mentality; if the most disenfranchised aren’t thriving, then neither is she. Amid the challenges, an unforeseen effect of the pandemic has been the opportunity to reflect on the lessons she’ll take with her.

“You need to be vulnerable enough to get in the ring with yourself. You have to be willing to apologize to people—genuine apology around behaviors that you know aren’t aligned with who you want to be,” she shares. “If you’re Black and female, you always have to be beautifully articulate. But I have leaned into saying I don’t have all the answers.”

With racial justice at the forefront of our nation’s dialogue and with Benson Owens’ understanding of how oppression intersects, she intends to enter 2021 with a dogged focus on what’s important—as well as patience for the progress she has already set in motion.

“I’m excited about the next rendition of Six Square—where we’ll be housed, making that space truly our own, manifesting epic work and watching those that I work and do life with flourish beyond their wildest dreams,” she says. Despite the challenges she’s faced individually and watched others confront, she remains optimistic for the future. After all, she knows firsthand that hope is powerful resistance.

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