Until we get equal

Interview by Raymond Weyandt • Staff Reporter
Produced by Joey Gidseg • Video Editor
Sit in and Arrest footage by Kit O’Connell

On February 14, 2012 members of GetEQUAL Texas and Occupy Austin held a sit in at the Travis County Clerk’s office in Austin, Texas.

Brittney Tovar, Lana Di Bona, and Tiffani Bishop led the group in song during the non violent action intended to raise awareness of the public towards the issue of Marriage inequality.

Imagine no religion

Story by Natalie Casanova • Print Editor

Photos by Jon Shapley • Video Editor

Silence fell over the crowd as British evolutionary biologist and famous athe- ist Richard Dawkins took the podium.

“[Atheists] are a major force in this country, it cannot be ignored,” he said from the steps of the Texas State Capitol on Oct. 20.

The crowd erupted in cheers after each of Dawkins’ potent assertions. Texans from a manifold of age groups and backgrounds gathered at the Capitol for the free portion of the 2012 Texas Freethought Convention. There they listened to Dawkins and other notable atheist and secular speakers from all over the country and the world speak.

In America, Dawkins said, the number of “nones,” or people who do not claim a specific religion on census documents, is growing. He noted that about 20 percent of the entire population falls under this category, and 30 percent of US citizens ages 18-29.

This demographic aligns heavily with college students. Secular Student Alliance (SSA) Texas regional campus organizer Kevin Butler said it showed at the convention as more than 100 students of the SSA attended from schools all over the state.

“Our numbers are increasing, we’re winning,” Butler said. “We fight for numbers because that’s what politicians listen to.”

Butler, also a student at the University of Texas at Dallas, said the only defining characteristic of an atheist is his lack of belief in any god or deity, and nothing else. But from his personal experience, he said, most atheists and secularists promote equal human rights.

Before he found the SSA, Butler said he had no idea he wasn’t the only non- believer in his community.

“I felt so isolated,” he said. “[SSA] lets students know they’re not alone … we’re in this fight together.”

Butler comes from a predominantly Catholic family and was very religious during high school. He has been an out atheist for about two years.

“I began walking away from religion my senior year [of high school] when I came out as being gay,” he said. “It tore me up when I went to church.”

He said he was vaguely Christian and began to think deism, or the belief that some type of god exists but not a specific one, was a plausible view until he realized it was a huge leap of faith to connect any spiritual feeling to a specific god or to the existence of a supreme being at all. After researching and watching many lectures, such as “A Universe from Nothing” by theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, he began to affirm his atheism.

Studying science, nature and sociology was a major deciding factor in Butler’s deconversion.

“I thought, ‘wait a second, is that what [atheists] talk about?”

Butler said atheists in other countries may have it even harder, such as in Afghanistan where a person can be killed if they come out as an nonbeliever. Half of Butler’s family also doesn’t know he is an atheist because he doesn’t feel comfortable telling them. This seemed to be the case for many atheists at the convention.

“I don’t want my father to stop me from seeing my younger brother,” Butler said.

Notable student atheist Jessica Ahlquist said nonbelievers don’t have a go-to place for community or support. Ahlquist filed a lawsuit against her public school in Rhode Island for hanging a religious banner. She won the case and received much public scorn locally for the ordeal, but nationally she gained attention as being a leader in the atheist movement, standing up for the First Amendment. She is also very outspoken on matters of gay rights, and compares the feelings, consequences and reactions of coming out as an atheist to coming out as gay.

“You risk losing friends and family and loved ones because of it,” she said. Many members of the University of Texas at Austin (UT) SSA group also attended the freethought convention, including president Loren Bane and former president Erick Rodriguez. Their organization works with other local groups and events, such as “Explore UT,” to promote youth science education.

The group also hosts lectures on science and philosophy and provides a supportive community for questioning students.

“Many young adults don’t realize being nonreligious is an option,” Bane said. “They have never even known about it before.”

Rodriguez said part of the reason for having groups is to provide a safe place for nonbelievers to discuss their views because sometimes they are assaulted with threats or prayers while on the UT campus.

“[We have] received multiple death threats from other students,” Rodriguez said, “which the police are still investigating.”

Texas Freethought Convention president Paul Cooper said one of the themes of the 2012 gathering was “Get Out and Vote” for all age groups and political parties, especially in local elections. He said some evangelicals in the Texas State Board of Education think their religious idea that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs should be reflected in how children are taught in public schools. Atheists strongly disagree with those views, but are not represented on the school board because of a lack of political influence.

“We have to show up at the polls,” he said. Separation of church and state protects everyone, he said, even Christians from other denominations of Christians.

“We’re not trying to destroy religion,” Cooper said, “we just want to make sure that it’s kept in its proper place within American society so that way all people of all faiths and not of faith can exercise their freedom of expression without worrying about other people coming in, telling them they have to do a certain thing a certain way.”

Former member of the Maine House of Representatives and notable atheist author Sean Faircloth said there is a social and political perception of atheists being a shunned minority, but the demographic is much larger than the strong religious right is willing to admit.

“I’m hoping secular students will run for office,” Faircloth said. “To not only push for a say in politics, but to be the politician.”

“I feel like the wave is cresting,” Fair- cloth said, “[There might be] somebody who is 22 years old now who will be an open atheist president [in the future].”

Public Relations officer for Secular Students at Collin College (SSCC) Liz Dudek said SSA groups are not only a social network for non-believer students, but also a forum to discuss religion, politics, science and social issues safely and freely without judgment. She said getting secular people to vote is a good way to balance out the conservative religious right.

Dudek came to her group as a questioning Christian on the edge, and she said the support she received from the other members helped soften the image she had of atheists, and she said coming out wasn’t as difficult for her as it can be for others. Her biggest trouble was growing distant from old friends.

“It was a little bit disheartening because they were important to me for a long time,” she said.

Deciding to come out to friends and family can be a tough decision, Dudek said, but it’s entirely up to the person to weigh whether it’s worth it or not.

“Sometimes it’s hard living a double life,” she said, “if you have to pretend for some people.”

Outside the Capitol gates stood three street preachers from the Bulldog Min- istries group from Houston and Waco, Texas. They held large signs listing their ideals, and spoke about their religion and against atheism to passersby and convention attendees. Street preacher Rick Ellis’ voice boomed over a PA system as he read scripture aloud.

“The way to escape, is through the shed blood of Jesus,” Ellis said. “There’s no other escape; there’s no other way.”

Many people stopped to speak with them, and lead street preacher David Stokes answered queries and explained his beliefs.

Stokes said atheists believe religion is a very bad thing and want it eradicated completely, and that devastates him because he feels America is morally declining and needs the Christian god more than ever.

“If you study the atheist group and their movement,” Stokes said, “[you’ll find] they are trying to remove Christianity and God from our country.”

Even though he preaches at atheist gatherings, gay pride events and football games, Stokes said he respects the First Amendment and the separation of church and state.

“The last thing I would want to see is a denomination or a religion controlling a country,” he said. “If you look at world history, there’s been a lot of devastation when any group becomes a leader. We’ve seen that with christian groups having leadership over countries [and] I’m not for that either.”

Stokes said he doesn’t mind atheists speaking out about their opinion, but doesn’t think they should be able to file lawsuits removing religious influence in government.

“It’s one thing to have a belief system,” Stokes said, “and it’s another thing to try to destroy others’ belief system.”

Austin Community College student Justin, who asked that his full name be withheld for personal reasons, discussed specific passages of the Bible with Stokes and challenged his reasoning for his views as well as discrepancies in the text.

He’s describes himself as an agnostic or de facto atheist and came to the convention for the speakers and the interactions.

“I kind of liked the idea that I might [meet] street preacher protesting,” Justin said, “[and get to test] my on-the-fly debate skills.”

Butler said sometimes when people meet an atheist they think they want to debate right there and then, but that is not always the case. Many atheists have no qualms with religions, especially those who look to it for social support. He said the major issues come from religious-influenced prejudice and religious disregarding of science.

Justin grew up in a non-denominational Christian home and said he became a nonbeliever in 2006 after reading Dawkin’s famous book “The God Delusion.” He hasn’t come out as an atheist to some members of his family.

“There are certain people in my family that I don’t tell,” Justin said, “some that I knew would fly off the handle about it.”

Justin’s advice for students: ”Figure out what you believe, why you believe it and analyze your justifications. If it doesn’t make sense, you have no real reason to believe it.”

Omar Lopez: super humanist

Volunteering and activism bring joy to a former ACC student

Story by Janice Veteran • Staff Photojournalist and Abra Gist • Online Editor

Photos by Janice Veteran • Staff Photojournalist

Omar Lopez helps people. All people. Even if they only need help carrying a package or translating English posters to Spanish. His passion for helping others is unequivocal.

This former ACC student was offered a position at the City of Austin’s Infectious Diseases Divi- sion, after doing the same job for free at Community AIDS Resources and Education program or C.A.R.E, the place where he volunteered to help others in the community.

Lopez worked at CARE in addition to his full- time restaurant internship, his ACC organization memberships and his full course load while at ACC.

How does a culinary arts student end up working for Health and Human Services?

He evaded the question on numerous occasions. For someone so outgoing and energetic, he was hesitant to reveal much about himself. He’d rather talk about human rights, the fight to end the HIV/ AIDS epidemic and the struggle to mobilize a disenfranchised population of minorities.

Lopez was born in California to Mexican parents. He lived near Sonora Mexico until about age 8. Then he went to school in Arizona, but lived across the border. His parents still live in Mexico today.

His parents made sure that all their children would be United States citizens by being born in the U.S. Lopez grew up with compassionate parents and though he saw a lot of poverty, violence and misfortune in Mexico, his parents instilled in their children the importance of helping others.

“I wasn’t at a disadvantage growing up. I had loving parents who did all they could to provide better opportunities for me and my siblings,” said Lopez, “I was lucky, but they always told me to look around and help anyone that I could.”

Lopez joined the U.S. Navy after high school and served his country abroad for approximately 5 years.

However, that service was cut short when Lopez was discharged under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. He participated in a documentary called “March On” and shared his experience and spoke about being asked to leave the Navy.

“It was tough on me. I needed a change after that whole experience,” said Lopez.

He and his former partner moved to Austin. Lopez had heard that Texas was a great place for bilingual spanish speaking people, so they came to Austin to start a new life.

That’s when Lopez began ACC’s culinary arts program and studied to be a chef. However, his volunteer work would lead him in a different and unexpected direction.

At the AIDS Walkathon on Oct. 21 at City Hall, we had the chance to speak to Lopez, his co-workers, fans and friends.

Lopez began volunteering at the C.A.R.E program, which partners volunteers with HIV, AIDS or cancer patients for the duration of their illness.

“They just recruited me right off the street. I was getting tested and I was bilingual, so they told me I should volunteer,”he said.

“I met Omar about 3-4 years ago, and like most of our volunteers, he came to our training and was matched with a patient…but Omar was different. As the program continued I just saw him blossom and he really got more active and more involved with it. He just had this huge desire to help,” said Roger Temme, Director of Volunteer Recruiting at C.A.R.E.

Lopez’s passion and commitment impressed his mentors and peers.

“He always has a smile on his face. He comes from parents that  taught him how to be an activist even on a really bad day,” said Lisa Medina, Director of Client Services at Project Transitions. “I’m a big fan of ‘My Omar’.”

“Omar never stops,” said friend and C.A.R.E co-worker, Ryan Broussard. He has this amazing ability to commit so fully to a cause.

He’s a great friend, a cool guy and he genuinely wants to help people. That activist side of him never shuts off.”

Walking around the event and talking colleagues, we learned Lopez never stopped being an activist or advocate.

People constantly came up to talk to him and he always paused the conversation to assist others, give hugs and words of encouragement or smile and wave enthusiastically at friends.

We asked Omar again, really though, how does a culinary arts student end up in this line of work? What about this line of work motivates you?

He’s quick to say cooking and being an advocate are not so different.

He does mention that he has his own personal motivations for his overzealous activism. Recently one of his family members was diagnosed with HIV.

He makes sure to point out that this family member is only in his early 20s. However he reiterates it’s more than that though.

“I know it sounds corny but someone smiling motivates me. Even in the kitchen, that saying goes, ‘a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’. It’s not just men…I think the way to everybody’s heart is through their stomach,” said Lopez, “the energy and the love that you bring into it [cooking] just mean everything. You prepare something for someone and you nourish their stomach and their soul.”

“Even in this new role, I’m giving people something. I educate, I advocate and get them all the resources I can.”

Lopez’s eyes look off into the distance, he watches as crews clean up the tents and haul away trash after the AIDS Walkathon. He bites his bottom lip and murmurs that his dream is to expand his work beyond the U.S. borders. Then he asks us to include a graphic with the list of places that ACC students can use to seek HIV testing and mental health. Lopez never stops.

Farm Fresh

Farmers’ market educates and inspires Austin youth

Story by Carizma Barrera • Campus Reporter

Photos by Jon Shapley • Video Editor and Melissa Skorpil • Staff Photojournalist

Some misconceptions about the average college student are that they eat fast food daily, drink beer like it’s coffee and are the world’s greatest procrastinators. Although some truth can be found

in those statements, college students of the 21st century are breaking stereotypes left and right.

Students are now choosing healthy options over snacks and sweets, drinking the minimum daily intake of water and getting homework and projects out of the way early to focus on contributing to the greater good of the community. Urban Roots, an independent non-profit farm, gives current, as well as future students at ACC the opportunity to gain life skills in leadership, responsibility and sustainable living.

Started in 2008 by Max Elliot and Mike Evans, Urban Roots is a human development work program in conjunction with farming. Urban Roots originally was an extension to Youth Launch, but in 2011 branched out as its own program. The program focuses primarily on farming, sustainability and nutrition. Urban Roots has few adults and at least 30 youth volunteers at any given time. The student volunteers, who are from schools all around Austin, can return year after year to sell and donate produce.

The farm is located in northeast Austin, and yields zucchini, carrots, radishes, cabbage and much more to be sold at the Sustainable Food Center (SFC) downtown farmers market from October-December and from April-August. Student volunteers also donate what they harvest to Meals- On-Wheels, food pantries and local soup kitchens.

Leigh Gaymon-Jones, the director of operations at Urban Roots, says, “It’s exciting to see young people blossom, to see their confidence and leadership come to life. The program sparks an interest most youth didn’t know they had, it’s their niche.”

Gaymon-Jones also states that a positive aspect of the program is that youth volunteers are able to connect with other youth, these connections might not have happened if not for Urban Roots. Some positive outcomes include student volunteers that have gone on to attend the Natural Epicurean Cooking School, as well as earn degrees in Agriculture and sustainability.

One of the many student volunteers who return year after year is Zacil Castellanos. She is a 15 year old at the Keep Austin Collegiate High School, and she is currently in her second year of volunteer work. She learned about Urban Roots when Leigh had visited and it immediately sparked her interest.

The program has changed not only Castellanos eating habits but her family’s as well. They now make weekly trips to the farmers markets. Castellanos says “I absolutely love this program. I will definitely continue to volunteer in the future.”

Two of the current leaders are enrolled at ACC in the early college start program.

Michael Sterling, a senior at East Side Memorial High school said he is planning on finishing his degree at ACC in diagnostic medical sonography.

Shamar Brown is in his third year of leadership at Urban Roots. Shamar attends LBJ for now, but his college plans include attending ACC and then transferring to Baylor or Texas State. Brown learned about Urban Roots from Communities in School (CIS) which he also volunteers with.

“Urban Roots has changed a lot about me, it has made me conscious of my eating habits and improved my leadership skills,” Shamar said. “Every weekend when I get the fresh vegetables, I take them to my grandmother and she makes a big feast.” Students can take advantage of the freshest produce at the most affordable prices. There are also many opportunities for students to volunteer in community outreach programs that focus on healthy living as well as sustainable living.

Bastrop, Hays counties adopt (LEED) ACC campuses

Story and photos by Janice Veteran • Staff Photojournalist

Graphics courtesy of ACC

Courtesy of ACC






Two new campuses are on track to serve the areas annexed into the Austin Community College District during the November 2010 elections. Both the Elgin and Hays campuses are the first community colleges in their counties (Bastrop and Hays), and both are being built to meet a minimum Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard of silver.

LEED is an internationally recognized certification system which identifies and implements green building design, construction, operations and maintenance practices. The LEED rating system offers four certification levels for new construction — certified, silver, gold and platinum according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Each rating corresponds to the number of credits accrued in five green design categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources and indoor environmental quality.

Professor Dan Dewberry who teaches the Sustainable/Green Business course explained why ACC would want its new campuses to receive LEED rating of silver.

“In the long run, businesses lower costs by conserving energy. More efficient cooling devices along with smart windows and architectural designs can have a significant impact on reducing energy costs,” Dewberry said. “Instead of building new power plants, ACC and the community can grow yet use the same amount of energy. ”

Pam Collier, the project manager of the Elgin campus, said the project is on schedule and on budget and the brick for the outside of the building is being purchased from local brick manufacturer.

Dewey said, “Purchasing local raw materials reduces air pollution from shipping goods. And supporting local business means that the revenue earned will more likely be spent in Central Texas, benefiting the economy of the community.”

Andy Kim, facilities manager for the new campuses, said that purchasing raw materials locally also increases ACC’s LEED points.

The architect for the Elgin project, O’Connell Robertson, designed the Elgin campus to take on the look and feel of the city of Elgin, combining the old city look with the new building feel.

The campus will have water efficient plumbing fixtures, including dual flushing toilets, water saving faucet fixtures and water efficient landscaping. Rain water will be collected and used for irrigation.

The campus will have energy efficient LED outdoor lighting, and energy efficient florescent and LED lighting indoors. LED lighting has become more affordable and is now made to be dimmable. Running the light at a reduced power lengthens the life of the bulb, Kim said. The campus will also have solar panels that are tied back to the grid to reduce the campus consumption of power.

The Hays Campus had its ground breaking ceremony on June 27, 2012, and the design of the campus is complete. ACC signed a guaranteed maximum price (GMP) contract with the building project manager, Flintco and a notice to proceed will be issued as soon as the Plum Creek Architecture Review Committee approves the project and the site development permit is secured from the city of Kyle.

The proposed master plan for the campus has four phases with a total of 10 buildings. The first phase will be one of the buildings and the infrastructure of the campus. The site is adjacent to a future commuter rail line, with easy access to I-35.

Both campuses will embrace energy conservation and green living with extensive recycling programs.

The restrooms will have high velocity hand driers to reduce the paper waste and save energy from the batteries required to run the paper dispensers.

Five percent of the parking spaces will be dedicated to green car parking, and some spaces will be used for carpools during high demand hours. Bike racks will also be installed to promote bicycling to campus.

As part of the LEED certification, the campuses are designed for heat island effect, in which the ambient air of built-up areas can be about 20 degrees hotter than in nearby rural areas.

As a solution, light reflective surfaces like concrete will be used for the parking lots and rooftops as opposed to asphalt which is a light absorbing material.

The Elgin Campus is expected to open in fall 2013, and the Hays Campus in spring 2014. The campuses are initially expected to house classes for 1,500 students.

For more information visit austincc. edu/sustainability.