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Vanessa Fuentes: Putting health and equity first

Tuesday, December 21, 2021 by Willow Higgins

City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes stepped into a rather busy first term in office – this year, an unprecedented winter storm took Travis County by surprise and the pandemic continued to surge despite hopes for Covid-19’s retreat. But Fuentes, who now represents Southeast Austin’s District 2, took the challenge head-on.

“No amount of preparation can prepare you once you take office,” Fuentes said. “But what I learned really quickly is that I have a great team … they understand the needs of our community and they lead with service in mind. I’ve always had the motto, you’re only as good as your team.”

The focus of Fuentes’ first year on Council was wide, including ensuring an equitable vaccine response, fighting for economic justice and enhancing childhood education. She said every day she feels like she’s making a difference.

“Having the ability to make an actual, tangible impact in someone’s day-to-day life is what it’s all about,” Fuentes said. “That’s what makes me so proud to have this honor to serve as a councilwoman.”

Her background in health advocacy and community organizing has influenced the role she has taken on in Council. “We want to make sure that the local government is open, accessible and transparent to all, and … hold the system accountable if needed.”

This philosophy came into play with Fuentes’ pandemic response. The Del Valle area has struggled with the virus, so she worked hard to ensure the city’s Covid-19 response was serving all community members equally.

In addition to organizing pop-up vaccine clinics, her office established a static vaccine site for community members who might not have internet access. When concerns were raised about disproportionate Covid-19 and vaccination rates, she joined her colleagues in issuing a resolution calling for an equitable and just vaccine response. 

“Certainly public health is at the intersection of everything that we do,” Fuentes said. “Not only when we talk about health disparities or disaster response, but also when we look at economic recovery. For me it’s always important to have public health and health equity at the forefront of our policy positions because they’re so interconnected.”

Still, her district’s Covid-19 vaccination rate is not quite where she would like it to be. Working on increasing vaccination rates and promoting booster shots will remain a priority entering the new year.

Fuentes has mobilized community health workers in her district to help achieve this goal; she was able to allocate money to hire and train new health workers as well as contract with existing community organizations that already have boots on the ground. The blended support will go toward running the health clinics as well as public education efforts. Once the pandemic subsides, the community health workers can help with other public health issues like chronic illness, which afflicts communities of color at higher rates, Fuentes said. “That’s why it’s so important to lay this infrastructure.”

Through the American Rescue Plan fund allocation process, City Council allocated $11 million to child care and early childhood education. As part of that, Fuentes championed a $750,000 investment in Del Valle Independent School District. Now, the people of Del Valle have access to free dual-language pre-K for 4-year-olds.

“The impact that that has had on families in South Austin is just incredible. Women have now been able to return to the workforce because they now have child care options for their families,” Fuentes said. “But this was a long-standing disparity; in terms of the school districts, Del Valle ISD had been (historically) underinvested in.”

Fuentes is also proud of a new policy that allows any youth in Travis County to obtain a free Austin library card, which previously cost $120 for residents outside the city limits. The effort makes access to reading and learning accessible for children of all income levels.

When people ask Fuentes how she likes her new job, she says yes, absolutely.

“Every single day is so different,” she said. “I can go from one meeting talking about how to relocate alligators (who inhabited a local park pond), to talking about public safety, then having a constituent case. The subject matter is just fascinating. But at the heart of it is problem-solving. And that’s really what we’re doing.”

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