MIAMI — When Alison Austin put her name into consideration for an appointment to the Miami City Commission last month, it was not the first time she had taken a stand for the improvement of her community.
Residents of Miami’s City Commission District 5 have benefited from Austin’s leadership for many years. In her current role as CEO of Liberty City’s historic Belafonte Tacolcy Center, Austin oversees one of the largest, private non-profit youth service institutions in the Greater Miami area.
On Saturday, Feb. 27, Austin and her staff will host a “Save the Babies Awards Benefit” at the Tacolcy Center. The center will be transformed into a cultural village, complete with an 8-foot Zulu Warrior, thatch huts and African drumming.
The theme for the $100-a-plate dinner is “Tribute to Africa…It Takes A Village.” Proceeds will benefit the Tacolcy/Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School Program.
The program seeks to help young people through high-quality academic enrichment, parent and family involvement, social action and civic engagement, leadership development, nutrition, and a serious focus on health and mental health issues.
Austin, 50, is a woman of many talents.
She holds an A.A. in Radio and TV broadcasting from Miami Dade College; a B.A. in speech communications/public relations from the University of South Florida; an M.S. in Hospitality Management from Florida International University (FIU) and a certificate from the Harvard Business School in Leadership Development.
She has been an indomitable force on the local and international level for over 20 years with highlights of her career including: producing WLRN-TV’s first multi-cultural show, “Community Pulsations” and planning workshops and events for a rural development organization in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, W.I.
She also served as a consultant to the Organization of American States (OAS), delivering community ecotourism development throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and started a private holistic elementary school called Windsor Primary School, which still stands today in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
SERVING HER COMMUNITY
“I am intrigued by this candidate,’’ City Commissioner Francis Suarez told the South Florida Times after he was introduced to Austin during a Jan. 26 meeting. At the meeting, Richard Dunn was appointed to the District 5 seat to replace suspended Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones, who is accused of misappropriating county funds.
“I really like her,” Suarez said of Austin. “I like what I saw on paper and I like what I saw here on the dais. She could be one of those future leaders that District 5 could benefit from.”
At Tacolcy, Austin combines all her knowledge and experience to serve her native community. Although her diverse skill set makes her an international commodity, Austin chooses to stay in the community where she grew up.
“I decided that I wanted to be home…I want the entire community to be on fire about Tacolcy and the work that we do. We are cultivating the next generation of leaders,” Austin said.
Since she took Tacolcy’s reins in 2006, Austin has been instrumental in implementing curricula and programs that foster educational growth among the students who attend.
Among the initiatives was the pilot for the first Freedom Schools Program in South Florida, which boasts a reading curriculum that is designed to “excite, motivate, stimulate, expose, inspire, enchant, and rejuvenate the minds of young scholars.”
Austin’s dedication to the community is evidenced by the fact that she chose to stay in Liberty City, even though she has had every opportunity to move to more economically prosperous neighborhoods.
She lives in the very same house where she grew up.
The Bahamian descendant’s mother bought the tidy house on a quiet block near 11th Avenue and 58th Street in 1956 for $10,000. Austin was born three years later.
In the years since attending nearby Charles Drew Elementary, Edison middle and high schools, then Miami Dade College, Austin traveled extensively, and even lived abroad for 14 years before returning to Florida.
She acquired her current home after swapping houses in 1988 with her mother, who moved into the suburban Broward home that Austin’s grandmother left to her. The three-generation house trade made sense for Austin, who said she wanted to be near downtown in a “walking neighborhood.’’
Every week day, she walks the few blocks to her office at the Tacolcy Center. On Sundays, she and her husband of 11 years, photographer Khary Bruyning, walk to the Church of the Open Door.
“I’ve lived in places all around the world, but when I’m in Liberty City, I’m in my hood,” Austin said. “Many people tend to get the wrong impression when you say hood. They automatically think it denotes something negative. In my mind that’s not true.”
ALWAYS GIVING BACK
Giving to others is a driving force of Austin’s life.
She credits a 45-year-old memory of her father as being one of the catalysts that taught her the importance of giving back.
“I was a young girl at Charles Drew Elementary and my father was the custodian there. Back then they used to have a ‘Lunch with Daddy.’ I had about seven friends who didn’t have dads and they would hang around my dad. My dad would embrace all of them because he was really serious about being daddy to all of those children. I will never forget that,” Austin recalled.
She humbly down-plays the immense effect she has on the lives of others and sees herself as an ordinary public servant who simply does what is necessary.
“I work on the underground. There is nothing that I do in my life that in my mind is extraordinary. Everything is clearly fundamental,” Austin said.
Those who know her well disagree.
“She brings an elevated level of leadership to the community due to the types of programs and things she does with the youth. Her sincerity and commitment to what she does makes a difference,” said Enid Pinkney, a lifelong resident of District 5 and historic preservationist who has known Austin since she was a child.
“She is an empowering woman,” said Bruyning, Austin’s husband, who has known her for over 20 years.
“Everything has its destiny,” Austin told the South Florida Times. Right now, hers is at Belafonte Tacolcy.
“Kids, youth and community development are my passion,’’ she said. “If I wasn’t doing this work with youth every day, I don’t know what else I’d be doing. I love it.”
Photo: Alison Austin