For nearly a decade, Six Square has preserved the history and legacy of Austin’s Black population.
By Cy White, Photos courtesy of Six Square
There are days when the rainbow isn’t enough. Pam Benson Owens, CEO of Six Square, has been there, carrying the weight of heavy rains only to find the rainbow faded of the color the deluge promised. But as she well knows, when you’re called to duty, you must stay with it until you’ve been told you’re through.
“This comes by way of a call from the elders,” she says. “I grew up in Austin. And so I know better than to go into a state of argument with the elders. I just go when and where, and it’s been like that ever since. As somebody who did a lot of my pivotal growing up on the East Side, it’s a calling. I will leave when I’m released to leave.”
Since 2013, this has been the mission of Six Square, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose call to action is to preserve the true history of this city. The idea for the organization arose during the city of Austin’s African American Quality of Life Initiative. A group of Austin’s Black residents called for the creation of a cultural and heritage district to protect and preserve the history of the city’s Black population. The ultimate goal was to create an economic engine to fuel the preservation of arts and culture and promulgate current and future guardians of the culture: artists, historians and preservationists. The organization represents the first cultural heritage district in the state of Texas. It has often been draining work, with nearly 10 years of pouring from a well to nourish the community around it.
Of course, this isn’t so new to the Black folx of Austin. Much has been given: music, food, education. Much, still, has been taken away. On March 22, 1928, the council of the City of Austin adopted a “Master Plan” that would push all of Austin’s Black population into a six-square-mile area of of the city “just east of East Avenue and south of the City Cemetery,” a means to ensure that Black and Hispanic Austinites were no longer a white problem.
Nearly 95 years later, racial segregation has a different look. No, it’s not overt (and certainly not legal). However, after almost a century, it still remains a difficult truth for this city to accept. There are two Austins: one that hangs tight to the notion that it is progressive and one that knows better.
“Living in a city that thinks it’s progressive is harder to me than [living in]a city that thinks it’s conservative,” Owens admits. “In a progressive city, or perceived progressive, there’s always the skewing of allyship. I don’t want more allyship; I want you to throw your entire body into standing in the gap and leveraging your privilege in ways that create paradigm shifts.”
Thus, the creation of Six Square. According to its mission, the organization was established “to preserve and celebrate the cultural legacy of the African American community that once thrived in Central East Austin through cultural arts, education, economic development and historic preservation.” Though known for its arts, Six Square is and always has been more than a foundation for artistic endeavors. Yes, we as a people have been blessed with an ability to tell our stories through art, through music, through writing. But, as has become something of a rallying cry for the community, Black people are not and never have been a monolith. Nor are the organizations, institutions and brother and sisterhoods that we build.
“People always say to me, ‘You’re Austin’s Black Cultural Arts District.’ I’m like, ‘I know you hear “arts,” but we are literally the preservers of culture.’ That comes from education, economic development, preservation. Nobody talks about that. We’re not doing art shows. Our body of work is preserving, removing obstacles, uplifting, creating paths for Black people. We go way beyond the canvas and way beyond the Six Square.”
With the need to preserve an entire population’s history and legacy, working with those in the city is paramount. This is where those not-so-ancient seeds of segregation crop up most prevalently in Owens’ experience.
“It is daunting and exhausting,” she admits. “We’re in a city that thinks we are progressive because we do equality pretty well, but we don’t do equity well at all. I was in a meeting last year about arts funding with the city and some of my sister legacy organizations who are white led. They were like, ‘But we love everybody; we have a Black janitor.’ I’m sitting there, and I’m like, ‘This is my seventh teachable moment meeting today.’
“I’m in that space a lot, and I just finally said, ‘I appreciate what you think you are doing, but equity looks a little different.’ This round of funding, you might not get funding, because for 30 years, you’ve gotten the top level of funding, and we’re just trying to get a little more; we’re not trying to take all your money. You’re on a call crying about you’re not going to be able to sustain yourself. Your donor base and my donor base look different. Your abilities to secure money and my abilities to secure money are different. I know that to be the case because I have raised money, both on the west side of 35 on golf courses, and on the east side. It’s still hard for a Black female leader.”
It’s unsurprising that this is a Black woman’s work. Activism, in all its many forms, has always been Black woman’s work. Owens is no exception to this rule and has emptied her well time and again to ensure that this organization continues to pour into its community. The community knows this and responds in kind.
Terry Mitchell, co-founder of the Black Leaders Collective, and new co-owner of Austin Woman magazine, fully embraces not only Six Square’s impact on her, but on the community she calls home. “Six Square has stood in the gap for grassroots community leaders in need of fiscal sponsorship, has sponsored numerous social impact events and initiatives, as well as created capacity-building opportunities for the creative community,” she says. “They are rigorously working to preserve and archive the history of Black Austin. Where the city has fallen short in lifting Black people of Austin, Six Square is filling the void.”
Even days when the rainbow should suffice, when it’s at its brightest, Six Square and its CEO have been overshadowed by ugliness. In 2021, Juneteenth was officially named a federally recognized holiday. It was another reason to celebrate resilience in a society that still has a hard time reconciling Black people’s existence. Unsurprisingly, the official decree gave many corporations carte blanche to commodify the day, attempting to pander to Black folx with novelty ice creams and decorations.
“This has been unpopular sometimes even with my board of directors, but we will not honor that with partnership,” Owens says. “I turned down organizations and donors who sat in the space of performative inclusion. It became not all money is good at money, and not all support is good support. Some days it was hard,” she admits with a chuckle. “Sometimes it physically hurt. Like I’m saying no; I’d be writing the email [thinking], ‘This is dumb, what am I doing?’ But we are going to be true to our identity around how we expect those entities and organizations to behave.”
Under Owens’ leadership, Six Square’s work now becomes fighting against structures that use pacification as a substitute for progress.
“We’ve had people that came to us and said, ‘We want to help you, we know your work is important. In order for us to do this event, we need this from you.’ It would be stuff like free labor, or creating representation on a panel so that they looked better. We absolutely could not. You have to lean into not just your personal identity, but your organizational identity, navigating the cost you can live with. I got really good at navigating the cost that I can live with, because I learned that the right partnerships will come. People who understand it will come. That’s hard in a capitalist environment.”
The 2020 celebration of Juneteenth became a particularly sharp point of ire for Six Square. While holding its annual celebration, intel came to them revealing that the Austin Police Department’s Austin Regional Intelligence Center had the event under surveillance, claiming concern that the celebration was in fact a gathering to organize those attending to start a riot.
“Here we are in meetings every day, trying to figure out how to lift programming virtually to support our people,” Owens recalls. “We’re doing mental health sessions, yoga. We are deploying entities to get people insulin and groceries and rental assistance. I have never felt that level of violation in my career. As I came off of that, I said, ‘Let us figure it out.’ We decided on a written response, which is what we did.
“They surveilled our yoga?” she says, the memory making the words sour in her mouth. “You want to know what tipped them, what created the issue? The title of our programming was ‘Black Minds Matter.’ That tipped them off that we were mobilizing to do some violent stuff. I’m out here [delivering]these artists groceries. We got funding, and we deployed about $101,000 the first year. One of our pillars is economic development. One of our pillars is education. You can’t paint if you’re hungry, can’t make music if you don’t know where your insulin is coming from. You can’t do your craft if you don’t have insurance. We are on a mission, and the mission right now is to make sure that Black artists, creators and entrepreneurs don’t leave the city.”
Echoes of COINTELPRO, a dark shadow of insecurity and unsafety, cast over an event meant to uplift and unite our community. “I’m not sure if people really realize the complexity of leading while Black,” Owens laments. “The weight of that situation really did a job on me. There are pockets of the city that I still don’t feel particularly safe in. But that situation made me feel like they walk among us, unsafe. Like you could actually be fronting as an ally and not be that.”
Yet despite these hardships, despite the toils of preserving the true history of Black folx in Austin, Six Square stands tall and has since its creation in 2013. It has seen the leadership of incredible, powerful Black women, including Austin Woman’s CEO Shuronda Robinson. Owens herself has been involved with Six Square for eight of those years in one capacity or another. In 2022, she took on the role of CEO, a fitting title for someone who’s done so much to order her steps in this organization’s vision. Her work has had a ripple effect across Austin.
“The reconnection that has been the most bountiful and heartfelt relationship with Six Square was under Pamela Benson Owens,” says Qi Dada, one half of revolutionary hip-hop duo Riders Against the Storm. “So many endeavors artistically have been able to make an impact in the community that broadened the palate of what Black art is in Austin. [Six Square] has heightened possibilities and provided a comfort as an artist to know that there is a space that is a backbone and not a deterrent.”
There has been great triumph even in the wake of some horrible racism. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Owens managed to keep her employees fed, as well as families all over Austin. She has taken Six Square to the next level and will continue to do so in 2023. Those who have been directly impacted by Six Square know firsthand the need for this organization, what it means to the community and how it will continue to support the legacy of Austin’s Black and Brown population.
“I anticipate Six Square to grow its community outreach,” Mitchell says. “I’m sure they will help to lift even more creatives. I anticipate that Six Square will continue to find creative and interactive ways to preserve and archive Black history in Austin.”
Qi Dada shares this view of Six Square’s future. “My hope in moving forward is that that relationship continues and expands into spaces we haven’t reached yet, organizations we haven’t touched yet,” she says. “That our commitment to art is always multifold, that it’s not just about supporting the artist but primarily that the artist can also attach themselves to a need in the community.”
No, the ancestors are not done with Pamela Benson Owens. And Six Square isn’t done keeping the legacy of Black folx alive, well and thriving in Austin.
“[Our future] looks like a keen focus on going after systems that erode and omit our people. Uplifting, supporting and removing obstacles for artists, creatives and entrepreneurs in a way that opens up access to all opportunities for them to work and be and do. Your art should be at Tesla; your art should be at Dell. Why is your art not in the airport? For everybody that wants to start a business, [create]paths that support that.
Finally, continuing to cultivate cross-cultural collaborations in a way that when we go into spaces, like Paramount, and Long Center, and Mexic-Arte and The Contemporary, that we are not guests. We are also looking at how to build Six Square’s infrastructure, even down to an endowment, so that it lives beyond this. Six Square is not Pam Owens, and it’s not the current people. [We’re going to work out] how to build it in a way that sustains in perpetuity.”