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Ashera Project Collaborating with the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce

Because Reagan High School's student body is 97% minority enrolled, we at the Ashera Project have many goals in common with the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce, which has been empowering Austin residents for 25 years. Both organizations provide programs, resources, and expertise to help Central Texans meet their high potentials through economic success and community service. We are working together through:

  • recruiting members, mentors, and leaders throughout our networks;
  • posting internships and job opportunities;
  • reciprocal event marketing, and
  • expertise & resource sharing;

Just how do the aims of Ashera Project and the Capital City African American Chamber align?

Ashera Shares sat down with Ms. Dinita Caldwell, Training and Outreach Manager at the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce (CCAACC or "Capital City Chamber") on June 7th, 2007 to find out more about the Chamber's work, examine common issues and solutions, and envision our community's future.

Ashera Shares: How would you describe the role of the Capital City Chamber in Austin?
Ms. Caldwell: One primary role is providing convention and tourism services, helping African American family reunions, churches, and other organizations connect to Austin, negotiate hotel rates, arrange city tours and more. Another piece is fostering economic development for small businesses, helping them be competitive with training and networking, really use the Chamber as a springboard for marketing and growth. And third, we encourage our members to get a seat at the table, and emphasize the importance of serving on community boards, getting to know the community, supporting it, knowing what's going on and what decisions are being made - and how to really participate in those decisions. It's the difference between being proactive and reactive.

Q: What would the benefits be for a high-school age student to join the CCAACC?
A: We've just created a student membership level to connect with students and start early. If you have a desire or dream to be a business owner, you can meet people and learn how the business community works, get a better idea of how execute on a plan and bring it to fruition. A high-school student might really benefit from just talking to business people, perhaps helping coordinate a larger luncheon or event, and get real-world experience with marketing, contacting members, and customer service.
Editor's note: CCAACC Membership and Tourism Manager Arron Brooks has offered to poll Chamber members about offering student memberships *free of charge* to Ashera Project students, many of whom are on the reduced-price or free lunch program and might find the fee a hardship. Now *that's* a real-world leg up!

Q: The proportion of Texas residents without high school diplomas is expected to rise 11 percentage points to 30% by 2040. Can you help describe what that could mean for Austin's economy and quality of life?
Education is key to the Austin community's quality of life, as well as one of the main components of the African American Quality of Life Initiative here. It is vital for people to have a diploma if they want to compete, effectively run a business, etc. Our goal is to provide resources here for the community, and help educate parents on the importance of maintaining a family's quality of life through education.

Q: For an individual, dropping out means living on an average $13,632 per year vs. an average $20,688 per year. What do you think is the best way to communicate this difference to a student considering not returning to school?
A: The most effective way is to have students see someone who has been there: provide a mini-forum and have them just talk, see what's happened. Either someone who's been there and successfully made a change, or someone who is struggling and advises them no to go down that path. A young person, not too far removed in age from the students, would be most effective. In my work with the Urban League's afterschool program, many participants were forced to be there due to truancy, etc. and they need to speak to someone who cares, someone who can say "we care about what happens to you" - then they really will listen.

Q: It has been estimated that, in Travis County specifically, white students drop out of school at a rate of just under 20%, while African American and Hispanic students drop out at rates of just over 40 and 50%, respectively. How would you describe the reasons for this difference?
I've been in Austin for five years, and I personally think from my community involvement that the role model is not there. Broken homes are a real problem for African Americans, and often parents are not educated. Their priority is to survive, get that next paycheck to feed the family. A lot of our young people are taking care of little siblings; that's a lot of responsibility and they think "I can go to school or leave and get a job and take care of my family." It's just not the top of the priority list for the household.

Q: The Ashera Project operates long-term, comprehensive pregnancy prevention programs at Austin's Reagan High School, where it's estimated that 97% of the student body are minorities, and 2 out of 3 students may leave without a diploma. How did you come to learn about the Ashera Project, how have you become involved, and how would you describe any impact you have seen Ashera making?
A: Shana Ginsberg [Ashera Project's Program Director] was referred to the Chamber, and we connected immediately. I came to present to the students about career fields that interested them; they'd been looking for an Accountant as well and I helped them locate one who also presented and in fact has continued mentoring an interested student. The students really enjoyed talking about the real world career experiences of people who look like them - if you see people who look like you, you know you can do it. It's an excellent program, a very valuable resource, and a good outlet for young people to do something positive, and learn what it takes to get there.

Q: If you were talking to a high school student and she told you honestly that motherhood looked like the best career option for her, what would you say?
I remember when I was in elementary school and the teacher asked us about our goals and one girl said "to have five kids"... I would tell the high school student that it's not a bad goal but needs to happen at the right time, which is different for everybody. But I'd encourage her to finish her education first, both high school and college. In their shoes, they are thinking "where do I get the money for that? There are many of us here to provide resources for her to secure financing for school. The responsibility that comes with being a parent is to fully provide for your children, and at that young age, you can't fully provide money, let alone provide knowledge to teach a child. You need to educate yourself. It's not bad to want to have kids, but you need to have things in place for you, fulfill your own goals for you, because once you have children, it's all about them.

Q: How would you respond to those who would urge the teaching of only abstinence in public schools, leaving to someone else topics like self-esteem, communication within relationships, contraceptives, etc.?
A: I would disagree with them. You need a well-balanced education. Abstinence is not realistic for children these days. We need to speak about abstinence but focus on prevention and protection. AIDS is real and it is killing the African American community. We need to be more realistic. Part of the reason they are being intimate early is because they don't have respect for themselves. If you have self-esteem and goals set out for yourself, having kids isn't at the top of your list. Trying to get that dream job is. That's important - that's huge: teach that and the abstinence will come.

Q: James W. Loewen, in his award-wining book "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Teacher Got Wrong", argues that when textbooks gloss over concepts core to our culture like racism or sexism, lessons become bland fact recitations, and students find them irrelevant to their lives. Even in last summer's "Leave or Die" series in the Statesman, a Georgia teacher explained that it's better to pretend she doesn't know what happened during the violent expulsion of her county's black population in 1912. Do you think young people benefit more from addressing controversies directly, or being shielded from conflicting or even shocking messages and information?
A: I think they do benefit from addressing controversies, but it needs to be done in the right way. You don't know what everyone's backgrounds are, what's going on in their lives. It's important to have counseling on hand if needed, the necessary professionals at your fingertips, to go that route if needed. I might be affected more than the next person; something might shoot me to the roof and I could get irate, I mean there could be molestation going on at home. But it's so important not to sugarcoat, because talking about it is the only way to heal it, the only way to make sure you don't repeat the same things over and over again.

Q: And finally, if you could be a state official for a month, what office would you select, and what would your top initiatives be?
A: I don't know which office would be best, but my top item would be a mentorship program. Several do exist, but a wide variety is needed and we should support all kinds: career mentors, educational mentors, STD and HIV/AIDS prevention mentors, and life coaches for people of all ages, especially young people. Everybody needs a mentor, even in professional life. But people don't know how to get one, and get the right one, the right type. That would be my top focus. Second would be a re-emphasis on education; it is key to economic empowerment. And stemming from that comes home ownership and building wealth in your community and passing that on. That is one thing we don't have: wealth to pass down, and we need to focus on that.

Many thanks to Ms. Caldwell and the Capital City African American Chamber of Commerce for their endless energy empowering Austin's future leaders!

We ask you to join us and make an impact on the lives of our community's young people...

We invite you to come lead with us by joining our Board of Directors, hosting an internship or job-shadowing opportunity, or volunteering at one of our special events. We also welcome your tax-deductible donations . Learn more about Ashera Project on our About page, and see frequently asked questions and answers.

Did you know the Chamber offers...

  1. A citywide calendar of meetings and events where public and private sector decisions are on the agenda?
  2. Opportunities to market your expertise and products/solutions through community workshops?
    • A recent "Access to Capital" workshop highlighted how to raise start-up costs and/or grow a business
  3. Inexpensive training classes for small business owners?
    Through a grant from the City of Austin's Small Business Development Program, the CCAACC offers "bizaid" educational classes like
    • Marketing
    • Business plan writing
    • Preparing financial statements
    • Cash flow management
    • Business taxation
    • all with three course levels, online registration, and just $25 tuition covering materials, parking, and FOOD?!!
PLUS great networking events and much, much more! Visit the Capital City Chamber online at www.capcitychamber.org.

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