The Austin Area Sustainability Indicators project (A²SI) is releasing its 2020 annual report focused on climate and community resilience in the Austin metro area (find the full list of indicators and more information about A²SI here).
Data from this year’s report was gathered and put together by Dr. Bixler’s research team, including graduate research assistants Ana Perez and Jessica Jones, as well as recent B.A. graduate in Urban Studies Bethany Goad. Ana is a master’s student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Jessica is a dual-degree master’s student with the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the School of Architecture Community and Regional Planning program.
“I was really interested in how this amazing work could be more interactive with the community,” said Perez, who has a background in community health and nutrition. “The overarching idea was to identify different municipal institutions and nonprofits who could benefit from or collaborate with this project in the future; that could look like using this information to justify why they need funding and help inform informing and shape what kind of data is collected."
The team interviewed 12 organizations to gather qualitative data and geolocate on an interactive map each organization's projects. Many of the organizations they connected with had projects in the Dove Springs area or in Central Austin. Participant organizations included:
Austin Youth River Watch
Council District 4 Office
City of Austin Office of Sustainability
Go Austin! Vamos Austin! (GAVA)
Huston-Tillotson University (sustainability department)
Raaisin in the Sun
Sustainable Food Center
Travis County Transportation & Natural Resources
UT Campus Environmental Center
The interview process was broken into five different themes: community resilience; climate resilience; organizational capacity, success, and barriers; social infrastructure; and organizations’ knowledge and use of A²SI’s data. The themes of resilience align with a recently published article by UT Austin researchers exploring the factors that drive network formation of organizations that pursue resilience strategies in Austin and San Antonio metropolitan areas.
“One of the broader goals of this project is to create a flow of bi-directional information between the research and the researchers and nonprofits,” said Dr. Patrick Bixler, a professor at the RGK Center and the lead on the A²SI project. “It’s not just us providing information but also us trying to better understand what the reality is on the ground and how they understand and integrate climate- and resilience-related research.”
While conducting these interviews, the students noticed that the term “resilience” was often used, but not every nonprofit shared the same definition—or even had a definition on which they operated.
“Not every nonprofit had a specific definition for resilience, but they were able to easily relate the work of what they were doing to the term and give examples of how they understood resilience from either personal experience or their organization’s programming,” said Jones.
Research on Resilience
The topic of resilience was one of the focus points of the interviews; researchers asked individuals and organizations to describe how their work in the community relates to resilience to get open-ended and data-rich descriptions. According to A²SI’s climate vulnerability in Austin project, “climate and community resilience refers to a set of indicators to assess the risks that certain climate-related hazards pose, how those risks are spatially and socially distributed, and how households, neighborhoods and cities can build resilience.”
While working on this project, Jones, who has a background in sustainability and local government, also served as a CONNECT Fellow with a grassroots community organization – Go Austin! Vamos Austin! This work provided a context of what community and climate resilience work could look like in Austin. From this research, she learned about different definitions of resilience and how resilience can be measured. She also realized that the term itself could be complicated.
“Based on historical inequities and past injustices, labeling a certain population as resilient or vulnerable can be a way to blind us from seeing why populations were forced to be resilient or vulnerable in the first place," Jones said.
Though Jones and the rest of the research team each had their pre-conceived ideas of how resilience might be defined or what it looks like, they ensured not to bring any bias into the research process.
“We came out as open vessels,” Jones said. “We just wanted to know from them what resilience looks like. What kind of work are you doing in the community that relates to resilience? We let the interviewees paint the picture for us on what it looked like to them.”
From these interviews, the team realized that every nonprofit organization had a different idea of what resilience meant to them, as is evidenced in the word cloud below. Though the definitions varied or were unclear, nonprofit organizations were usually able to apply the idea of resilience in the work they were doing. The theme of resilience also informed other aspects of the project, including undergraduate Bethany Goad’s research into how Austin nonprofits build and utilize social infrastructure to build resilience.
Social Sustainability Story Map
The team also included Bethany Goad, a recent graduate from Urban Studies in the Department of Geography. After taking a course in the College of Liberal Arts that provided an overview of the nonprofit sector, Goad was inspired to learn more.
“I knew that I wanted to combine these two concepts—using an urban studies approach while somehow bringing in nonprofits,” Goad said.
This eventually led her to earn her Certificate in Social Entrepreneurship and to become involved in research with the RGK Center. This January, Goad connected with Dr. Bixler and presented a broad research interest in how nonprofits impact the urban landscape in Austin. At that time, Dr. Bixler and his team of graduate students were in the process of determining what direction they wanted their report on climate and community resilience to go.
“Bethany's project intersects in synergistic ways with what we were already doing and the story map that the rest of the team produced,” Dr. Bixler said.
Over the course of the semester, Goad’s initial topic was woven in with A²SI’s research scope, and her research questions began to take form: How are Austin nonprofits working to prepare their communities for climate change and how can they work to be resilient? How are they impacting their physical and social landscapes? Goad conducted several interviews with local nonprofits and discussed with them the idea of social infrastructure, community resilience, and other topics.
“Ultimately what I found is that nonprofits can be the vehicle for communities to unlock the power to create their own resiliencies,” Goad said. “It happens inside communities; it can’t just be brought in from the outside because they are ultimately responsible for their own resilience.”
Goad’s final senior capstone thesis was presented in the form of an interactive online story map using GIS mapping. She chose to present this information in this way so the data could “live out in the community” and be used by nonprofits. The story map, which can be accessed here, provides an overview of the Austin nonprofit sector, theories of social capital and social infrastructure, and components of social sustainability.
“This story map makes a unique and important contribution to the broader mission of A²SI because of the unique research perspective it took focusing on social infrastructure,” said Dr. Bixler. “If A²SI is really going to serve as a ‘a foundation for a systems approach that addresses challenges in Central Texas’ then understanding the ways that nonprofits and city agencies work together, including where and how (i.e., social infrastructure) is an important part of that foundation.”
As part of their interview process, the team also asked for any suggestions or advice to improve their project scope, which they are still sorting through and brainstorming responses to. Some suggestions are extremely salient, such as making data from the A²SI project more accessible and easier to navigate, as well as trainings to help people better understand and use the data. The team plans to take considerations such as these into account with the next round of survey data collection being prepared for August 2020.
Perez also noted that, because most interviews were conducted before the COVID-19 crisis, many of the organizations they interviewed were mainly thinking about the climate crises and extreme weather-related natural hazards, rather than framing or considering resilience through a pandemic lens. Though this topic is “unfortunately timely,” she says, many of the same principles of community resilience and lessons learned from preparing for climate related natural disasters can apply to confronting the COVID-19 crisis.
Jessica Jones is a second year dual degree masters student at the University of Texas at Austin, studying Community and Regional Planning at the School of Architecture and Public Affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Jessica has over a decade of experience working on municipal and educational sustainability projects and is focusing her graduate work on regional sustainability and resilience research.
Ana Perez is a second year master's student earning a degree in Public Affairs at the LBJ School of the University of Texas at Austin. Her background in community health and nutrition led her to pursue a career in policy development and organizing around economic justice, especially in urban settings.
Bethany Goad is a new graduate from UT Austin with a degree in Urban Studies and a certificate in Social Entrepreneurship & Nonprofits. For the past two years, her coursework has had a dual focus on modern cities and the problems they face today, and nonprofit history and management.