When Stephanie Lang wanders among the Black-owned businesses and families in her East Austin neighborhood, she often thinks of stories that need to be told before they are lost to time. Determined to shine a light on these stories, Lang dedicated her work to capturing oral histories from community members who could give us a glimpse into what life was like before the onslaught of sprawl—as far back as the mid-20th century when I-35 became the racial dividing line. in the city.
Lang has dedicated her work to supporting and empowering 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 has given interviews with activists, scholars, and artists whose work centers on black lives in Austin and beyond.
Read on to learn more about the good work Lang is doing in her role as Director of Equality and Community Advocacy at 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 most looking forward to for spring?
Each semester, I look forward to working with our wonderful students – graduate and undergraduate – who are involved in community engagement projects. Currently, I work with students in the Moody College Honors program who are doing some projects on oral storytelling and conservation work in the historic Robertson Hill neighborhood. I have acted as a liaison, connecting students with community partners, the Travis County Historical Commission, the School of Nursing’s Community Outreach Program, and other partners on campus. Through their own preservation work, they have learned a great deal about the power of storytelling in social justice — and how it all translates into impactful equal work.
What value do these stories add to society?
An important part of this project is to show that we are good agents and a part of this neighborhood. Not only are these stories important to historical archives, but they are also valuable tools for other community members facing the same challenges. Through these stories, people can learn how to preserve their homes with historic landmarks or address issues of high taxes that might drive them out of the neighborhood. This work is very important, and it must be motivated by the community. My job is to highlight their stories and act as a link to valuable community and university resources.
What does working in the historic John S. and Drucie R. Chase building mean to you?
I am so grateful to be working in a building surrounded by such an amazing historical community. It’s exciting to be in a place where people can stop and connect with us on a daily basis. Soon after we moved, we started reaching out to our neighbors to make them as part of this fabric as we could. This neighborhood is one of the oldest in East Austin, and there is a lot to say about what has happened in this community over the years. We want to uncover all of these stories with our community and campus partners.
Why are you excited about this job?
I have a lot of personal history with Austin – a city that means so much to me and my childhood. I can’t describe in words how surreal my work feels at times, and I’m grateful for this history and for the people who are committed to holding on to their history. One of my first interviews was with a 101-year-old man. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity not only to talk to 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 opportunity to capture their oral history and contribute to their legacy.
What is the best advice you can give aspiring community activists?
Before getting into a project, I encourage people to read and get information about what is happening in the community. It is also important to attend events, meet people, and learn about opportunities. When you do community work, make sure you’re doing things for the right reasons, look at what others are doing and find ways to ramp up their efforts. It’s all about building relationships and showing your willingness to be involved.