Community organizer and lifelong Austin resident Crystal Gardner is on a mission to unify Austin by creating real community by utilizing digital networking tools.
The founder and head administrator of the Activate Austin Facebook group said she was inspired to create the group after seeing other communities rally on Facebook in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
“That was an amazing example of going from [a social media] conversation to collective action,” Gardner said. “I thought, ‘If people can do this in response to a national issue, we can surely model this for our community.’”
Gardner, who currently serves as the second vice-president and Community Business Partnerships chair at Justice Renewal Initiative, Inc., a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform, has a history of turning community spaces into collective action.
A graduate of DePaul University, Gardner said she created the Activate Austin group in June 2020, in order to prompt conversations surrounding the renaming of Columbus Park, an initiative she believes is essential to a thriving Austin.
As more people joined the group, she realized that it could also be a space for those in the community to pose questions, share resources and connect. As of April 11, Activate Austin had more than 460 members.
“The pandemic hit and folks were sharing resources about things like what was happening with unemployment, or sharing links for food drive and donation opportunities, healthcare facts about the virus, and just all types of things,” Gardner said. “I decided to let that be the focus of the group – a space for people in Austin to raise their voices and be heard.”
Gardner said she’s witnessed the group help Austin residents who may often feel ignored or not seen by community leaders.
“I’ve seen people talk about a particular issue within the group and then have the issue later solved. Somebody is watching even if they aren’t engaging,” Gardner said. “And sometimes there have been conversations within that group that elected officials comment on and engage with people about. It makes people more easily accessible and transparent.”
While she has her own personal views on the state of Austin, Gardner said she strives to remain impartial as the group’s moderator. She said that impartiality is critical for maintaining the group’s inclusivity.
“As a moderator, I try to focus on posting facts and not inserting my personal opinion too much,” she said. “I want it to feel like a safe space for people to have transparent conversation even if they have opposing views or disagree with each other.”
Now with hundreds of members in the group, Gardner said she’s still learning about the best ways to engage with her growing membership. She’s currently developing a formal communication and engagement strategy for the Facebook group.
Some of her ideas for engagement include a Spotlight Sunday, a weekly profile on an Austin resident or organization making positive change in the community.
It’s also not lost on her that many people in Austin, like the neighborhood’s large elderly population, may not be able to access or navigate Facebook and other social media platforms. Gardner said she believes Activate Austin can serve as a space to have conversation that ultimately affects the lives of the entire community.
“A lot of the elders in our community use church or social groups as physical safe spaces to organize. Activate Austin is just a digital space for people to organize as well,” she said. “It’s about making sure we meet the community wherever they are and come to them off-line as well if that’s what they need.”
As Activate Austin continues to grow, Gardner said, she hopes that the group helps identify Austin’s organic leaders, so that they can be better positioned to serve the community.
Samantha Callender’s position is made possible by a generous donation from the Field Foundation.