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City has plan to deal with African-American economic problems

Monday, December 13, 2010 by Michael Kanin

With almost no growth in the past decade, and an unemployment rate of 15.3 percent, Austin’s African-American population is a community crisis, according to an advisory commission appointed to study the problem. And in response, city officials announced plans Thursday to deal with that group’s special set of issues.

 

Nelson Linder, vice chair of the city’s African American Resource Advisory Commission and president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, brought those and other dramatic statistics to  the Austin City Council Thursday as part of a briefing on the condition of Austin’s black community.

 

Linder called on Council to address a host of issues, many illustrated through data provided by city Demographer Ryan Robinson, which showed that Austin’s African-American population remains stagnant despite regional growth and that unemployment in that community is up more than 7 percent – currently at more than 15 percent – since it was measured in the 2000 census. Linder called on city leaders to work on the community’s joblessness and high student dropout rates. And the median family income for African-American families is roughly $50,000 less than that of their Anglo counterparts.

 

“Regardless of your color, if you don’t have good schools, good jobs, good health care, you’re not going to make it in America,” Linder said. “This is one of the most prosperous cities in America. What we’re saying to you, loud and clear, is that African-Americans here are not part of that process.”

 

He then challenged the Council to use local community resources to address his concerns. “I think there are plenty of black non-profits here that need support that don’t get support,” he said. “Find the folks who we have not funded in the past, and see what they’re doing, because too often in this town we fund the same people.”

 

In response, Mayor Lee Leffingwell said that the city would bring well-known activist and Manchester Bidwell Corporation President Bill Strickland’s community revitalization program to Austin. That news comes shortly after a visit by City Manager Marc Ott and other city staff to Strickland and the Bidwell Corporation in Pittsburgh.

 

“This is a program that has demonstrated success in dealing with at-risk youth, unemployment issues, with … excellence in education, (and) work place issues,” Leffingwell said. “We want to bring that to Austin.”

 

Economic Growth and Redevelopment Services Director Kevin Johns also addressed Linder’s concerns. He told In Fact Daily that he was working on a three-part strategy to promote businesses that would hire from what he termed the “hard-core unemployed.”

 

Johns said that his office would begin to revitalize “key industrial and commercial areas in (impoverished) communities.” He also said that he would eventually pitch a family business loan program “because, who hires (these folks) more?  I think it’s the families.”

 

He added that a plan to make Austin something of a logistics center for commercial traffic would also make a direct impact. That cluster, he said, “specifically focuses on blue collar workers,” he said.

 

After the hearing, Linder said that the city needed to bring in more blue-collar jobs. “Everybody needs good jobs,” he said. “I would say come up with jobs here that would employ more of a blue-collar base.”

 

When asked if this was a suggestion for Johns’ department, Linder responded with an enthusiastic “yes.”

 

Council Member Sheryl Cole told In Fact Daily that, “in most ways (the City Council) has already embraced many of the things that he talked about: A commitment to jobs for people of diverse backgrounds…we partnered with the school district on a number of issues.”

 

“I think we need to look real closely at the companies we recruit and (make) sure that we do all we can to get them in contact with African American contractors and graduates from the various universities in the city,” she added.

 

But, she continued, “when you have those type of shocking statistics, you can’t ever pull back and say, ‘that’s it, we’re done.’”

 

Strickland has lectured at Harvard University, won a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant, written a book about his philosophy, and has been a featured interviewee in the recent schools documentary Waiting for Superman.

 

According to Leffingwell, the project should be started here “within (a) year—certainly within a year and a half.”

 

Linder said Strickland’s help would be welcomed. “I think it’s a great program, and I think it can work here but it’s going to take a lot more investment in the black community.”

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