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Opinion: Constructive Optimism is a belief system I have for the future of Austin politics


Editor's Note: Joah Spearman is the former vice chair of the Austin Music Commission, former chair of AIDS Services of Austin, and is the founder and CEO of Localeur. He has lived in Austin for more than 15 years and experienced the city's growth. This opinion does not reflect that of Austonia.

Optimism is defined as hopefulness and confidence about the future or the success of something, and in my 16-plus years living in Austin, the optimism many hold about Austin's future appears to be at a critical inflection point.

Will Austin bend but not break under the mounting pressure of growth and sustain the relatively affordable and high quality of life that has made this city what it is? Or will Austin go the way of many large American cities in history, San Francisco perhaps most notoriously, and cease to offer its middle and working classes access to the bounty all this growth begets?

For decades in Austin, optimism alone was enough as political participation was largely substantive enough—and major decision-making privately constrained enough—to ensure quality of life benefits by the tens of thousands. Simultaneously, Austin's population growth was somewhat matched by upticks in social and professional opportunity (for many). Even as the negative effects of the 1928 Plan on racial and socio-economic makeup became more evident, there was an implied optimism in Austin's political dealings, including the 2014 switch to a 10-District Council system.

However, once we became an undeniable large American city (right around the time Austin started being named the "best city for" absolutely everything), the collective optimism started to subside for these longtime politically-engaged Austinites who were civically responsible for holding the line on deciphering quality of life vs. growth.

This is particularly true of the last decade amid the rise of Downtown, SXSW's shift from music, the proliferation of high-priced restaurants replacing affordable establishments (a la Sammie's), and the tech industry's surge, each of which no longer represent the core identities or localized interests of many longtime Austinites who've grown disconnected from what now appears to pass as quality of life.

Based on the umpteen conversations I've been having with longtime Austinites both before and during the pandemic, there's something about a $40 lunch, $200 outfit to the gym, staying in a $400/night boutique hotel, and spending over $1.3 million for a two-bedroom home that doesn't register as WINNING— especially during a pandemic, racial unrest, a presidential election and a winter storm. Not to be forgotten nor ignored, many a longtime Austinite—be it four decades or four years longer than their friend who moved here in 2020—has realized that waning optimism can be wielded as a weapon through either libertarianism ("every man for himself"), obstructionism ("don't do that over here"), perfectionism ("that isn't the way I'd do it"), pessimism ("that won't work"), or—the most troublesome yet hard to decipher during City Council meetings or the 2018 CodeNext dust up—unconstructive criticism.

Unconstructive criticism

Don't get me wrong, critique is a great thing. Critique leveraged correctly by an engaged audience leads to improved implementation of policy, but thus far the constructiveness has yet to bear much sustainable fruit in addressing Austin's most-pressing problems around affordability, creativity (the growing chasm between the creative and asset classes) and inclusivity (as East Austin looks less like a community for Black and Hispanic Austinites forced there in the years following the 1928 City Plan by the day).

In May, tents were pitched outside of City Hall in protest of the passage of Prop B, which bans sitting, lying, camping and panhandling in certain areas, including downtown. (Laura Figi/Austonia)

For example, Prop B of Nov. 2020 for $460 million in transit bonds passed with 67% of the vote in an election with over 400,000 total voters participating whereas Prop B of May 2021 passed with over 57% of the vote in an election with less than 160,000 voters participating. But somehow if you talk to the average Austinite, voter or not, the Prop B of May 2021 is the one that they realize got the state and national headlines and impacted local discourse, civic creativity and optimism, and the political tonality more.

Prop B of Nov. 2020 was constructive optimism. Prop B of May 2021 was critique at best and pessimism at worst. And it's worth pointing out that there is a massive difference—of at least 240,000 voices—even if the majority of Austinites voted "for" both.

Listen closely for the next time you hear people in Austin talking about the Olympic-like speed by which our city is facing affordability issues. Most likely those folks will race to explain the affordability issues only through the narrow lens of rising home prices, property tax increases and above-market purchases under the false notion that hardships around single-family homeownership are the sole representation of a city in crisis.

Meanwhile, constructive optimism would break free of the shackles of Austin's political binarism in an attempt to pursue a more holistic and inclusive understanding of the ways in which affordability (or absence of it) shows up in quality of life outcomes for our neighbors.

We would then be able to better acknowledge a myriad of indicators from the lack of investment in Black creatives and musicians who shaped Austin's live music and "weird" identity, the segregation of a city that is nearly 50% Asian, Black or Hispanic and built on Native land where just 2,000 or so residents identify as Native American today, the dearth of "complete communities" that truly adhere to the merits of the 2012 Imagine Austin plan, the decathlon-like permitting processes we force everyone from homeowners seeking to build ADUs to monied developers seeking to build multi-family housing within minutes of Downtown (if anywhere), and the homogeneity by which private, generational wealth, venture capital and real estate assets flow within this city.

A Tone… meant for Austin

Earlier this year, I wrote a welcome letter to new Austinites that went somewhat viral online. It wasn't just the words, maybe even just headline, that connected with people, it was the tone. Constructive optimism is about substance in policy and which outcomes are deemed worthy, but it is also about tone.

It's through tone that an aroma of possibilities is cultivated where optimism sustains and both empathy and pragmatism create civic solutions and shared ideals. That aroma, that tone, is one of both patience and passion, grit and genuine commitment to a positive outcome, and it must be around for years—election years and off-cycle years—to cultivate real, meaningful, substantive progress in quality of life and outcomes for thousands.

Rev. Dr. William Barber and former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke spoke outside the Texas Capitol on July 31 after a days-long march for voting rights. (Laura Figi/Austonia)

So who will drive the constructive optimism for Austin's political narrative? Can we look to statewide officials with a particular interest in the happenings of Austin a la Dan Patrick? Can we entrust conservative lobbying groups like Save Austin Now? Can we solely rely on Beto O'Rourke to re-capture the progressive momentum of 2018 or force Chas Moore and his organizing powerhouse Austin Justice Coalition to do the work of both creating and championing a more equitable and inclusive vision for Austin?

Hopefully not. And though I'm inspired by the frequent discourse about Austin's political machinations on Twitter, how do we as a fast-growing city of change (reluctant or required) channel our collective energy, mitigate apathy, and instigate a community's creativity to address problems that are simply too big and too imposing and too widespread for decades-old Austin political mentality—where keeping the decision making guestlist small was an effective way to get things done—reigns supreme?

While setting the tone for an entire city isn't a job that should be left to one person, even an elected official, I realize it's also not a duty that can be held by the unwilling or uninterested. Constructive optimism doesn't roll off the tongue like Make Austin Great Again would, but it's a far better approach than the kind of avoidance, obstructionism and pessimism that is sucking the quality of life and color out of Austin like its 1928.


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