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With eye on transit decisions, nonprofit wants to amplify marginalized voices

Wednesday, October 2, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

For the second time in a week, a group organized around one of Austin’s key civic issues has made a public bow with the goal of empowering traditionally overlooked communities. People United for Mobility Action, or PUMA, held its public kickoff event Tuesday at the George Washington Carver Museum, announcing plans to hold pop-up community listening events in areas of the city with high populations of working-class residents, ethnic minorities and other groups that have historically not had a large role in the city’s transit decisions.

PUMA’s public launch came six days after the advocacy group Planning Our Communities held a press conference announcing its intention to organize around the city’s land use policies.

Organizers of PUMA, which is legally filed as a nonprofit group, began meeting in January after years of seeing a need for more diversity in public conversations around transportation. That issue is becoming increasingly high-stakes since it is expected voters will decide on a large public-transit bond next year, and state transportation officials appear to be moving ahead with the eventual multibillion-dollar reconfiguration of Interstate 35.

“We are at the precipice of being able to change mobility infrastructure in Austin. We have policymakers who are ready to make decisions and PUMA comes into play because we thought we had so many people who want to make mobility equitable, but were working in silos,” Yasmine Smith, vice chair of the PUMA board, said. “We’re here to elevate the voices that are typically not heard in the conversation.”

Smith said the group is only in the beginning stages of fundraising, with Tuesday’s event offering information on sponsorships for those interested in getting involved. She said grants are expected to become the group’s major source of funding in the near future, which would allow the hiring of an executive director, community organizers and other related staff.

Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza and Council Member Ann Kitchen were expected to attend the Tuesday kickoff.

Smith said PUMA has had some conversations with representatives from Transit for Austin, Sen. Kirk Watson’s recently announced group that will campaign for the 2020 transit bond, as well as other groups organized around improving transit throughout the area. The priority for the near future, she said, will be gathering data and feedback from residents about how transit impacts their lives and how the system can be improved.

“We are always down to partner to bridge different communities into the conversation. We have had informal conversations (with Transit for Austin) and want to solidify our voice and see where they go. Right now we’re going to make sure we do our work because we’re getting down into the roots of what people are experiencing.”

Shavone Otero, who chairs PUMA’s board, said for many years conversations about the city’s infrastructure have been focused first on capital projects – buildings, buses, trains and the like – while overlooking the needs of the people who use them.

Due to that approach, entire communities that haven’t felt like their input was needed have distanced themselves from opportunities to participate in the political process.

“We’ve seen a disconnection in some of the work that’s being done, which is great work, but some of us have a deeper connection to our respective communities and hear some of the frustrations or how needs aren’t being met,” she said. “We want to open up the conversation to help unheard and underrepresented communities because some of these needs or frustrations we’re hearing about are not new.”

Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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