Feature: Austin Community
These three groups are going beyond the “Like” button to foster real civic engagement
by Anna Andersen
Photographs by Robert Gomez
Austin is a city full of social entrepreneurs. It’s a city with philanthropic passion and the nonprofit organizations to prove it. With more than 6,000 registered nonprofits, according to a 2015 report by Mission Capital, Central Texas has more nonprofits per capita than anywhere else in the Southwest.
At the same time, it can often feel easy to ignore what’s happening around us or to express interest in supporting pressing issues facing our community with little to no commitment. Joining Facebook groups, liking posts, and adding temporary profile photos might seem like ways to show our friends we care, but do these actions constitute real community building and civic engagement?
Fortunately, for our community’s sake, we have people like those behind A Tribe Called Brunch, GivingCity Austin, and Glasshouse Policy — social entrepreneurs who not only care about what’s happening around us, but are working to help the rest of us care too.
Michael Henderson and Jared Culp
Michael Henderson and Jared Culp started A Tribe Called Brunch to get people together to discuss pressing issues facing our community while sharing a delicious meal.
It’s been just over a year since more than 50,000 people gathered downtown for the Women’s March on Austin, the largest march in Texas history, which motivated Michael Henderson and Jared Culp to start A Tribe Called Brunch.
Henderson and Culp met during their undergraduate studies at Howard University and moved independently to Austin, where Henderson now works as a project manager at the City of Austin Innovation Office and Culp is a senior experience designer at McKinsey & Company.
When they bumped into each other at the Women’s March, they had been following each other on Instagram for a year, admiring each other’s dinner parties. Culp’s were loose social gatherings, focused on getting creative people into the same room to enjoy good food and conversation, and Henderson’s were more structured, policy-oriented dinners with a goal of galvanizing volunteers.
“I think we were looking for heaviness and lightness together,” Culp says of their decision to join forces. “We thought, how can we make a bigger event, elevate the conversation, and have more fun?”
A month later, they hosted their first brunch, titled “Feminism: Which Way Forward?” “As we happened to run into each other the day of the Women’s March, that became an easy theme,” Culp explains. “We thought, people will still be looking for ways to connect with the community as the momentum dies down and the issue is not as omnipresent.”
“And then we thought about it. We’re two black guys,” Henderson laughs. “We had to check ourselves. We were like, this is someone else’s issue. We need to make sure that we’re going to the right people, that we have a diverse group of women. I feel like everyone walked away impressed; we had feminists say, ‘You really nailed it.’” For the first event, inside a space on Tillery Street, over 30 people gathered for a few hours of conversation, cuisine, and mimosas. Speakers included Haven founder Liz Deering, Women Who Code Austin’s Sara Ines Calderon, and UT Austin Community Engagement Center Director Virginia Cumberbatch.
Since then, they’ve hosted three more brunches, including “Hallelujah,” an interfaith discussion held in the wake of President Trump’s travel ban; “Bigger Than Me: The Next Wave of Philanthropy,” on reimagining ways to give; and “Cranes in the Sky,” the official kickoff event of Austin Design Week, addressing the changing face of East Austin.
Most of their brunches, attended by 40 to 70 people, have been held at venues in East Austin, where Henderson and Culp live. They take great care to find the right speakers, who step up every 30 minutes to give five-minute speeches that end with action items, such as how to get involved or where to contribute, and a positive toast.
“One definition of a toast is a prayer amongst friends,” Henderson offers. “So we are bringing everyone together. We’re not saying, this is right or this is wrong. It’s more like, this is my perspective, this is how I live my life, let’s all celebrate together and move forward.”
Culp echoes that sentiment: “I think it’s important to bring people together and have a conversation so that they’re inspired to do the things that are important to them. It’s not necessarily to copy what the speakers have done, because that’s what works for them, but to start thinking about the community and ways to get involved in the issues that matter to them.”
With topics like religion and gentrification, they admit that brunch can get heated, but nobody is throwing potato croquettes or smoked salmon canapés around the room.
Between speeches, the discussion often continues in a more informal manner, though Henderson and Culp have no control over that part. “People continue to talk about the themes,” Culp says, “but I think it’s also great that people are like, ‘Oh my god, you went to Copenhagen, I went to Copenhagen.’ People are meeting new people and making new friends. More than ever, at the last one, people walked away saying, ‘What’s your Instagram? What’s your number? Let’s hang out and grab coffee.’”
Henderson agrees: “That’s beautiful, that’s community building.”
Monica Williams champions everyday philanthropy through her media company, GivingCity Austin, ensuring that people are informed about how to support the causes they care about. With the Mando Rayo + Collective, Williams is also behind The New Philanthropists, working to make the boards of nonprofits more diverse and representative of the communities they serve.
Ten years ago, Monica Williams started GivingCity Austin as a personal blog called GoodCause. A year later, she recruited a designer and turned it into a magazine about people doing good things in the community. Initially, the magazine was a way for them to showcase editorial skills to potential clients. To their surprise, when Williams and her designer, both of whom had full-time jobs and kids, announced that the side project was shutting down, people protested. Little did Williams know, she had been supporting a community around her content. Today the site, Givingcityaustin.com, is the city’s go-to guide to philanthropy.
“If you want to start a business in Austin, if you want to lose weight, if you want to start a garden or raise honeybees, you can Google it and somebody has undoubtedly posted instructions,” Williams says. “But if you want to take your giving from transactional giving, or reactive giving, every time there’s a hurricane to ‘OK, now I want this to have an impact. What do I really care about?’ there’s no playbook telling you how to do that.”
It’s not surprising then that most of the traffic to Givingcityaustin.com is organic, the result of internet searches for answers that are difficult to find elsewhere. Williams also gets plenty of direct inquiries, which she says result in a lot of the site’s content.
“I get random phone calls all the time,” Williams says. “A woman will call me and say, ‘My office was going to make gingerbread houses. Now we’re not going to do that, so we have all this candy. Who do we give it to?’ Someone will say, ‘I have a sofa I want to give away.’ Or ‘I’m making my end-of-year gift, and I care about this cause, but I’m not sure which organization does the most work in that, so can you help me?’”
Williams is thorough and thoughtful. If she doesn’t know the answer off the top of her head, she does the research and identifies the pathway to giving. “We once wrote a story about a man who wanted to give his house away. He didn’t want to deal with realtors, he just wanted to gift it to charity,” recalls Williams, who identified an organization that made it happen in three months. “He said it was life-changing. He’d never given a gift that big.”
It’s a good week, Williams says, if she can write about something obscure that educates even people within the nonprofit sector. However, the top three posts are always the same every year: a list of school supply drives posted in June, a list of Thanksgiving volunteering opportunities posted in October, and a list of holiday toy drives and other giving opportunities posted in November.
“We try to show people pathways to giving,” Williams says, “but we also try to explain how the nonprofit sector works, providing all of that instructional stuff you get for anything else you want to do in your life.”
Williams also directs a lot of her energy to one organization in particular, The New Philanthropists, which works to increase diversity on the boards of nonprofits. “Nonprofits are the stewards of community money, community trust, and community hopes and dreams,” she says. “We believe, even in the for-profit world, that a homogenous board is not as creative, not as effective, and not as innovative.”
With a biweekly segment on Fox 7’s “Good Day Austin” and, more recently, a regular Sunday column in the Austin American-Statesman, Williams is growing her reach. “The mission is not to increase traffic or drive revenue,” she says. “We just want more people to have the tools to get involved.”
Francisco Enriquez and Thomas Visco
Through Glasshouse Policy, Francisco Enriquez and Thomas Visco are encouraging regular citizens to care about the public policies that affect their daily lives, engaging them in creative ways that sometimes involve Legos and often involve beer.
As new college graduates in 2013, Francisco Enriquez and Thomas Visco found themselves working for the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), a nonprofit organization focused on driving policy change. While Enriquez worked at a national office in Boston, Visco served in a state office in Texas. When they met, at a shared training session, they realized they were unhappy for the same reason: public-interest groups — like the ones they were working for — were coming up with ideas in-house and then selling those ideas to the public. How was the authentic public voice being represented? And, more importantly, how do you get people to care about big-picture policy ideas?
“In this city, there’s a panel conversation every night of the week about any topic under the sun, and they always kind of have the same format, with experts onstage talking about an issue and people asking questions,” Enriquez says. “We thought, well, maybe there’s a better, more interactive way to do that.”
Enriquez and Visco wanted to figure out a better way to make dry ideas like city budgeting and transportation planning feel accessible and, well, fun.
Six months after leaving the PIRG, they were working on a business plan for Glasshouse Policy, a nonprofit policy organization that strives to bridge the gap between policymakers and the public. “We’re not here to try to sell an idea or some tailored solution that we hope people buy into,” Enriquez explains. “Instead, we are trying to bring people together, the idea being that through this transparent process, one in which the community is involved, we can arrive at solutions.”
In addition to piloting online forums, which enable people to weigh in on issues from the comfort of their home, Enriquez and Visco have been organizing game nights in partnership with the Austin Monitor to reinvigorate the in-person town hall and panel formats.
By putting people in the shoes of a policymaker tasked with creating the municipal budget or rewriting Austin’s Land Development Code, Enriquez and Visco believe people come to better understand the intricacies and limitations of policy, which in turn makes them more engaged, civically active citizens.
“The problem with the panel conversation is that people show up and it’s like, OK, here are four perspectives, and then they leave,” Visco says. “With game nights, we’re trying to give the public a better understanding of what policymakers actually do. We’re putting beer in five people’s hands and having them sit around a Lego board and say, ‘OK, what do we want this to look like?’ and they have to talk themselves through that.”
So far, the game nights have been a hit. Everyone from the 68-year-old property owner in West Austin to new, younger constituents are attending. Enriquez and Visco are pleased. “I’ve been to a lot of town halls, where the average attendee is 70 years old. That’s never happened at one of our game nights,” Visco says, estimating that the average age of attendees is mid-to-late 30s.
Glasshouse, true to its transparency, also wants the public to feel like it can affect policy issues. “When it comes to fire codes,” Visco says, “we know what the sprinkler lobbyist has to say, we know what the oil and gas lobby has to say, we know what fire marshals have to say, but what does the normal person think about this issue? Frankly, we’re just trying to be an honest broker amongst stakeholders, reminding people that the public should have a seat at the table.”
Have they been successful? “If our goal is to bridge the gap between citizens and policymakers,” Enriquez says, “and members of the public are reporting that they feel more educated and more able to affect an issue, then we have achieved some level of change.”
Read more from the Community Issue | February 2018