Q & A with State Representative Gina Hinojosa

By Pete Ramirez

Edited by Angelica Ruzanova and Ky Duffey

The Texas State Legislature is not currently in session but that doesn’t mean State Representatives are not working. ACCENT’s Editor-in-Chief, Pete Ramirez, recently had the opportunity to chat with Texas State Representative Gina Hinojosa of District 49 which covers a large portion of central Austin.

In their conversation, they discussed a wide range of topics affecting Texans such as how families of transgender people are dealing with the increased scrutiny from the governor, climate change, abortion restriction and why young people shouldn’t lose hope in democracy. 

Read the entire conversation below.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Pete Ramirez (PR): Can you tell us about yourself?

Rep. Gina Hinojosa (RGH): I’m in my third term at the Texas House so I’m in my sixth year. I’m running for reelection. I have a Republican opponent in the November election. 

I was on the school board for one term before I ran for the House. I was president of the Austin ISD school board.

I ran for the school board because my son’s school was going to be closed along with a bunch of other inner-city schools and I got angry and decided to run. 

I’m a lawyer and I represented employees in discrimination cases.

I’m originally from South Texas. From the valley- Brownsville. I went to public school down there and then I came to UT in Austin and I’ve been here ever since except when I went to D.C. to attend law school at George Washington National Law Center.

I’m also married with two boys.

PR: Can you give us a quick rundown on the Texas Legislature and your duties as a State Representative?

RGH: We meet every two years here in the Capitol.

We get paid $600 per month so it is not a salary that many people can live off of and most legislatures have other jobs to support themselves and their families. As a result, it limits who can run because most people can’t take six months off every two years to come to Austin and work. I’m able to because I live here.

We are required to pass a budget for the state every session. Other than that, it’s just whatever is the agenda that the Speaker and Governor set. 

We file our own bills. I’ve focused a lot on public education, environmental issues, renewable energy issues and efforts to combat climate change as well as reproductive health and corporate reform issues.

The thing about being in the House, is you’ve got to know about everything. Every issue you can think of comes before us. I only have a staff of three and we often feel like we are just inundated with policy issues to work on. Also, a lot of the policy issues we have to work on are unfortunately made up by politicians. 

Right now we’ve spent a lot of time trying to protect the kids and families of kids who are transgender because the Governor has decided that Child Protective Services is going to investigate them and threaten to take them away from their families. I have constituents who are scared so they reach out to me.

But there are always these emergencies that are created by our statewide politicians for political reasons and the result is that we don’t get to focus on the things that really matter to Texans.

PR: What is the job like in between sessions and how do you help constituents during this time?

RGH: A lot of it is informal so really every legislature’s job is going to look different. 

For me, with the example of the transgender kids, we’ve reached out to lawyers and advocates to get resources to families, educate families about what to do if CPS shows up at their door and expose the problems that are not being dealt with.

One of the hardest things about this issue is people are terrified to speak up and be public because they don’t want to lose their kids. They are afraid.

We have a responsibility to tell their story. To fight on their behalf against this.

PG: It’s a midterm year. You are up for reelection along with all other State Representatives.  How important is voting to you?

RGH: It really is the foundation of all of our rights, to vote, right? I mean that’s how we hold the government accountable. Government has enormous influence and say over every individual’s life and if we’re not a government by the people then we are living in something that is not a democracy but something that is closer to having a king or a dictator.

Voting is everything and because when more people don’t vote, the government doesn’t work as well as it should. Because more people don’t vote we have politicians who get elected by what is just a small fraction of the population and it’s typically more far-right and far-left because a lot of these races are determined in primaries that happen in March.  While we need more people voting in November, the turnout in these March primary elections is so abysmally low that it’s just a small sliver of the population that is deciding who will represent us.

We’re so gerrymandered where Democrats are packed into these districts, Republicans are packed into these districts that even though most people pay attention to the November races, most of it is baked in March.

Now, in the race for governor, that’s not the case. That’s a state-wide race. Attorney General, U.S. Senators and all other statewide races are open to the entire state to vote on those.

[Voting] is everything and we saw in the last election that lots of people who voted by mail had their ballots rejected.

 And I mean, an unprecedented amount of ballots were rejected because of the new voter suppression law/anti-voter law that was passed during the special session. The one we broke quorum to try to fight against and get Congress to pass some comprehensive voting rights protections. They didn’t do it and we ended up with a bad anti-voter bill and we saw that lots of people were disenfranchised this last election as a result.

PR: Why is it important for young voters to participate in elections?

RGH: Well, let’s talk about climate change. 

Young voters are going to deal with the impacts of a warming planet far more than older people are, right? Young people are likely to be around a lot longer.

The policies that we enact today are a result of who you vote for and what you tell politicians you expect from them in order to earn your vote. That’s going to be affecting you for the rest of your life.

Also, data shows young people are not voting their numbers and so the concerns of young people are not front and center for many politicians.

I’ll give you an example: I had a bill that would’ve required a polling place to be on the campus of every large university.

I couldn’t even get a hearing on that bill because the committee chair didn’t care. She wasn’t afraid of the young people in her district.

Votes move politicians. You’re supposed to be responsive to your people. If people don’t vote, politicians aren’t going to care what they think.

You can have all the data in the world and it doesn’t hurt but if you don’t have the votes to back that up, you’re not going to move policy because politicians don’t do something just because it’s the right thing to do. I know that’s shocking but that’s not what moves politicians.

PR: What is your view on the abysmal voter turnout during midterm elections and primaries and what are you and the Democratic party doing to turn that around?

RGH: Right now we have to find a way to tap back into people’s hope for a better tomorrow. We’ve all been so beat down by the pandemic by the ugliness of politics, with the insurrection and Donald Trump as president. Just the nastiness of politics. 

I do worry that people won’t feel the hope that we need to inspire us to go out and vote and think that we can change things. We need to figure out how to talk about policy in a way that gets people excited about what we do so that people want to engage.

If you think about climate change, for instance. There’s a depressing issue for most people. It feels overwhelming and hopeless, right?

What gives me hope about that is that we spent a year doing research on climate change. What we found is that Texas really is the problem and solution when we are looking at things at a national level. We create more methane emissions and more CO2 emissions than any other state by far but we have the largest wind energy sector and we have the fastest-growing solar energy sector.

So there is all this innovation happening in Texas but we are also a big contributor to the problem. We here as Texans hold a lot of the cards to fix this problem and it is fixable. It’s fixable in ways that are not so extreme.

There are things we can do that wouldn’t impact our daily lives at all that would have a significant impact on global warming. 

We try to educate people. I think if we can get the information that we have out to the public they may feel like maybe it’s not as hopeless as they feel it is.

PR: What are your thoughts on SB-1 (Texas’ new restrictive voting rights law) and do you think it has made it more challenging for Texans to vote?

RGH: Yes, it has. It’s also scared a lot of Texans. We talked about the vote-by-mail problem where ballots were rejected.

We also have a problem that we have lost constituents to work our polling places to be what’s called election judges because we now have criminal penalties that penalize honest mistakes and people are afraid. As a result, you might’ve seen on social media places that said “only Democrats can vote here” or “only Republicans can vote here” because we didn’t have enough precinct judges. They’re the people who sit at the table, check your voter card and send you to the next volunteer. 

Citizens make our elections work and when they are afraid to participate our elections don’t work.

We saw very troubling problems and barriers during the primary elections and when you have, in November, more than twice as many people voting, it’s going to be that much more impacted. We need to get everyone educated and comfortable with our new system. We’re working in my office to try to explain what are the changes and what people need to know in order to feel confident about participating.

Another example is people are afraid to register voters because they’re afraid they are going to do something wrong and will be charged with doing something illegal.

We need people to understand you can still register voters. Those penalties aren’t on the people, they are on the government.

It’s going to take community partners to get out the word and educate people about what the law is so they can feel comfortable about participating.

There is so much opportunity to get students at ACC engaged in policy and voting and politics. I think it’s an exciting prospect.

PR: There’s been an obvious recent surge of right-wing policies being implemented in Texas such as the near-total abortion ban. How do you feel about this and what gives you hope about the future of Texas and the Democratic party? 

RGH: Well, you all.

The young people give me hope. We need you all.

Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

My whole life abortion has been legal. Y’alls whole life abortion has been legal. What’s it going to be like when it’s not? Are y’all going to allow for this to happen? 

Where you can’t make these basic decisions about your body or about your family. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. There’s not an exception for when a woman is pregnant with a fetus that is not viable.

Are we really now going to tell women, ‘no, we’re going to force you to go through nine months of pregnancy for a baby that will not live’? That’s what our law says now.

Are we really just going to take that? I think it’s an extreme attack on our human rights and I can’t believe that in this country, given our experience with freedom, we’re going to tolerate it.

My hope is that y’all rise up and organize and say absolutely not. Change who is in power to change the laws.

All it takes is for young people to vote. 

PR: If ACC students want to get more involved with local government or activism, what advice would you give them?

RGH: Whatever is your passion, there is a group for you to get engaged with on policy issues. Google it or call my office and we’ll connect you to some group.

It’s about showing up. 

If you care about something, show up to those meetings. You get to know people who are making things happen and you become one of those people making things happen. At first, you may feel uncomfortable and you may not know what’s going on but eventually, you’ll catch on and you can be part of the change.

PR: Anything you would like to say before we wrap this up?

RGH: I think it would be super cool if ACC did a town hall on voting or engaging students. Even to have members of the Texas House Delegation hear what are the issues y’all care about.

It’s so important that we hear from you and know what are your hopes, dreams and struggles and how can we help with them.

UT Students Seek Help From ACC With Community Outreach Initiative

The student-led Texas Civic Impact Council needs help from Austin Community College and other Austin area colleges to shine a light on socio-economic opportunities for the community ahead of a major transit infrastructure project.

Written by Ky Duffey

Edited by Pete Ramirez

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist and author.

Mead’s exemplary words are not lost on Vaishnav Kuruvanka and Ruth Mewhinney, two University of Texas-Austin students and co-founders of the Texas Civic Impact Council (TCIC). TCIC is a student-led organization that strives to bring the community together by engaging college students to work as a team to solve social issues.

Sponsored by Promoting Education Across the Country (PEAC), a platform that supports youth entrepreneurs at the community level, TCIC aims to be a bridge for student progress on city-wide issues. 

While TCIC has made strides so far in launching social campaigns, its newest campaign is focused on Project Connect, an upcoming transit infrastructure project for the city of Austin. Find out more about TCIC and how to apply here.

The following is my recent conversation with Kuruvanka and Mewhinney about TCIC and Project Connect.

Ruth Mewhinney and Vaishnav Kuruvanka are co-founders of the Texas Civic Impact Council and students at the University of Texas at Austin. Their organization is looking to get ACC students involved in their work helping to shape Austin’s massive transit project known as Project Connect.

Ky Duffey (KD): Tell me about Project Connect. 

Vaishnav Kuruvanka (VR): Project Connect is a $7.1 billion investment in public transportation in Austin. There are three components to it: a light rail connecting North and South Austin, an expanded all-electric bus fleet and an underground transit tunnel that will go through downtown. The purpose is to make it easier to get around Austin through public transport. 

We at TCIC are interested in it because we see it as more than just an infrastructure investment. We see it as a way to connect Austin geographically and socially. We see it as a way to develop jobs and affordable housing. To initiate this equitable and innovative future for our city. It’s a generational opportunity. When will we see this kind of investment again?

Ruth Mewhinney (RM): If Project Connect is done well, we’ll be creating communities of opportunity in the four corridors of the city the project will engage. To make projects like this work, we need community engagement to make sure community priorities relate to public policy. We recognize this as an amazing opportunity, and our job is to amplify community voices. We want to serve as an accountability check for Project Connect and what it can do for the citizens of Austin. 

So basically, how can the infrastructure in Austin, the fastest growing city in America, bring opportunity for us to connect statewide and nationally.

KD: How did TCIC come about?

VR: TCIC is a chapter of a non-profit called PEAC. PEAC has one main goal: getting young people involved in solving social issues. 

When I moved to Austin, I noticed there were so many great students here yet they weren’t all working together on issues they commonly deal with. So I decided to get a bunch of diverse students together to see how we can tackle common issues. 

I met Ruth in 2019 and we worked to build TCIC from the ground up. TCIC’s goal is to connect students to the city of Austin and take an interdisciplinary approach to solving social issues. We represent 9 colleges on campus and two representatives on the council from each college.

KD: Your goal is to get college students across Austin involved as well through fellowships. Tell me about those.

RM: To be a council member in TCIC, you have to be a student at UT, but we wanted to make sure TCIC is not just representative of UT students, but any young person in Austin. 

So TCIC is leading a student-led, grassroots community engagement along key Project Connect corridors. There are three ways for students across Austin to get involved. 

We have community engagement fellows who are leading that boots on the ground engagement. 

We have data fellows who are cataloging and analyzing that data. 

And we have design fellows who are taking all these data and stories and turning them into the written content we’ll present to the City of Austin and Project Connect leadership.

VK: The main goals of our fellowships are to strengthen the connection between Austin residents and city leaders, getting people across Austin to work together from City Council, company leaders, and community members. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is called Project Connect, I think there is an opportunity to connect Austin here in a deep and meaningful way, and students are a very important part of that opportunity. 

This isn’t a UT Austin issue, this is an Austin issue, so we welcome students from across the city to join us.

Texas Civic Impact Council members pose for a picture in downtown Austin. Photo provided by TCIC’s Instagram account @peac.tcic.

KD: How can students in Austin apply?

VK: We have a simple application at www.bit.ly/tcicfellowship

You don’t have to have a lot of skills to get involved in this project, you just need an interest and passion for serving your community. No matter whether you’re an undergrad or grad student, all are welcome.

RM: TCIC is student-led and student-built so come on board! We need numbers to do community engagement.

VK: The community engagement fellows are the lifeblood of our project. If we don’t have a lot of students out there connecting with the community, we can’t get the data to present to community leaders. 

So we need a lot of people who can be boots on the ground.

RM: We’re the only program that is entirely student-run. You may see other programs similar to us, but they aren’t doing it like us. Student-led!


Find more information about Project Connect here.

Engaging with your community, especially at the college level, not only provides an opportunity for you to be a voice for those who are usually ignored within our neighborhoods. It’s also an opportunity to show desired transfer universities and future employers your efforts to make the world a little better. 

Young people across the country normally feel that their voices are not taken seriously. This initiative is a chance to highlight voices that have been drowned out in the past. 

Do your city and yourself proud. Join TCIC to connect with others around Austin fighting to make this city’s future equitable and enjoyable for all.

In the Eye of the Beholder: A Museum Exhibition Review

ACCENT’s Web Content Editor, Angelica Ruzanova, gives us an in-depth look into Daniel Johnston’s “I Live My Broken Dreams” exhibition at The Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center.

Story by Angelica Ruzanova 

Edited by Pete Ramirez

Truth, deep-seated within each one of us, finds its own way of expressing itself. For the late Austin artist and musician Daniel Johnston, it manifested through personified ideas in his imaginary – and perhaps very real – scattered world. 

Upon my first visit to the installation located within The Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center museum on Congress Avenue active from September 11, 2021, to March 20, 2022, my friend and I overheard a gentleman admiring the hung pieces on the walls in awe. He was led by a guide and was in a rush, but it was clear how much every display meant to him. 

We later determined the visitor to be Johnston’s best friend, David Thornberry. Thornberry is also an artist and painted the Jones Center exhibition’s front entrance portrait in Johnston’s memory. The acrylic painting on 24″ x 30″ canvas portrayed Johnston in his McDonald’s uniform from his days working there in the 1980s. 

An art gallery filled with Daniel Johnston's work.
The gallery at The Contemporary Austin’s Jones Center featured the work of late Austin artist Daniel Johnston. Best known for his mural of a frog asking “Hi, How Are You?” Johnston was also a prolific musician with a distinct childlike voice. Courtesy of The Contemporary Austin website.

The guide leading Thornberry, Tori Sal, gave us insight into the museum’s collaboration with individuals and organizations who helped make the exhibit become a reality. 

“The Contemporary worked with the Daniel Johnston Foundation and collaborated with No Comply – the skating company downtown, as well as Vans and a lot of local businesses,” Sal said. “We worked with Austin Books and Comics to recreate this comic book in his style to celebrate him, and the mural on the side of our building was premiered on Daniel Johnston’s day.”

The collection of handwritten letters, poems and symbolic artwork showcase the progression of Johnston’s rugged fate, and the newspaper features with authentic cassette tapes are an exploration beyond merely make-believe worlds. The displayed work of the late songwriter and cartoonist is a deep dive inside the heart, mind, and soul of an intuitively-driven prodigy of outsider culture and underground music.

The Person

“Well it just goes to show that we are all on our own

Scrounging for our own share of good luck.”

Lyrics from “Grievances” in Daniel Johnston’s album “Songs of Pain.”
Daniel Johnston’s sketches portray common themes the late Austin artist used in his drawings. He frequently used satanic imagery, humans with cut-off limbs, and multi-eyed animals. Photo by Angelica Ruzanova.

The innate drive to create began early in Johnston’s childhood. His predominantly Christian household and the popular culture of the time sparked an interest to draw random sketches and recreate the likeness of various comic book characters in his notebooks.

Elements paralleling Vincent Van Gogh’s art style, Cubism, and recurring appraisals of John Lennon of the Beatles shaped Johnston’s style into what would become a proliferation of unfiltered thoughts inspired by his early idols. As a young student, Johnston began writing songs to amuse his classmate for whom he’d formed an unrequited love.

When Johnston moved to Austin in the early 1980s, the young artist would hand out homemade tapes, which were recorded individually on a portable recording device, to strangers and friends while working at a McDonald’s near the University of Texas at Austin. It was through Johnston’s method of making direct connections with people in Austin that he began recruiting a local audience. 

Daniel Johnston's musical instruments are arranged in a display in The Contemporary Austin's Jones Center.
The Contemporary Austin was able to acquire Daniel Johnston’s musical instruments for their exhibit “I Live My Broken Dreams.” With this display, the museum aimed to portray the eccentric artist’s workspace and influences. Photo by Angelica Ruzanova.

As word of his music spread, so did his cult-like following. Johnston’s childish-like voice accompanied by often sorrowful and sincere lyrics yielded a wave of national recognition for the alternative feel of his music, especially after it was featured on a 1985 MTV episode of “The Cutting Edge”. The title of his first song on television, “Broken Dreams” premiered in front of a live audience. Among his fans and supporters, Johnston was acknowledged as an inspiration to other artists and bands such as Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo. 

Johnston’s mental health began deteriorating around the time of his rise to fame. His unresolved love for his lifelong muse and trips in and out of psych wards undoubtedly made Johnston live his “broken dreams.”

The Art 

“The sun shines brightly on my soul

But, there’s something missing.”

Lyrics from “Mind Contorted” in Daniel Johnston’s album “Fun.”
Wild images from Daniel Johnston portray a sinister looking devil, a three-eyed dog from hell, a boxer with an erection fighting a many eyed monster are some of the many images drawn.
“Daniel Johnston’s Symbolical Visions” gives the viewer insight into themes he used throughout his art. Some images are graphic, some are dark and grotesque while others are occasionally cute, but they all allow the viewer to understand the artist’s mind. Photo by Angelica Ruzanova.

Johnston’s work is a deep dive inside a scattered mind.

One of my favorite pieces, “Daniel Johnston’s Symbolical Visions,” reveals so much about the inner workings of his often religiously interpreted delusions. Demon figures, bodies with cut-off limbs, void heads, and imaginative frog-like creatures with many (and I mean many) eyeballs are common themes in the work displayed at the installation. 

Every time I laid eyes on one of Johnston’s sketched pieces, the amount of detail enveloped me in its metaphorical universe of events that were either real, made-up, or a mixture of both. 

Whether the framework of these anarchic universes is what led to Johnston’s displaced reality or if the digression in his mental state was what the drawings depicted, the line between “art” and mental illness is blurred. 

In the self-titled excerpt “The Origin of the Dead Dog’s Eyeball,” Johnston recalls various memoirs on the distinguishable side of a double-sided paper handwritten in blue ink. His first known word “eye,” his inspiration from a Beatles song lyric, and a vivid memory from a road trip during his childhood make it possible for him to jump through timelines of his life.

Many sketches of Daniel Johnston's "Captain American" series.
Daniel Johnston’s untitled “Capitan America” series showcases a more fictitious side of the late Austin artist. Photo by Angelica Ruzanova.

In his Captain America extensive collection of comic-like drawings with colorful markers, he implies hyper self-awareness through satirical comics and phrases like “fear yourself,” “it’s cold to be alive,” and “there is still hope.” 

A lot of Johnston’s artwork is a product of isolation, and so he often speaks of existentialism and makes naive jokes about serious issues or situations. It is simultaneously strange, captivating, and raw. And yet at times, it’s relatable, refreshing, and original. 

The Phenomenon 

“When I was a little kid

And all the people they looked big

I never exactly understood

How to tell the trees from the wood.”

Lyrics from “Joy Without Pleasure” in Daniel Johnston’s album “Songs of Pain.”
An image of a man with only a skull for a head plays a small piano.
Another of Daniel Johnston’s sketches at The Contemporary Austin. Johnston, who played the piano himself, may have been attempting a self-portrait in this sketch. Photo by Angelica Ruzanova.

With a huge, messy collection of EPs and albums in his discography, lofi self-taped recordings and serious struggles with mental health, Daniel Johnston checks all the boxes for artists categorized into the “outsider” music genre. 

Artists in this unofficial category, often driven to create music out of self-prophetic callings and not out of contractual obligations, have an unconventional sound and look to their art. But getting past the first impression of the strangeness and eccentricity of their work allows the observer to experience a new perspective on the world. 

If you want to dive deeper into the world of outsider music and the fine line between creativity and mental displacement, I recommend this documentary on origins of outsider music and this short film about Johnston’s embodied manic schizophrenia.  

From his famous mural promoting an album titled “Hi, How Are You?” on a now out-of-business indie record store on Guadalupe Street, to the misery and hope depicted in his homemade recordings and sketches, Daniel Johnston openly shared his vulnerability with the world for all to see.

Black Voters Matter Tour Visits ACC

On February 16, 2022, organizers from Black Voters Matter visited Austin Community College’s Highland campus as part of their Campus Blackout Tour. The outreach tour across Texas aimed to educate and register young voters ahead of the recent March 2 primary election. The weeklong bus tour began in Houston, Texas on February 14 and ended in Tyler, Texas on February 18.

Story by Ky Duffey

Edited by Pete Ramirez

“Are y’all registered to vote yet?” Black Voters Matter senior organizing manager, Dionna La’Fay said to two ACC students as they walked by.

La’Fay and her colleagues stood in the breezeway outside ACC’s Highland campus engaging with students and handing out flyers with instructions on how to register to vote.

Organizers from Black Voters Matter set up a table at ACC's Highland campus.
Black Voters Matter organizers set up in the breezeway at Austin Community College’s Highland campus. Photo by Ky Duffey

A non-profit organization that focuses on voting rights and community empowerment, Black Voters Matter stopped in Austin on the third day of their bus tour. While in town, the tour made stops at ACC’s Riverside campus and Huston-Tillotson University, a historically black college.

Traveling around the state in a bus wrapped in the photos of members of the Freedom Riders movement of 1961, which includes the late congressman John Lewis, the organization also held voter registration events in San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth.

“While these conversations are necessary for traditional 4-year university students, the 2-year college students are the folks that will be engaging the workforce sooner,” La’Fay said. “So it’s better for us to educate them and teach them how to advocate for themselves now while we still have their attention.”

A table with Black Voters Matter swag like fans, face masks and buttons that the organization was passing out to students.
While the non-profit organization was on campus, they engaged with students using Black Voters Matter branded gear to start conversations and ask them if they were registered to vote. Photo by Pete Ramirez

Black Voters Matter was founded in 2016 by LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright with the goal of increasing power in communities by focusing on voter registration, getting out the vote, independent election-related expenditures, and organizational development and training for other grassroots groups. The organization bases itself in Atlanta, Georgia, yet as of 2020 has expanded to Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Mississippi. 

The bus tours were created to allow the organization to travel across the Southern United States in order to galvanize voters and stop voter suppression, especially in swing states.

During the 2018 elections, Senator Ted Cruz narrowly defeated Democratic favorite, Beto O’Rourke, by less than 3%. Last year during the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump won Texas by a 5.58 point margin, the narrowest for a Republican presidential candidate in the state since 1996. 

Political experts see this as an indicator of Texas edging closer to becoming a swing state. Black Voters Matter view it as an opportunity to challenge more Texans to become engaged in the political process and vote.

The Black Voters Matter tour bus parked at Huston-Tillotson University. There a handful of people standing outside the bus and taking photos of and with the bus in the background.
The Black Voters Matter tour bus during their visit to Huston-Tillotson University. Photo by Ky Duffey

“Our goal with the bus tours is to remind students how important and easy it is to vote and engage before the primaries,” La’Fay said. “Voting is one aspect to building power.”

With the recent implementation of the controversial new Texas voting law, SB 1, voting rights organizations like Black Voters Matter are galvanized in their efforts to expand the electorate in the state.

“Organizations like the Texas Civil Rights Project have been amazing with making sure that we’re educated on the changes,” says La’Fay. “It’s not stopping anything we had already planned.”

For ACC students who want to get more involved with the electoral process, La’Fay recommends a few things:

  • Look into state boards, commissions and precinct chairs because some of them help to create local policy
  • Become a poll worker. According to La’Fay, several polling locations were closed in 2020 because they had staffing shortages.
  • Join organizations like Black Voters Matter that work on voter registration and civic education in your community.

“As you learn, share what you’re doing with the folks around you so we can build power together,” La’Fay said.

You can find more information about Black Voters Matter at blackvotersmatterfund.org or by visiting their Instagram page @blackvotersmtr.



ACC’s Rio Grande Campus Reopens After $49 Million Renovation

Story by Jonathan Gonzales

Edited by Pete Ramirez

Austin Community College’s Rio Grande campus reopened for the fall 2021 semester in a limited capacity after undergoing renovations that began four years ago during the fall of 2017.

The building that makes up ACC’s Rio Grande Campus has been around for more than 100 years and with an injection of $49 million worth of renovations, has been reconfigured into a high-tech home for higher learning. 

The upgraded building sits on a rectangular block in downtown Austin off of Rio Grande Street and 12th Street now boasts 60 classrooms and an ACCelerator similar to the one at ACC’s Highland campus.

A large three story building that was built in the early 1900s fills the frame. This is ACC's Rio Grande Campus' rear entrance.
The rear entrance to ACC’s Rio Grande campus faces West Street in downtown Austin. Photo by Pete Ramirez

An interesting challenge that the architects and contractors tasked with renovating the building had to overcome was what to do with the two open-air courtyards that sit in the middle of the structure. They decided to use a hybrid Teflon material to create tent domes over the courtyards and add air conditioning which created two beautiful, large spaces inside of the building.

The Rio Grande building first opened in 1916 and served as Allan Junior High. In 1925, the building became the home of Austin High School, and later in 1975, it became another of Austin Community College’s campuses.

After hearing about the upgrades planned for the campus, Dr. Roy Casagranda, an ACC professor in the government/history department, was ecstatic. Dr. Casagranda has been teaching for 20 years and has seen many changes come to the school.

A view from inside an empty classroom at the Rio Grande campus. Through the window you can see a sunny afternoon and the Texas Capitol dome.
The view from one of the newly renovated classrooms has a sightline directly to the Texas Capitol. Photo by Dr. Casagranda

When Casagranda took his first steps into the campus to check on the status of the redesign, he said he was “speechless.” The interior was exquisite and completely new.

 Casagranda loved the new library, the well-equipped labs and the spacious pristine classrooms. Casagranda’s favorite thing about the entire renovation was the exterior which now includes multiple areas where students and faculty can use to study and lounge. According to Casagranda, the campus faculty has plans to create a garden outside and display art from students within the halls of the school.

An image of an empty classroom. The room is clean, has large windows and new furniture.
ACC’s Rio Grande campus features 60 classrooms each filled with brand new furniture and equipment. Photo by Pete Ramirez

The Rio Grande campus is open from 7 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday and closed on Saturday and Sunday. Students can park in the parking garage located one block to the west of the Rio Grande campus by the No-Comply skate shop. The ACC Bookstore is not available at this campus yet and the ACCelerator is not yet ready for students to use either.

As construction nears completion in 2023, the campus will continue to provide many opportunities for students to gain their education. It has brought joy to Austin-area students and faculty for more than 100 years and it’s now well prepared to continue to serve the community for another 100 years.

An outdoor image of the side of ACC's Rio Grande campus. There are large steps of limestone that lead into an outdoor lounge area for students.
A new outdoor space at Austin Community College’s Rio Grande campus where students and teachers can lounge and study. Photo by Pete Ramirez


Essential Workers Share Their Experience Working During COVID-19

By Angela Murillo Martinez

Essential workers have been the backbone of our country during the pandemic. They have put themselves on the front lines to continue to work in order to provide for themselves and others in their community.

Unlike some of us, many of them have had to continue to go to a physical location to work instead of working remotely. Not only are they having to continue to go to work, but many of them are also having to be around people each day essentially putting themselves at risk. It’s important that we recognize these modern-day heroes that are continuing to work so that we can continue on with our lives.

Whether it is being able to buy groceries at a store that is constantly being cleaned for us, or going to the doctor’s office for a checkup where they are protecting each patient, or even attending class in person or online. There are many people behind the scenes working to allow you to remain healthy and safe during this time.

Many of these essential workers are our own classmates and even the teachers who are having to learn how to continue to teach online or even in person. This also includes custodians cleaning our schools in order to avoid the spread of COVID-19. They allow us to continue to live our lives safely, go to class in a clean school, and even continue to learn despite the pandemic that has changed the way we all live.

A fellow riverbat student, Manuel Murillo, who works at FedEx underground has not stopped working since the beginning of the pandemic. In a warehouse where they come in contact with boxes from all over the world, they haven’t experienced one single case amongst their staff. 

“We were told that once one case came up in our warehouse, we would close down, but so far, it hasn’t happened, and hopefully it doesn’t happen ever,” he said.

People who worked at companies such as these have seen an increase in packages that they are having to work with as many more people are spending time at home and ordering a lot more than usual. They have found themselves with an increased workload and are having to push through this in order to deliver packages in time.

For students like Murillo, more challenges arise as they continue to work in this environment. Murillo states that he finds himself having to take extra precautions as a result of his asthma. From constantly washing his hands and using hand sanitizer after touching packages, to wearing masks while working in a warehouse.

“Sometimes you just want to take it off, it’s so hot, and you’re having to carry all these packages, and so you’re all sweaty,” he continues, “but we can’t, it isn’t really an option,” said Murillo.


Many offices have remained closed and continue to work remotely, but that isn’t the case Arielle Alston, a legal assistant, and ACC alumni. Alston has had to return to the office during the summer, in a time where COVID-19 cases only continued to rise. Although in her office they only recently increased the in-office capacity to 50%, and in the beginning allowed them to work one week in the office, and the other two at home. She still had to learn how to stay safe in a small office since she had not only her health to worry about, but also her families who she would go home to.

Alston, along with her co-workers has had to follow the same guidelines as everyone else in order to remain healthy while at work.

“There are several precautions being taken in my office to protect everyone’s health. Everyone in the office is required to wear a mask if they leave their own office. If they are entering into another person’s office – they are required to wear their masks,” she said.

Each day, anyone going into Alston’s workplace has to get their temperature checked before going into the building, anyone who’s temperature is high isn’t allowed to go in.

Alston shares the challenges she has faced trying to learn a new job during these challenging times.

“At first it was difficult – being out of our usual environment required new procedures, and there was definitely a learning curve,” she said.

Now, Alston states that she has definitely become more familiar with working remotely and also working at the office every now and then. And now with more people in the office, she is having to remind herself, even more, to wear her mask when she is not in her office, and constantly wash her hands.

Students such as Joshua Solis, who works at Patient Care Technician (PCT) at Ascension Seton Hays in Kyle have also continued working since the start of pandemic. Solis states that he has found this stressful because they never know if someone around them has the virus and there still is little information about COVID-19 that we know of.

“Working during the pandemic has also been scary because you see your coworkers get the virus, then get nervous thinking that you might have it,” he said.

Solis’ workplace has adapted a universal masking policy that requires everyone to wear a mask if they are going to be within six feet of one another. But besides the masks, staff members are having to wear face shields to reduce the chances of spreading the virus and also have reduced the amount of time spent in the patient’s room for the same reason. Some precautions that he is following to protect himself and others are staying home as much as possible, checking his temperature daily, and wearing a mask wherever he goes.

“Because I am in the nursing program, we have to go to clinical’s, so I definitely do not want to get sick because I do not want to miss out on the learning experience,” he shared.

When Solis isn’t working or learning, he emphasizes the importance of taking care of his mental health by watching movies on Netflix and catch up on his sleep.

For faculty in ACC, it’s taken time to adjust to these new changes that even now continue to change as time goes on. John Lancaster, a full time faculty member and assistant DC for building construction, has had to learn how to adjust to teaching online classes.

“I’ve been an educator for 47 years in all the different levels. I must say that I have a lot of experience, but no experience in teaching an online class,” he said.

Having many students who are already in the workforce, he had to not only learn how to teach classes online, but also learn how to make online learning easy for his students who are used to having face to face classes. He found himself teaching students how to log into Blackboard to even teach them how to submit assignments. Many of his students who are in the workforce already, struggled with this switch since everything now relied heavily on writing and reading, a skill that may not be everyone’s strong suits.

Despite this, he continued to support his students as they adapted to these new changes that none of them had signed up for. Lancaster states that he has made it a point to reach out to his students before class to see how they were doing and even shared his phone number with them so that they could be in contact with him if they ever needed to talk.

Like many students all throughout the country, he found that his students had found themselves overwhelmed with everything going on and that many were struggling to adjust to online classes and were even struggling with depression. This only encouraged him more to reach out to and check in with them consistently.

Although he has tried his best to be flexible and adaptable, Lancaster said that he has found that many students have struggled with online classes. As much as he tries to reach out to many and provide support, many of them don’t reply and end up struggling in class and not performing well.

“Soon, maybe spring semester, that we can go to more hybrid classes and connect more students,” he said.

Lancaster shares how he has gone way to make sure his students are able to understand the content in the best way possible since they are having to learn content through online classes which have many limitations unlike face to face classes.

“We have to be aware of our audience at all times, we are teaching an audience that once again, didn’t bargain for this, so we have to be sensitive to their needs and make sure we are available to meet their needs,” he said.

He makes sure to provide them with necessary tools to make sure they understand the content and provide enough tools for them to study and review, and prepare for tests and quizzes.

Lancaster also shares that he has worked hard to check in not only on his students but other faculty members, and even is hoping to be able to celebrate upcoming graduates instead of just an online graduation that recognizes their hard work and accomplishments.

Mauri Winters, ACC’s HR Wellness Benefits Coordinator, talked to us about what is being done to protect the health of our faculty and staff during these times.

“It’s important that we focus on employee’s health in all aspects of their life,” she said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, mental health has become a huge concern, as depression increase amongst people in our country. They’ve made sure that employees are taking time for themselves and their mental health. Employees are being offered different programs to help them during these weird and difficult times. For example, the employee’s assistance program, where full-time employees can get short term counseling for free. They have also offered free online exercise classes for all employees to work out from Monday to Saturday that is made to fit into their busy schedules.

It’s important that we continue to support and thank our essential workers in our community, especially those who work at ACC, or even students who attend classes with us. The saying, “not all heroes wear capes,” has never meant more than it does now. Essential workers throughout the country, and especially those in our ACC community, have worked hard and have even put themselves at risk to continue to work. We often forget to appreciate those around us who are working hard to allow us to go buy groceries, or get that new package delivered to us, or even go to class. But now, more than ever, it is important to thank essential workers for everything they have done and continue to do. It hasn’t been easy, but many of us have had the privilege of staying home for work and even school, while others have had to go to work despite the pandemic. It only takes a second to thank them, so next time you come across an essential worker, don’t forget to do so. These are difficult times and it takes a hero to be able to do what they do.

Things to do in Austin Over Winter Break

How to make the most of your break

Story by: Nalani Nuylan

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. The gift-giving, family time and quirky traditions. With a month to ourselves over the Holiday season, here are some festive activities you and your loved ones can do in Austin over winter break. 

See ZACK Theater present the “Christmas Carol”
Nov. 20 – Dec. 29
The ZACK Theater took this holiday classic from Charles Dickens and put a twist on it. Told with Victorian-era story structure and a musical score that includes elements of a variety of genres, this family-friendly spectacular is something you can’t miss this year. 

View the Ballet of Austin’s “The Nutcracker”
Dec. 7 – 23
This performance spans almost six decades, making it a staple holiday tradition in Austin. This artistic performance is a fresh take on the iconic tale. Click on the link to get your tickets now.   

SantaCon
Dec. 14 at 12 P.M. – Dec. 15 at 2 A.M.
This charity event hosted by SantaCon Austin aims to raise money for people in need in the most absurd way possible. This event is participatory: so bring a game or two, cash, toys, stickers, and buttons. You must be 21 or older to attend, photo ID will be checked.    

Celebrate the Winter Solstice Festival
Dec. 21
Hosted by restaurant and farm Eden East, visitors can come and enjoy a high-quality farm to market family-style buffet, live music, and gifts made by local artisans. Come and enjoy the longest night of the year. Must purchase a ticket to enter. 

Get in on Free Week   
From Jan 1 through 13, downtown Austin is filled with free events you can participate in, especially with that college budget. From free live performances by indie groups, you can see all the options for live performances and get in on some VIP deals in and around Austin just by clicking the link. 

The Annual Martin Luther King March
Jan. 20, 2020
Located at the MLK statue on the University of Texas in Austin’s Campus, the march will start at 9 A.M. The festival that celebrates diversity in Austin will be from 11:15 to 3:30 P.M. Austin Community College does not have school on MLK Day and the majority of the Austin area school districts also observe the holiday, so this is a perfect opportunity to take the family to downtown Austin and celebrate.   

Understanding Diversity

Settling into a mix of people.

Written, photos & video by Martay Whitfield

Diversity refers to the difference among individuals, although many assume it focuses on only race and ethnicity. Those differences also include economic status, sexual orientation and age. College is one place that you can find diversity through a mix of people working together to improve their community by receiving a higher education. Many come from all over to live in the Austin area and attend ACC with aspirations to transfer into The University of Texas at Austin.

Adrian Fierro, general studies student, moved to Austin from West Texas. “[At ACC] I’m meeting people, I wouldn’t have normally met. Coming to a big city like this and having an open mindset, floating around is interesting.”

At ACC Fierro experiences a safe and cultured environment. “I have never had a problem at ACC, I think that it has a very [open-minded] faculty as well as the student body.” Fierro feels that ACC does everything in their power to make everyone feel accepted and at home.

One thing about college is it can help you to discover yourself.  Through the growth of diversity at ACC, there is sensitivity to certain subjects. “ACC is culturally sensitive,” says philosophy and psychology student, Grant Loveless. “ACC is all about making it comfortable to succeed and develop success.”

Education at ACC is about challenging and finding your beliefs. The school has programs and organizations for almost anyone. And if a student can’t find a suitable place at ACC, Student Life offers the opportunity to create an organization for those enrolled in classes. Student organizations like Onward to Interpreting, First Generation Students of ACC and Gender & Sexuality Alliance are offered to students for an inclusive community.

The Male Leadership Program (MLP), began in the Office of Student Life. The program is known for providing institutional support to encourage success for first-year male students, by providing a network of resources. This program is inclusive of men, women and non-binary students.

There is one student organization currently in the works by a few students. Similar to the Black Student Association, this organization will be Black Minds Empowered. Their mission will be focused on providing resources and a safe space to minority students.

Alexis Carr, psychology student, is one of the creators of Black Minds Empowered. “We see the lack of community in the African American culture as black students. We don’t really speak to each other, like when we walk by each other – there’s lack of communication. So we just want to have a space for students to come and express how they feel as a minority student, as a black student.”

Carr believes that the ethnic diversity at ACC can improve, so she is working to help this community. Austin, known for being “weird” or “the blue dot in the red state,” portrays a sense of liberalism.

“In Texas, specifically, we do see a lot of cultural insensitivities going on in different cities where we have injustice and inequality around minorities,” Loveless says. “[At ACC,] we have a large array of students with various cultures, students, backgrounds and nationalities. So the diversity at ACC, here, is number one.”

Fierro oversees diversity and inclusion for the Student Government Association. My experience here at ACC has been life-changing. Where I’m from you don’t really get to experience half the things you get to, we don’t have the conversations we have here. Especially being in the middle of not only political issues, but scientific advancements. Austin is basically Silicon Valley, so it’s amazing to have it all combined.”

As a community college in an open-minded city, ACC embodies the “weirdness” of Austin. There are 11 campuses in the Austin area, making ACC the sixth largest community college in the United States, and the fourth largest college in Texas. ACC works to represent diversity while making every campus feel safe and welcoming. These values embody ACC’s slogan, “Start Here. Get There.”

 

Prop G Break Down

Austin leaders have plans for various projects, and upgrades among the propositions that were passed during the midterm elections. The city will put $160 million towards improving transportation and infrastructure since Proposition G is one that received a green light. Many residents hope their money is going towards safer roads, as others wonder how the budget is being spent.

Written & video by Melina Madrigal

$50 Million

It is very clear that Austin, like all major cities, could always use renovation and this proposition is dealing with some improvements that have been long put off, especially Emmett Shelton Bridge. This is the bridge built over Lady Bird Lake near Red Bud Trail, known for being the site of a copious amount of motor vehicle accidents. It’s expected that $50 million will go towards the reconstruction of this and other bridges and structures that experience heavy, daily traffic.

$66.5 Million

Construction to improve streets near local schools and businesses, as well as curb ramps and drainage areas, will receive $66.5 million.

Previous ACC student and Austinite, Kristen Gallegos says her walk to UT in the mornings can be dangerous. “There are some areas where there are no sidewalks, so I have to cross really busy roads.”

$20 Million

Sidewalk construction and improvements have been allotted $20 million. The city has emphasized that the first to be renovated are those marked as a top priority of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Transition Plan.

Remaining Funds

The city also has plans to enhance the lives of residents who use means of transportation other than motor vehicles. There will be $15 million going to pedestrian safety improvements at certain city intersections; $4.5 million spent on signals, technology and communication systems; and $3 million towards urban trails.

$1 Million

Allowing the city to have a say, $1 million will be used for the Neighborhood Partnering Program. This program gives local residents the opportunity to propose projects on property owned by the city.

Gallegos says she understands the need of her money going to this proposition. “There is a lot of wear and tear on [the roads] and with more people moving to Austin I think that construction is the best thing to do.”

It is apparent that while voters are being asked for a somewhat large amount of money, most understand the increasing need for renovation.

 

Q&A with Sego

Written and Photo by Nathaniel Torres

Sego, a Utah born and LA transplant band, was featured on NPR’s “The Austin 100″ and played their second official SXSW showcase this year.  The band was founded by members Spencer Peterson and Thomas Carroll and has since expanded to include Alyssa Davey (bass) and Brandon McBride (synth and guitar).  The band captures their audience by enveloping them in a groovy mirage. A sound I compare to a short-lived age of 90’s pop. A sort of mix between The Verve and Blur. Despite the older references, Sego stands on their own today while their crowds sing and dance to their tunes. If you needed any more convincing to take a listen just know the band’s cover of “Young Turks” was approved by Sir Rod Stewart himself.

How many SXSW have you attended/played?
Spencer: Second [as Sego]. We were here three years ago right after we started. Alyssa [bassist], this is her first time. She’s just getting acclimated to the noise.

Had you heard or known about SXSW before coming out?
Spencer: I’ve been here a bunch.  I was coming with different bands for years.  I’ve been to SXSW like 6 times maybe and it just continues to change every time I’m here.
Alyssa: I had always heard about SXSW. My dad actually was always pushing this other band I was in to go to SXSW. He was all about it.

Was it difficult getting an official showcase?
Spencer: It’s been relatively easy for us, in the past though. It’s interesting because you get one show and you are coming all this way for one show, but then within the month you end up picking up ten different showcases. As all these bands descend upon Austin there’s all this sifting and settling of the load. I feel like it’s hard because you have to put in some time, but once you’re kind of like in there, it really kind of pays off. You can find shows if you really push for it, even if you are not official. I’ve done SXSW [with different bands] three years in a row – not being official – and we played awesome huge shows. It was great.

How was your travel out here?
Spencer: We are trying to make a loop of it. A lot of out-of-state bands will try to make a route into and out of SXSW; which makes it tough touring in and out of SXSW because all of a sudden it means every band is routed on the same timeline and the same place.
Alyssa: I found that with a friend of mine; their band played here. They did the same thing and made a tour out of it. You’re already going out there so do some shows on the way and do some shows on the way back.
Spencer: It kind of creates a weird road culture where all these little towns that normally don’t get big bands are overwhelmed. All these bands need a place to play. Places most people haven’t heard of get decent shows leading up and coming away from SXSW. This place moves like a small little economy outside of Austin just because of so much cross traffic.

What are your feelings on the atmosphere? Were you well received?

Alyssa: The people here are into music because clearly they’re at a music festival but in a different way. It’s an appreciation. Here it’s a little different because you’re seeing so many bands that you don’t know that you’ve never heard of, so it’s like new ears every time.
Spencer: Yeah the whole attitude is different. It’s still cool.

Badges are quite expensive and the word is that artists do not really make a profit.  What are your feelings on this?
Spencer: I think everybody treats it like a loss. I knew one band that actually made money on a show…and it blew my mind. We pay out just to get here, just get the opportunity. Personally, I go into it assuming that it’s just a wash. You can offset the loss a little bit by booking some shows in and out and making it more purposeful.

Does the festival open doors? What are the benefits of getting out here?
Spencer: Yeah and close some. Most people here are here with a purpose and have some industry clout. We had a crappy show and it turned cool people off on us. They were at that show and they were actually kind of high rollers. So, we learned the hard way you should never mail in a show, ever…especially at SXSW because you never know who’s out in the audience. It’s not like a random tour stop. Whether [it’s a] label or PR people, I feel like every time I’m out here I meet people I forge friendships with and relationships with.

What were some other things you got into while you were here?
Alyssa: Barbecue!
Spencer: I feel like I got to get some barbecue while we’re in town.

Will you be doing SXSW again or coming back our way sometime soon?
Alyssa: I hope.
Spencer: We have nothing in the books as of right now but I feel we come out here about every once a year, year and ha alf. So yeah, we’ll be back soon.

Sego is well on their way making the tour back home where the brisket is lacking. They are making sure to stop in their origin city of Provo, Utah where they say they always receive the warmest welcome. Sego’s music can be found on Spotify where you can also listen to their Audiotree Live set. They are also on social media if you’d like to give them a shout out. Just don’t expect it to compare to acknowledgment from Sir Stewart.