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Vanessa Fuentes: Building a pipeline to community power

Monday, January 4, 2021 by Elizabeth Pagano

Vanessa Fuentes, like all of us, had no idea what 2020 would entail when she ran to become the District 2 City Council member. But the issues that the pandemic have exposed were less of a surprise.

“I didn’t realize the extent of what 2020 would include,” Fuentes told the Austin Monitor. “(But) certainly, the pandemic has just magnified what we already know about Austin.”

Prior to her official start date in January, Fuentes launched a listening tour that will continue through the winter as a way to get feedback from the different neighborhoods in her district. The sessions will help her determine the priorities of her office.

“My strength is organizing, and I am always thinking through that lens,” she said. “How am I building that community power and building that pipeline so that my community is involved and invested and ready to take action on any issue that they are passionate about?”

She explained that her year-one priorities would focus on health and the economy. “Public health is part of having a sound economy. We know that Austin is one of the most economically segregated communities in the country. What more can we do to ensure our communities of color are part of the prosperity of Austin?”

Fuentes ran for office because of the health divide in the city, spurred by her background in community organizing. As she noted during her campaign, her life expectancy, on average, is 10 years shorter than those who live west of Interstate 35.

“I was in it to address health equity and to really bridge that divide. And then the pandemic showed how deep the inequalities are,” she said.

Along those lines, Fuentes said her first priority when she takes office in January will be pandemic response and recovery, both in terms of health and economics.

“A large part will be focused on the vaccination strategy, ensuring that we’re prioritizing and centering our vulnerable communities,” she said. “District 2 has one of the highest case counts of Covid and also one of the highest unemployment rates. So certainly, I’ll be focused on addressing those issues.”

Fuentes said that her organizing work and running a campaign in 2020 brought to light what was needed in District 2 in terms of community engagement. “I think for me, as someone who will be taking office in a few weeks, I’ll always be looking at any decision that comes before Council from a lens of, how is the community engaged? Was it done in a culturally competent way? How inclusive was it?”

At the root of this inquiry, she explained, will be ensuring that diverse voices are always at the table.

“I’m really looking forward to working on the digital divide. This pandemic also magnified the need we have there,” she said. “Not just (in terms of) access to broadband, but looking at devices …. This pandemic showed that for many households, especially in District 2, it’s not enough to have one device when you have multiple kids learning online.”

Fuentes said she would be working to make sure all families have the ability to work and learn virtually, both in terms of access and digital literacy.

“It’s been a significant challenge and a barrier for many families in District 2,” she said. She noted that, while she was grateful for programs like RENT and RISE funds during the past year, they were administered online, and she saw firsthand how difficult that was to navigate for some.

At the same time, she notes that the pandemic has enabled more people to participate in meetings, through virtual testimony. “I hope that piece can stay. And I hope we can figure out a way that we can allow folks to call in from all across Austin,” she said. “I really want us to bring in 21st-century engagement practices to City Hall.”

“I look forward to digging deep on that issue and putting policies forth,” she said. “Knowing city government can only go so far, it’s really going to take a collaborative approach working with our tech communities … really leveraging that community capital we have and working with community partners as well.”

There are some programs that Fuentes is looking to continue as well. She was excited about her predecessor Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza’s work on expanding the use of Community Development Block Grant money to address food insecurity. “I think there’s a lot of work there that I can do that the mayor pro tem really teed up,” she said. “She really led on food access issues and knows very well what an issue that is for District 2 … I look forward to carrying that through.”

In the meantime, Fuentes told the Monitor that she was working on setting up a team and an office that can “hit the ground running” in 2021.

Though she will start her term virtually, due to the pandemic, she’s looking forward to getting to know her colleagues. “Building those relationships, it’s been really interesting to begin to have those conversations and to learn more about Council members’ specific expertise … I’m excited about that and excited about getting the opportunity to serve my community.”

“I feel like my margin of victory really showed that District 2 is really ready for a fresh voice, so I really want to make them proud,” she said.

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