Joah Spearman represents a much-needed breath of fresh air for City Council, District 9, at a critical inflection point in Austin’s history.
A trailblazing startup founder and CEO, philanthropist and board member, community activist, and outspoken author, Joah has demonstrated a lifetime of engagement and commitment to addressing the most pressing issues in D9. These pressing issues today include equity, affordability, transit, and Austin’s housing crisis; creativity and the mounting pressures on musicians, small business owners, and service industry professionals; and inclusivity, as the city’s Black, Hispanic, working and middle-class residents struggle to hold onto the quality of life that has made Austin special for decades.
I believe Austin should be affordable. I know this first-hand because I’ve lived in District 9 as a college freshman 20 years ago and as a newly married entrepreneur today. The Austin of the past may be gone, but that does not mean we can’t bring affordability into our future.
Affordability, or the lack thereof, is the most immediate and important issue Austinites are dealing with today. While the City Council has started to make some progress to provide supportive housing to people experiencing homelessness and to consider unlocking more residential housing supply through more accessible policies for the construction of ADUs and housing in commercially-zoned areas, our City government has so-far been latent and reactive in maintaining affordability and housing supply.
As a City Council member representing District 9, I will proactively advocate for housing that is affordable for homeowners AND renters, and not just those who can afford the luxury end of the market. I will work to ensure public safety and emergency workers (firefighters, EMS, police officers), professionals in our education and healthcare systems (nurses and teachers), and creative professionals who earn their wages at establishments in District 9 (musicians), have access to housing here in Austin, not outside of it.
I believe you shouldn’t have to drive to get around Austin. I know this first-hand because I haven’t owned a car here for over four years. Just because Austin is the capital of Texas does not mean that we can’t look beyond state lines for good ideas.
Austin has been one of the fastest-growing cities in America for more than 15 years, and there’s no sign of this slowing down. Even without growth from out-of-state newcomers, the reality is that Austin’s job market now provides opportunities for graduates from our area colleges like ACC, UT-Austin and St. Edward’s to stay in Austin for the start of their careers rather than moving to Dallas, Houston or places out of state in search for gainful employment. This is a good thing for our economy.
But a growing city needs public transit infrastructure options that accommodate not only drivers, but also cyclists, rail riders and pedestrians. With Project Connect now underway after a successful bond election in 2020, the next City Council must not only oversee this $7 billion project to ensure it is on-time and on-budget, but also oversee the equitable and effective allocation of the $300 million in anti-displacement funds. These funds must be stewarded with a focus on long-term mobility, equity and environmental sustainability in our city for decades to come.
I believe musicians and creative professionals make Austin unique. I know this first-hand because the commercial and cultural identity is shaped by creatives, from artists to entrepreneurs, not zoning types. Live Music Capital of the World must be a real policy in action, not just a marketing tag line in theory.
Musicians, artists and creative professionals have made Austin what it is today. From chefs to entrepreneurs to guitar legends, Austin’s cultural identity was forged not in a manufacturing plant or in the halls of the State Capitol, but in the garages, rehearsal and studio spaces, and live music venues where creatives build community and find fans. Simply put, Austin’s status as the Live Music Capital of the World, have made invaluable contributions to our ability to attract new businesses and industries.
Unfortunately, talk to any musician or artist in Austin today, and they’ll likely point out how challenging it is in Austin to find venues to showcase their talents and to thrive while fighting tirelessly to survive here; and this was true even before the pandemic. My experience as vice chair of the Austin Music Commission, as a board member for Austin PBS (home of Austin City Limits) and ZACH Theatre, and as a husband of a talented musician and artist, will make me the most committed City Councilmember on the dais with regards to issues that impact and influence Austin’s creative identity and industries. It’s time we actually lived up to our reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World, not only for tourists but for Austin musicians, too.
I believe Austin must work harder to foster inclusion and equity. I know this first-hand because the City Plan of 1928 and Interstate-35 have done the opposite for too long. It’s time we rid Austin of the Jim Crow Era, and it’s going to take real commitment.
Coming to Austin from Killeen High School for track and cross country meets and student field trips gave me an early belief that Austin was a place that anyone could thrive and experience a high quality of life. I still hold that belief today, but upon moving here as a student at UT-Austin over two decades ago, I also realized some of the dynamics that are at play here that prevent and stifle opportunity for some. This is particularly true in District 9, which is one of the only Districts to have substantial sections on both sides of Interstate 35 and has itself been the victim of an outdated City Plan of 1928 and land development from the mid-80s.
It is about time we eradicated some of the institutional barriers to real inclusion in our City, starting with ensuring the Texas Department of Transportation embraces local ideas for re-envisioning Interstate-35 to decrease rather than increase its division of our Downtown.
Over the past decade, I have often been the only Black man in a room of nonprofit boards or among tech industry leaders. I know first-hand that Austin’s local government can and must do more to make this City more equitable and inclusive, moving from symbols to tangible solutions and policy. As a Councilmember, I will appoint the most diverse roster of people possible to City boards and commissions, champion causes that enhance equity and inclusivity within our District – particularly as we recruit employers to our region and oversee major budgetary allocations for City-related projects and services – and work tirelessly to ensure Austin is a welcoming community for people from all backgrounds.
I believe restaurants and small businesses make Austin special. I know this first-hand because both longtime residents and newcomers to Austin come here to experience these establishments, not corporate chains. If we optimize for small business, we get big business, too, but local businesses suffer if we optimize solely for corporations.
For the last dozen-plus years, I have served and supported Austin’s local restaurants and small businesses because I understand the unique role these establishments play in making Austin unique and keeping our economy growing. From being a shoe store owner in 2009-10 to helping local businesses make the transition to social media to being a champion of local businesses and restaurants as founder and CEO of Localeur since 2013, this sector is one of high emphasis and passion for me.
When people in Austin talk about issues such as affordability and sustainability, restaurant and small business owners need to be some of the key voices at these discussions, sharing insights and ideas that will move District 9 and our City forward. Restaurant and small business owners deserve the same kind of access, attention, and engagement from their City Council members as corporate developers. I will make it a point to ensure we are listening to all our entrepreneurs, not just the ones with access to millions from investors and institutions. Restaurant and small businesses that pay fair wages, source locally, offer health insurance and family leave, and give to local nonprofits are just as meaningful as out-of-state corporations.
I believe neighborhoods are special because of families, not zoning. I believe multi-generational families are what gives neighborhoods a sense of community and longevity, not zoning restrictions. Thinking intergenerationally prevents short mindedness from negatively impacting long-term goals.
Neighborhoods aren’t just about types of zoning they have or architecture they have. Neighborhoods are places where people reside, where businesses serve customers, where communities get together, where families make memories. As the District 9 City Councilmember, I will focus on strengthening our neighborhoods by listening to the residents, engaging within the communities, and empowering families to be a part of our city planning processes.
Why families? Because families, especially multi-generational ones, can think about their neighborhoods through an intersectional, intergenerational lens. By approaching neighborhoods in these nuanced ways, we can make city plans that speak to both today’s needs and to the future needs; we can make city plans that build the kind of inclusive, welcoming neighborhoods that give all residents a sense of belonging and community. I know this because I grew up in a neighborhood like that, and I live in one today; a neighborhood where seniors, students and small business owners can thrive if given the chance.
I believe public safety is more than policing and resilience is more than reacting. I believe our police officers have been overtasked for too long and our communities would benefit from a more balanced and specialized approach to public safety. I also believe resilience planning is too often done in reaction to disasters rather than proactively to prevent the most severe impacts of disasters.
If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, from George Floyd’s death, and from the winter storm and ensuing electrical grid failure, let it be this: we need to embrace the challenge of re-imagining our public safety and resiliency systems. Public safety was never just about policing and resilience was never just about food banks. If Austin is to live up to its stated goal of being a well-managed city and continue to be one of high quality of life, we must unlock a path for better city planning and systems that foster public safety that empowers police officers to prevent crime to enhance safety in our community alongside educators, mental health and social workers not instead of them. De-criminalizing low-level marijuana possession and moving certain mental health calls out of the police department’s core responsibility is only a beginning.
If District 9 is to play its role in bolstering the disaster preparedness and resilience of our City, we must think about food sourcing and sustainability just as we think about libraries and parks – as a civic responsibility and contributor to quality of life. My experience helping over 20,000 Austinites receive their COVID-19 vaccines, being the board chair of AIDS Services of Austin which offers dental, health and housing support for people affected by HIV and AIDS, and also helping dozens of families get water and food in the aftermath of Winter Storm Uri give me a keen understanding of just how important public safety and resilience truly are.
I believe technology is more than a source of jobs, but a source of good ideas. I know this first-hand because I’ve seen innovative approaches not just in Big Tech, but in small communities where individual ideas are supported rather than stifled. At its best, innovation is not about holding onto power but unlocking and sharing it.
Technology and innovation shouldn’t just be a job sector for Austin, but a driving force in how we approach our local governance and infrastructure. For too long, outdated systems have been allowed to stifle new business creation, home renovation or construction, and other aspects of city life due to cumbersome, paper-based processes. As an entrepreneur for more than a dozen years, the last decade in tech, I understand technology and innovation not as an economic driver so much as a facilitator of new ideas, new opportunities and new ways of connecting.
With the continued advancement of Austin’s technology industry, I will take a proactive stance on finding ways to partner with leaders and innovators make our government more efficient, working toward people-centric solutions with tech-powered systems. As more tech jobs come to Austin, and more digitally-savvy professionals, I would work to ensure the City of Austin – starting in District 9 – is implementing and iterating new methods that replace outdated systems with more people-first, innovation-enabled ways that empower City employees to do their jobs at a high level with minimal friction and with maximum impact in enhancing quality of life for all Austinites.
I believe nonprofits teach us how to give, and public-private partnerships teach us how to get together. I know this first-hand because I’ve worked for years on behalf of Austin nonprofits that contribute far more value to the city and its residents than their annual budgets simply because there is a shared passion for community; it’s not about winning elections.
There may be no bigger contributor to civic engagement in Austin than our nonprofit sector. Simply put, as a City Councilmember, I would work tirelessly to build up our nonprofit community, through public-private partnerships, to get every resident of District 9 and our City engaged civically. Whether it’s supporting the arts, helping with health-and-human services causes or getting people to vote, nonprofits play such an unrivaled role in educating and engaging everyday residents of Austin on why the fundraisers, the volunteer hours and the community-driven efforts make a real difference.
My experience as a City commissioner, as a board member to ZACH Theatre, Austin PBS and AIDS Services of Austin, and other organizations has taught me so much about how to be an Austinite, how to support my community, and how to help others give back as well. It’s imperative we institute and maintain a collegial and genuine, give-first, community-oriented, people-centric mindset at City Hall, and optimizing for nonprofit contributions and engagement and public-private partnerships is the way.
I believe students, both high school students and college students, are overlooked by our City government and that must end. For too long these students, often voting age, have been underestimated rather than sought after to provide input and insight on major City issues and initiatives such as public transit and housing. That must end with the next City Council.
The Austin many of us lived in years ago, where thousands of UT students graduated each year then left Austin to pursue employment elsewhere, has been replaced by a City with rapid job and population growth that is the envy of cities around the country. As a result, Austin must think more comprehensively about what it means to be a student, especially in District 9 where thousands of University of Texas students reside.
Along with more access to affordable housing and public transit, Austin must also think of students much like newcomers – residents in their early years in our City rather than fostering a more transient mentality. This means more voting locations on campus to drive more civic engagement, more focus on small and local businesses near student housing rather than national chains to foster a greater sense of community tethered to our values not corporations, and more concerted efforts to appoint students to City boards and commissions where the views of young people would greatly influence and enhance our ability to think long-term.
I believe live events and public places contribute significantly to Austin’s high quality of life, and that these events and spaces should be championed, fostered and supported in ways that enhance our sense of community and belonging while also supporting creative professionals and our economy.
Whether it’s ACL Festival or South by Southwest, Texas Relays or the Capitol 10K, Austin gets to showcase its year-round uniqueness to thousands of locals and visitors, alike, during these special events. Special events have been a big part of Austin’s commercial and cultural fabric for decades, and as a City Councilmember, I will ensure that this critical economic and creative sector remains viable. Live events aren’t just parties, but jobs and industries.
The jobs and industries supported by live events often bring outsized financial and invaluable cultural value to our public places and spaces, as well, so any consideration for live events must be done with a keen understanding of the unique role public places play in fostering equity, inclusion and a sense of belonging for people from all backgrounds.