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Awakin Calls » Gwen Austin

Gwen Austin: Community Builder & Social Justice Advocate
Jun 20, 2015: Deepening Our Understanding of the Homeless



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Gwen Austin is a community builder and social justice advocate with Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), an organization in Berkeley, California that helps homeless and disabled people achieve health and self-sufficiency, as well as fights the root causes of poverty and homelessness.  ‚ÄčThe organization was founded in 1971 by a group of volunteers who responded to the needs of mentally ill individuals being released to the streets by state hospital closures.  Today BOSS is an award-winning organization that helps people who are facing deep poverty and multiple special needs.  BOSS works one-on-one with each family and each individual to help them achieve stable income, permanent affordable housing, and lasting wellness.  Its programs include emergency See full.
Gwen Austin is a community builder and social justice advocate with Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), an organization in Berkeley, California that helps homeless and disabled people achieve health and self-sufficiency, as well as fights the root causes of poverty and homelessness.  ‚ÄčThe organization was founded in 1971 by a group of volunteers who responded to the needs of mentally ill individuals being released to the streets by state hospital closures.  Today BOSS is an award-winning organization that helps people who are facing deep poverty and multiple special needs.  BOSS works one-on-one with each family and each individual to help them achieve stable income, permanent affordable housing, and lasting wellness.  Its programs include emergency shelters, transitional houses, education and employment programs, family and child development services, health and mental health care programs, leadership development and organizing initiatives, re-entry initiatives, and more.

Gwen's commitment to community service did not begin in social justice-related matters, but rather traversed a different journey.  She began her career working for Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies in management roles.  "As it would happen," she recounts, "I was laid off from a job where I then went on a discovery journey for what the next part of my life would be.  After about five years at various companies, I decided to return to college to finish getting my degree in teaching.  But of course, I ended up getting entirely different degrees."

She considers herself an unabashed optimist, and believes in "trusting the process" because "life has a way of transforming you for the better," and so she urges that "you shouldn't be afraid of sharing yourself with others."

Gwen received a BA in justice studies from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, Illinois, where she was the recipient of the university's 2007 Social Justice Award.  She received her master's degree in Criminal/Social Justice from Lewis University in Romeoville, Illinois outside Chicago.


Five Questions for Gwen

What Makes You Come Alive?
I've always wanted to be a teacher (since kindergarten) and there is a part of my job where I teach a social justice class to adults who are currently experiencing homeless, I come alive knowing that I'm helping to elevate their level of knowledge about social change, policy, their rights, and justice overall. I also love working with young people. I returned to college after being away for a while (marriage/family) to finalize getting a degree in teaching (high school/English), and had done my required hours and taken the test to be certified, when I took an intro class to social justice to fulfill credit hours and I was stirred in a way I hadn't been prior so I changed my major to justice studies. It was the beginning of my journey to truly make a difference and to try to help people through policy and the law. From there I went onto get an advance degree.

Your Greatest Inspiration?
Wow! There are many; from childhood, young adult and now older adult. I'm going to say a turning point in my life is when I fully understood my mother's pains and ultimately decisions, who my sisters and I were estranged from. She hurt, and instead of getting the help she needed, she hurt others (her children in particular). When I finally got this, it was as if my life began to fill with the possibilities that had held me back for far too long. I took on her pain and ignored me until I was forced to face it through failed relationships. She was my achilles' heels for a long time and all I ever wanted was her love that she was incapable of giving. She, in a very serendipitous way led me to do the work I do where mothers are challenged by their poor choices. I help all, but I'm particularly helpful to mothers and their children. Giving them the encouragement, support, and love they need when I see them struggling to fully open their hearts and minds to love through the pain.

An Act of Kindness You'll Never Forget?
There are so many but my motto is: everyday I leave my house,I am kind to at least one person. From helping people with their bags, to helping someone across the street, to saying a kind word to someone; I've even given money to people; but one that happened recently was a blind woman who was standing frozen, fully upset, that the escalator she uses everyday to take the train is out of service. As I began to walk by, with all my bags from a recent class I just taught, I noticed people just looking at her and not responding to her. God moved me to help her. I approached her to ask how could I help her get downstairs to the train, she responded very angrily and said if I wanted to help her for me to go downstairs to get someone to reverse the other escalator that was coming up to go down. So what did I do? I walked to the otherside where the stairs were, went downstairs, and told the person about her upstairs and they said they couldn't do anything. So I go back upstairs to tell her and now she's even madder. So I say to her, I could walk her across the street where the elevator is and at first she said no. I kept talking to her and she (never once thankful that I was trying to help her) but saying how I should go to one of the Board's transportation meetings to tell them about this. My response to her was that I do attend those meetings as an advocate for transportation justice and I will relay your message. I told her I would hate for her to continue standing here and that I would be more than happy to get her downstairs and she relunctantly took my arm and we walked to the elevator. As we walked, she said you don't know how I feel right now, and I responded that I didn't. I got her downstairs and the station attendant met us at the turnstyle where she went through and didn't want any help from anyone. That moment heightened my awareness of people with physical disabilities and society's (I don't think intentional) ways of not addressing the needs to help everyone and not just some. Being a social justice advocate, I have added ableism to my list of justice-related issues.

One Thing On Your Bucket List?
I'd like to purchase a home for my sisters and myself so we could be together/nearby. Family is so important to me.

One-line Message for the World?
God is Love and Love is God.


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