Neighborhood revitalization initiatives can address various issues affecting underserved communities. We talked with Alba Sereno, MSSW ’11, who is the community programs coordinator for Go! Austin/Vamos! Austin (GAVA) in South Austin. GAVA targets communities with higher than average childhood obesity rates, and employs place-based health models to improve the environment that causes the health issue.
What type of work is GAVA coordinating in South East Austin?
For GAVA, the end goal is to reduce childhood obesity rates in specific communities throughout the City of Austin utilizing a place-based health model. This means that we’re not delivering a specific service or program to address the problem. Instead, we’re trying to target the causes of childhood obesity by improving the environment that people live in. The work is coordinated hand in hand with the residents to form leaders, and leaders with followings. Mainly, this builds the communities’ capacity to advocate for resources and bring those resources to their neighborhoods. When we undertook this initiative, we coordinated a planning process with the residents to understand the types of issues they wanted to address. We then presented them with evidence-based strategies that have worked in other communities throughout the country. In every part of the neighborhood the work might look different, because it really is based on specific problems that are happening right there and that are of interest to the residents.
What have been some of the challenges GAVA has encountered?
I am working at a community in South Austin that is located adjacent to Dove Springs. But this community does not have a specific name or share a long history of organizing to address issues affecting residents. The recent effort of GAVA is truly the first attempt to organize residents in a different way, to build their capacity as advocates. This is really an innovative approach for zip code 78745. Regardless, there are established community partners that form part of our alliance, and GAVA works with them to create services that benefit residents. Another challenge has been that the community has a high rate of rental properties, so people frequently move, which can make organizing difficult. In the recent redistricting work, 78745 was a target zone to parcel out certain areas to neighboring districts, and that has reduced the pressure that residents can apply as a community. Despite all of that, as a community, we are building gardens, working on health in schools, addressing food access, and improving park infrastructure.
How has your time at the School of Social Work influenced your work?
I think what allows me to do this work are the core values of social work and the knowledge of how to relate and talk to people. My job involves helping people make change within themselves, whether it’s at the individual level, group level, or at the level of an organization. Ultimately, it’s the capacity to connect with people one-on-one, whether it’s an undocumented person with tenant issues or the director of a non-profit seeking to bring resources to a community and empower residents. All of that starts at the beginning of one’s education at the School of Social Work.