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Preserving Austin’s Black History

A Q&A with oral history storyteller Stephanie Lang
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Stephanie Lang standing outside the historic John S and Drucie R Chase Building in East Austin

When Stephanie Lang walks among the Black-owned businesses and homesteads in her East Austin neighborhood, she often thinks about the stories that need to be told before they’re lost with time. Determined to bring these stories to light, Lang dedicates her work to capturing oral histories from community members who can give us a glimpse into what life was like before the onslaught of urban sprawl—going as far back in time as the mid-20th century when I-35 became the city’s racial dividing line.

Lang dedicates her work to supporting and empowering her fellow neighbors through various projects within the Center for Community Engagement—from Community Classrooms to service-learning initiatives to Front Porch Gatherings. As the former host of the long-running  ZUMBI radio show, she featured interviews with activists, scholars and artists whose work centers around Black life in Austin and beyond.

Read on to learn more about her Lang’s good work in her role as the director of equity and community advocacy in the Center for Community Engagement—and how she plans to use the art of storytelling as a powerful tool for social justice.

What are you looking forward to the most for the spring semester?

Every semester, I look forward to working with our amazing students—both grads and undergrads—who are involved in our community engagement projects. Currently, I’m working with students in the Moody College Honors Program who are doing some projects around oral storytelling and preservation work in the historic Robertson Hill neighborhood. I have been working as a liaison, connecting students with community partners, the Travis County Historical Commission, the School of Nursing’s Community Outreach Program and other campus partners. Through their preservations work, they have learned a lot about the power of storytelling in social justice—and how it all translates into impactful equity work.

What value do these stories bring to the community?

An important piece of this project is to show that we are good stewards and a part of this neighborhood. Not only are these stories important for historical archives, they are also valuable tools for other community members who are facing the same challenges. Through these stories, people can learn how to preserve their own homes with historical markers or to address issues of higher taxes that could drive them out of the neighborhood. This work is so important, and it must be driven by the community. My job is to bring their stories to light and to serve as the connector for valuable community and university resources.

What does it mean to you to work in the historic John S. and Drucie R. Chase Building?

I am so grateful to work in a building surrounded by such an amazing historical community. It’s exciting to be in a location where people can stop by and engage with us on a daily basis. Shortly after moving in, we started connecting with our neighbors to make them a part of this fabric as much as we could. This neighborhood is one of the oldest in East Austin, and there is so much to tell about what has happened in this community over the years. We want to unpack all of these stories with our community and campus partners.

Why are you passionate about this work?

I have so much personal history with Austin—a city that means so much to me and my childhood. I can’t put into words how surreal my work feels at times, and I’m grateful for that history and for the people who are committed to holding on to their history. One of the first interviews I conducted was with a man who just turned 101 years old. I’m so grateful to have had the chance to not only speak with him, but to learn so much from his story. Once these people are gone, their stories go with them, and I don’t want to miss any opportunities to capture their oral histories and contribute to their legacies.

What is the best advice you can give to aspiring community activists?

Before jumping into a project, I encourage people to read and get informed on what’s happening in the community. It’s also important to attend events, meet people and find out what opportunities are out there. When you do community work, make sure you’re doing things for the right reasons, and look at what other people are doing and find ways to amplify their efforts. It’s all about building relationships and showing you want to get involved.