“Don’t avert your eyes”
When I first heard Cynthia Spielman say, “don’t avert your eyes,” I thought she had said, “don’t avert your rise.” I thought it was a strange, poetic way of saying, “Don’t forget to acknowledge all you’ve overcome.” When I played back the interview to write this piece, I realized I’d misheard her.
But as you’ll see, in Spielman’s story, both statements are true.
Cynthia Spielman is a wife, mother, and daughter. She is also a community advocate who has developed a kind of playbook for how any one of us can support our neighbors across San Antonio.
Spielman volunteers for an organization with a strange-sounding name: Tier 1 Neighborhood Coalition. Tier 1, as it is commonly called, is a collection of representatives from neighborhood associations throughout the interior 410 Loop—the Historic Westside, Monte Vista, King Williams, and about forty-five more. The coalition—a melting pot of political, religious, and class identities in San Antonio—gathers in sight of one common goal: to prevent injustices in their communities as the city changes around them.
“this work has made me much more positive and much less cynical.”
Through Tier 1, neighborhood representatives support one another and advocate for neighborhood rights within city government. Spielman explains that as neighborhoods join the group, they discover together what their challenges may be and develop plans to address the issue. The key term is “together” unlike a single neighborhood association, Tier 1 follows the principle that two or more are better than one when it comes to tackling big problems.
And the problems these neighborhoods are tackling are big indeed. Spielman describes the recent period in San Antonio where “they were tearing down housing stock, people were being evicted, and affordable housing was disappearing from our community.” Spielman says that both owners and renters were being displaced. “Plus, they were building cheap and expensive housing that was not compatible with the neighborhood.” Even with these challenges, says Spielman, “this work has made me much more positive and much less cynical.”
Spielman says this kind of community advocacy has another benefit: she is often “in a space with people that [she] would not ordinarily be in a space with. …That’s the beauty of it.” It’s a powerful way to build bridges across the divides that so many of us feel and read about in the media. Safe dialogue is something of a rarity these days. Offering a helping hand and getting into the nitty gritty of the work of community can offer a perspective that otherwise may not reveal itself.