Raasin in the Sun Founder Raasin McIntosh envisions an authentic and united Austin.
By Stacey Ingram Kaleh, Photos by Romina Olson; Styling by Parke Ballantine with Inspiration from Charm School Vintage, Farm Rio, Neiman Marcus and Gusto Graphic Tees; Makeup by Alexandria Anderson; Hair by B. Sampson, Individually Twisted Braids & Beauty; Shot on location at Walls Unite
Immediately upon meeting Raasin McIntosh, you feel her energy and enthusiasm. Positive, kind and driven, she exudes an optimism as vibrant as the murals she helps produce to brighten up our community.
Many may know McIntosh for her career in the global arena as an Olympic hurdler. But today, she is focused on her future and what she can do to shape the future of her community. Dynamic and multifaceted, she’s a nonprofit CEO, entrepreneur, creative, advocate and public servant. And she’s only just getting started.
Ever since a track scholarship to the University of Texas brought her to Austin in 2000, McIntosh has called the city home. She currently resides in East Austin, the community her nonprofit, Raasin in the Sun, serves.
McIntosh founded the organization to help inspire, restore and unite the East Austin community by supporting arts and culture, fueling opportunities for local creatives and organizing neighborhood cleanups. It’s all part of spreading the light and making the community a little bit brighter each day. She describes this fittingly as “light work,” work that’s going to help others.
“Life is about what you can give,” McIntosh states with raw sincerity. “The more you give, the more the universe puts you in a position to receive so that you can give more. You receive so you can give out and give back.”
With seemingly boundless drive and creativity, McIntosh considers herself to be solutions oriented. She’s addressing the needs of Austin’s ever-growing community. Aiming to unite where there are divides and preserve authenticity when it is increasingly threatened. Her work doesn’t stop at the neighborhood level. McIntosh also works for the Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation as director of Parks and Placemaking, overseeing programming for Republic Square Park, among other sites. Adding another leadership role to her already extensive resume, she recently co-founded video production company Be the Change Studios with her business partner, Kris San.
McIntosh has found a powerful alignment of purpose, passion and mission as a storyteller. In fact, all of her current endeavors seem to share this common thread, weaving the community together and creating connection through storytelling. Her goal: keep Austin authentically Austin.
“Austin’s authenticity is everything that makes Austin unique. It’s our job as citizens to champion that uniqueness on all levels,” says McIntosh. She believes the people of Austin can protect the city’s authenticity as it grows by supporting the arts in their many forms. Making space for creatives and taking good care of Austin’s green spaces, the places people gather together. McIntosh wants the Austin of the future to still be the city where folks love to have casual conversations with their neighbors, eat tacos and listen to Willie Nelson, support grassroots organizations and mom-and-pop shops, enjoy locally organized events in green spaces and advocate for the things that make Austin the place its residents take pride in.
McIntosh envisions an Austin that stays true to itself. And she is going to do everything she can to make sure that happens.
Designing Her Journey: From Olympic Athlete to Nonprofit Ceo
Raasin McIntosh grew up in Houston, part of a tight-knit family with five siblings—one brother and four sisters—and humble means. She calls the home they grew up in loving and lively. Her siblings have cheered her on throughout her life and various ventures. For instance, her brother currently serves on the board of directors for Raasin in the Sun. But she’s been most influenced by her dad, who is an artist. He inspires her to bring creativity to everything she does. “Growing up, he was always encouraging me to get into the arts,” McIntosh says of her dad. “Not necessarily the visual arts, but music and anything I could use as a platform to create things he encouraged me to pursue.” So, she’s not surprised that when it came time for her to start a new chapter beyond track, she ended up in the arts and culture arena.
Alongside being raised in the church, track and athletics were a significant part of McIntosh’s childhood. Having known McIntosh since she was in seventh grade, her former track and field coach and mentor Rose Brimmer calls her “bold, beautiful and brilliant. She is a go-getter as an entrepreneur working to make things happen. She views the community as bigger than herself and will always be a contributor to a good cause.”
These qualities are evident in the way McIntosh moves through the community today. She’s purposefully charting her own course, or “journey,” as she would call it, through life. McIntosh credits Brimmer with helping her get to a place and platform where she could “be and do anything I wanted to achieve.”
McIntosh’s experience as a student athlete at UT Austin was also formative. After winning multiple state track championships in high school as a hurdler, McIntosh received an athletic scholarship and joined the Texas Longhorns track and field team. McIntosh says her time at the university empowered her to go out and change the world. “UT taught me the importance of community. Getting out past the Forty Acres and understanding how acts of service can really impact the community around a school and empower a city.”
She tells a story about one memorable experience. When the track team volunteered as part of an effort to clean up 12th and Chicon Streets in East Austin, introducing her to the needs of her future neighborhood.
Unity is something McIntosh speaks of with great urgency and enthusiasm. While it’s one promise of Raasin in the Sun’s mission, it also seems like a personal philosophy. “There are so many divisive energies around us. But I believe that the power is in unity,” McIntosh remarks. “Separation and division slow us down as a society. I truly believe the power is in folks coming together.”
As an Olympian (she competed in the women’s 400-meter hurdles for Liberia at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London), McIntosh had a chance to experience firsthand what it’s like for the world to come together peacefully. Through her travels, especially interactions with young people in Africa and Europe, she gained a unique perspective on what community means and how different people in countries across the world model unity and service.
“My travels from track and experience at that global stage absolutely impacted my perspective,” McIntosh says. “They lit a fire under me. It was like, ‘Here’s the world and here you are, and this is your time for impact. You have to start now.’”
After finding success as a collegiate and Olympic athlete, McIntosh was ready to make a move, carrying what she learned from her experiences on the track—teamwork, leadership and how the two work together—and her unmatched drive with her into her next endeavors. When McIntosh began her next journey, she initially became a high school teacher, teaching English as a Second Language. Thanks to her experiences abroad, she felt at ease interacting with international students. While she enjoyed helping her students, her heart led her to make more space for creativity in her life and, in turn, to create more space for artists of all kinds in Austin.
A Source of Light and Connection
When McIntosh founded Raasin in the Sun in 2015, she chose to give back to East Austin in part because it is the place she calls home. However, for her, it also represents every “east side” of every city or urban community—any place where a community has been divided.
“There’s a side in every city that is associated with separation, poverty, environmental justice issues, crime and a lack of resources,” she says. “The east side here needs every bit of uniting, restoration and inspiration. The community here is rapidly changing. There’s a huge surge in development. The communities that were here before have now been pushed out. New people are moving in and the divide is stronger than ever. It’s the perfect time for us to start a solutions-based organization to combat that divide—to help heal, provide beautification and mural arts to tell stories and uplift, to help provide developers with a platform to give back to the community and invite community residents to the table.”
Raasin in the Sun is focused on placemaking (for example, activating vacant lots with inspirational programming) and beautification, including funding murals, organizing cleanups and planting community gardens. You can see the organization’s impact all over East Austin, from The Resilience Project—murals depicting 14 African American trailblazers through a hyperlocal lens, stenciled by artist Niz—to The Pillars Project—an effort to transform each pillar under the Pleasant Valley Bridge into its own work of art—to Project Green, which has planted trees and gardens at locations like Ortega Elementary.
For McIntosh, the “beautification” aspect of these projects goes beyond aesthetics. “To me, beautifying has a lot to do with environment. It’s looking at a neglected space or space that needs sprucing and bringing the community together through the process of intentionally working on that space, cleaning it up, planting trees, creating mural art.” Each mural or program Raasin in the Sun produces helps communicate the history of its place and the people who have laid the foundation for us today. It tells a story meant to help us connect with one another.
McIntosh wants Raasin in the Sun to serve everyone, broadly defining the meaning of community. “When I think about the word ‘community,’ I think of all-encompassing,” she says. “Everybody at the table. No matter the color you are, the job that you have, the status, the ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation…everybody has a seat at the table. That being said, I created Raasin in the Sun for the community.” She hopes that everyone who gets involved with the organization’s programs also takes something away they can share and replicate in their daily lives. “Pruning, powerwashing, painting, picking up trash—there are so many things that you can do immediately to restore an environment, to restore a friend or a neighbor’s space.” She emphasizes that anybody can take action to help at any time.
With every fiber of her being, McIntosh commits to leading the community toward a brighter future, knowing when to get out front to set an example and when to get hands-on in the daily grind of the work. “Raasin is a creative and kind soul,” says Pamela Benson Owens, CEO of Six Square, Austin’s Black Cultural Arts District. “She is so committed to our community and everything she touches turns to gold! What I admire most about Raasin is [that]she is a ‘first to show up and last to leave’ leader.”
As Raasin in the Sun grows, McIntosh plans to increase programming alongside a strong board of directors and hopes to acquire a warehouse for mural and cleanup equipment as well as a space for artists to gather. McIntosh is motivated by addressing the community’s needs as Austin continues to rapidly grow, making sure the city stays vibrant and supports the arts.
Building an Authentic Austin
During the week, you can also catch McIntosh at her other full-time at the Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation. There, she works closely with Executive Director Molly Alexander to ignite downtown through the arts and creative spaces that capture the spirit of Austin, by and for everyone. “Raasin loves to build teams, utilizes everyone’s strengths and is intentionally inclusive to her core,” says Alexander. “Her spirit is infectious; her life’s work has meaning, and she uplifts those around her. She is positive, funny, and she lights up a room with her passion.”
McIntosh sees her work at the Downtown Austin Alliance Foundation as a natural complement to her work with Raasin in the Sun, extending her work to address community needs into downtown. “The mission for Raasin in the Sun helped me get the opportunity for Downtown Austin Alliance. We know there’s rapid change happening, so we need stewards of parks to keep green spaces alive and vibrant. We need to keep and restore empty storefronts and void spaces. There’s opportunity and canvas to keep Downtown Austin alive through what has made and is making Austin authentic, and that is the arts and the culture.”
Although she is ever the optimist, McIntosh does express concern for the direction Austin is headed. “I’m scared about the future of the city, and I’m here to change that,” she says. “We need to create space to help artists, nonprofit organizations and creatives thrive. I’d love to see our city as a mural arts city. I see every space as a canvas to tell a story or to employ a creative. I see music on every corner. If a space is vacant, let it sit vacant, even for a day. If you’re a developer, work with artist residencies and create space for art, even if temporarily. Because it will benefit us all. Arts and culture are the heartbeat of Austin.”
So, what does an authentic Austin look like, and how can the Austin community help sustain the city’s authenticity? “Authenticity is our identity. We are proud of the Austin we come from, and we should make strides to preserve it and incorporate new things. We’re behind right now,” she warns.
“We need to have things put in place for people to access and be able to learn about the culture and the city and about what Austin is, who it is, and about different folks that have made it what it is. Before it slips away, we have to preserve the authenticity. What does that mean? It means there are certain structures that need to be preserved. Making space for a community of thriving creatives, strengthening our live music industry, supporting and making sure grassroots and arts and culture organizations can continue to do the work they are doing. It means our local communities and mom and pop’s still have space and are able to thrive and employ.”
With so much work, McIntosh’s role could easily seem daunting. However, she finds hope and energy by taking action, serving as an example everyone could all follow.
The Power of Story
What’s our story? How do we uncover our most authentic selves and authentic identity as a city? McIntosh constantly explores these questions.
“I’m a storyteller. It’s the core of what I do and it comes very naturally to me,” McIntosh says. She has long documented her projects and activities through video. It’s important to her that, even when a project is done, there’s an opportunity to go back and reference it. To build and learn from it. “No matter if the project is temporary, the story lasts forever.”
Stories that live on create a lasting impact. “To me, stories have the ability to live through generations. And, I believe, with this new generation and the storytelling platform online, even if young folks can’t be there in person, they can see it, and feel it, and be a part of it somehow,” she explains “Another aspect of why storytelling is so powerful to me is that I think of somebody who’s not able to tell their story—whether they’ve passed on or just are not able to—having the opportunity to share that person’s story, to give that gift to put their story out there, that to me is very powerful and the reason why I put storytelling into everything.
“We have to be accountable for the delivery of the story and giving voice to the voiceless.” McIntosh believes when we hear each other’s stories, it can foster compassion. For her, the power of story is that it connects.
When we learn our neighbors’ stories and the ancestors who made Austin the beloved city it is today, we identify a little piece of ourselves as we better understand others, and realize we’re all in this together.
“Stories transform. They heal. They set free. The person whose story it is, if told with truth, it really uplifts the individual and the person hearing the story.”
Embracing Boundless Optimism
McIntosh finds beauty and story everywhere and encourages her fellow Austinites to also see the bright side of things. She’s in the business of creating inspiration. That begs the question: From where does she pull her own inspiration? “There’s been something in me since I was very young. I feel there’s this ancestral tie. This invisible force or covering of love around me that I feel every day,” she shares. “My energy comes from within, by channeling, meditating and focusing in on the mission and this unbelievable overflow of love that I feel every single day. It’s like there’s this cup that’s ever flowing, and I’m able to tap into that to keep that energy. I don’t expect to lose that energy until it’s time for me to go to the next place, out of this world.”
Her effervescent personality and positivity rub off on everyone she engages. McIntosh is full of inspirational mantras and joy-filled nuggets of wisdom that she generously pours out. “Every day you have a brand-new slate, a brand-new canvas, to be who you want to be.”
How is McIntosh seemingly always able to focus on the bright side? She leaves us with another piece of wisdom: “Beauty is everywhere and in everything. Light is everywhere and in everything. If you open your eyes consciously, the universe will present something to you that provides that moment of clarity on the next step in your journey. It comes down to opening up to receive what is out there for you. It’s just a matter of time, just a little bit of traffic before we get there.”