The Secret Sauce to Neighborhood Justice

“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.

Fighting for neighborhoods in this way doesn’t mean you have to be a part of contentious arguments. It just means being supportive and offering your helping hand. Time, talent, and treasure—those three Ts are the guiding stars for getting involved. You might have only one of the Ts, or you might have two, or all three. Helping neighborhoods that are facing tough challenges is just about showing up, being supportive, and offering a hand. 

Maybe you are a retired schoolteacher who has deep knowledge of families and children in our city. Maybe you’re an attorney with some free time on your hands, wondering how to apply your know-how to neighborhood changes. Maybe you’re great at fundraising–or could be, if you gave it a shot. An organization like Tier 1 shows how you can use those skills in a meaningful way.  

Spielman, through Tier 1, is giving us a playbook for how to work together. If you find yourself in a room of people who do not think like you, vote like you, or  share your faith convictions, but who have a similar passion for your neighborhood, Spielman’s story invites the question: What bridgebuilding opportunities might be explored together? 

Where do I start?

To get involved with Tier 1, visit the Tier 1 website, or to find more information about a neighborhood association near you or how to start one, visit the City of San Antonio’s Neighborhood and Housing Services Department.

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