Six Square CEO Pamela Benson Owens wants Austin to feel like home for everyone who lives here.
By Pamela Benson Owens, Photo by Korey Howell
I’ve been in Austin since I was a kid. We landed here when my father was relocated for a job. When we arrived, we lived in a hotel on what was then known as Town Lake until we found a house. I cannot claim to be a unicorn (a native Austinite). What I can say is that from the moment I arrived, I loved Austin. From having braces on my teeth to babies on my hip, this city has been my home base for over three decades.
My appreciation and ongoing love affair with Austin spans from the Paramount Theater on Congress, to the streets of East Austin and all the way out to the suburbs of Round Rock. Each of those areas of town where my formative and growing years occurred.
Know Your City
I grew up in a household with two parents who firmly believed that you cannot be a productive citizen in a city you don’t know. This perspective was the foundation for how we navigated partaking in activities, festivals, community-service projects, plays, library visits, walking the lake, learning the history, taking tours and learning about the importance of giving back and being a part of something bigger than ourselves. My brother and I benefited from parents who made sure we immersed ourselves in what has ended up being our forever city.
This approach always made me curious about this city. In high school I truly tried to hold out as long as I could before sneaking down to Sixth Street. (The one location forbidden in our household) to see what it was all about.)
I remember walking down Sixth Street in complete wonder and awe. The lights were mesmerizing, the music intoxicating and the people-watching legendary…right up until I got caught! That decision cost me my 16th birthday party, but to this day I don’t regret it. It confirmed for me what I had always thought in my youth. Austin is a multifaceted and unique place to live.
It was a different time then. Austin was a big city that still felt small in a lot of ways. Today, Austin has grown beyond imagination, and with that growth has come some good things as well as some challenges.
Now that I’m an adult, I am so grateful for the seeds my parents planted about the importance of knowing your city and being actively involved in making it better. As a Black female entrepreneur and CEO of Six Square, Austin’s Black Cultural Arts District, if I hadn’t had that pivotal perspective from my parents, I could have easily become a fair-weather fan of Austin.
The last several years have challenged me to draw on the same wonder and awe I felt the night I stepped onto Sixth Street for the very first time. The truth is, the city I have loved for decades hasn’t always loved me or Black people very well. Oh, Austin, how I love you. But there have been times when I wanted to break up.
I encounter so many people who haven’t taken the time to learn the city or its history. Who believe Austin’s story only started when they arrived. Those who simply haven’t stopped long enough to get curious about why there is such visible disparity. Why a highway was built that divides the city from east to west. Or how the residue from the 1928 Master Plan (a plan that placed Black citizens within six square miles on the east side of town with minimal resources) still perpetuates itself in inequitable ways.
“Austin is my forever home.”
So often this history has broken my heart. But it’s also opened my eyes. It would be easy to get mad (which is absolutely justified) or leave this city behind. Instead I remain here with a commitment to emulate what I’ve seen from so many others who have come before me. Including my own parents.
As a child I marched at the Capitol with my mom and sat in the back of the room watching my father lead meetings at the Urban League. Their strategy has always been to know the city and work to make needed changes, create awareness, remove obstacles, build a legacy and make the community better for all.
So that’s what I will continue to do. There is no doubt that this city will continue to change, but one thing is for sure. The seeds my parents planted never will. Austin is my forever home, and I want it to feel like home to all who come here too.