Episode 26 – Transcending Cycles of Poverty

Natasha Harper-Madison from East Austin Advocates

Our guest today, Natasha Harper-Madison is the Founder of East Austin Advocates and currently running for Austin City Council District 1. While her life has taken a leap into the political sector, her journey began as an entrepreneur at just nineteen years old. From there she went on to found many other successful companies and philanthropic ventures, all the while, keeping her mission as her driving force. Natasha’s lifelong mission is to help transcend cycles of poverty through philanthropy. Natasha is a fighter and makes a point to live a life that leaves a legacy for her family and community.

Update: Natasha Harper-Madison is currently Mayor Pro-Tem, representing Austin City Council District 1.

Lisa Graham (00:00):
Hi, my name is Lisa Graham, and I’m excited to welcome you to today’s episode of Change The Rules. I have my co-host Dan Graham with me, and today we have Natasha Harper-Madison in the studio. Natasha is currently running for Austin City Council District One, where she plans to tackle issues of affordability, sustainability, healthcare, public service, and many more. Her career has included many incredible accomplishments as an entrepreneur, such as founding Natasha Madison Consultants, and most recently East Austin Advocates. Natasha, welcome to the podcast. We’re so happy to have you here.
Natasha Harper-Madison (00:32):
Awesome. I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me.
Lisa Graham (00:34):
I’d like to start out by talking a little bit about, um, I mean, you do have such a varied background as an entrepreneur, as an on the ground advocate in East Austin. I would love to hear what did that journey look like for you? And what was that transition like from being more in the corporate world to, okay, I really need to get more involved in my community? What did that journey look like?
Natasha Harper-Madison (00:58):
It’s been interesting. So I started my first business. It was called Harper Campbell Domestic Do-It-All. It was a housekeeping company. And I started a housekeeping company because I had a bit of OCD and I love to clean. And I had a professor tell me one time, if you can find something that you enjoy doing and get people to pay you money for it, you’re winning as an entrepreneur. And so I started a housekeeping company. And I was a terrible boss at 19. It was the worst ever. And so that was my first dip into entrepreneurship. And, so it was definitely how I realized what I would do next. You know, I knew that it was going to be another business of some sort as I transitioned out of that.
Natasha Harper-Madison (01:44):
But all that to say, I knew all along. I’ve always known what my why was. My why is transcending cycles of poverty. As a kid who grew up poor, you know, my circumstances were challenging. We went to more than half a dozen schools in Austin. We moved in the dark of night to avoid that eviction notice from the constable in the morning. And, you know, even as a kid, I realized there was something inherently wrong with that. I thought to myself, you know, this is the capital city. We live in the biggest state in the union. And there are kids who won’t eat tonight. I’m one of them, you know. And that just seemed wrong. So I always knew the why. I didn’t know the how. And so starting that first business, that was my introduction to the how. I realized I could start a business and make a bunch of money.
Natasha Harper-Madison (02:29):
That’s how I’m going to do it. I’m going to get rich. You know, I’m going to be a bad-a startup founder, and I’m going to get rich and I’m going to help people transcend cycles of poverty with philanthropy. And so that rolled into the next business. And then the next. And every experience was, you know, helping to sort of sharpen my skills, so to speak. And I got better and better at pitching. I got better and better at selling widgets and, you know, asking people for money. And I finally got somebody to hand me a check with a bunch of zeroes on it. And this was back in 2014. So we were supposed to launch this business on the 17th of September. And I was diagnosed with a late stage fast-growing breast cancer on the 14th of September. Needless to say, I gave that check back and got myself ready for the fight of my life.
Natasha Harper-Madison (03:19):
And you know, those first couple of doctor’s visits were just so strange and shocking. We have have four kids and they were younger at the time, obviously. And just thinking, I’m questioning my mortality at 36 and I’m questioning whether or not I have to tell my kids that I won’t be here to watch them grow up. And that was where the abrupt shift sort of happened. It was the time where I looked at myself and I gave myself my marching orders and they were, you’re going to live a life that’s purposeful. You’re going to live a life that’s authentic. You’re going to live a life that leaves a legacy these kids can be proud of. If I’m not going to be here to watch them grow up, by golly, they’re going to know that their mom was awesome and they’re going to be so proud to say what it was that I produced in the world. And I started from there, you know, with sort of my more socially conscious approach to transcending cycles of poverty. And that produced me getting in my little dusty Prius and driving around to some of the same project housing complexes I lived in as a kid and just asking people, what do you need? And it went from there. I’m proud to say that I have no evidence of disease since 2015 and just pushing forward full steam.
Lisa Graham (04:31):
Wow. That’s incredible. When you started, you know, when the shift happened and you said, you know, you started going into the neighborhoods, started going into areas of East Austin, what did you start to find? Were some of your assumptions proven, or were you learning new things? And what were some of the insights that you started to gather when you really started to talk to folks?
Natasha Harper-Madison (04:55):
Well, I’ll tell you a story. So the first person who let me in, you know, there were a lot of people who didn’t let me in at first. They wanted to know what I was looking for. What did I want? What’s your angle? And so the first person to let me in, she did so because there was a little old lady who remembered me, you know, from back in the eighties. And she says, I remember you, I know your mama. I said, oh yeah. You know, and so we just have a brief conversation. She goes, you used to get beat up over here. And I did. And she says, do you remember why? I said, I remember why, do you remember why? She said because she used to ride that skateboard and listen to that metal music. And so in the eighties, counterculture, you know, it was a thing that was still sort of difficult for me to be authentic self on the East side.
Natasha Harper-Madison (05:39):
You know, there was some sort of obligation to be what people expected from you. But her having said that, her validating me saying, “I do remember you” gave that first person the courage to ask me for help. And she handed me a piece of paper and it was from the Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for programs, food stamps, et cetera. And this notice basically said, if you miss this appointment on this day, at this time, your services will be suspended indefinitely. And so you’re talking about a lady with four kids, who’s been chronically homeless, who is already experiencing underemployment issues and food insecurity. The last thing she needed was to be food insecure again. And so, at the bottom of the page, it says, this is your caseworker and here’s her phone number.
Natasha Harper-Madison (06:30):
And so I called her up and I said, “Good afternoon. My name is Natasha Harper-Madison, and I’m representing so-and-so. And I’d like to know if we can reschedule this appointment. I don’t think she realized the implications of missing this appointment.” And she said, yes. I mean, in the three years that I’ve been doing work for East Austin Advocates, do you know, not one person has asked me for credentials, not one. And if, for no other reason, these people who are tasked with being the caseworkers for people who are already marginalized and struggling, they’re overworked, they’re underpaid. They have too many clients. And so I think they’re just happy to have somebody else advocating for this person. And so she says, yes, we can. Let’s reschedule the appointment. And then I said, also, I’m pretty sure she didn’t understand the implications of missing this appointment because she’s marginally literate. She couldn’t read this letter.
Natasha Harper-Madison (07:17):
Is there another way for you to contact clients? She said, yes. All we need to know is that they have a special request for communications. We can do a home visit. We can call instead. And so that was it. That was the way in. And that was also me coming to the distinct realization that so much of what people need to have happen, isn’t happening, because outreach is dismal and there aren’t enough advocates in the community. I hadn’t expected that it would be that easy. Just having a person who can advocate for people in the community and connect them to resources. I didn’t anticipate that. I’ve thought a lot of what I was going to be doing as East Austin Advocates was direct services, wraparound services. And then I realized that was entirely wrong. It was more about being a bridge than it was about being a pillar. So it’s interesting, yeah.
Lisa Graham (08:09):
That is interesting. And it sounds like the resources, at times, are available and they are flexible to help folks. But then how do the people who need the help and need help navigating the system find an advocate like you?
Natasha Harper-Madison (08:23):
Unfortunately, we have not done enough as a municipality to change that. And I have this idea. There’s an organization called Purpose-Built Communities. They address generational poverty by addressing all the things at once, you know. Poverty. Cyclical poverty. It’s 25 things getting tossed at you all at once. You know, so it’s not one thing at a time. So what they do is they converge upon multifamily complexes. They’re in Omaha, Atlanta, New Orleans, you know, it’s a Warren Buffett backed project. And so what they do is they go in and they fix up the apartment complex. They move everybody out and give you, you know, first right to return. And when they move everybody back in the apartments are sound and healthy. There’s no more asbestos, or lead, or mold, or whatever the thing was that made it, you know, really a wholly unhealthy place to live.
Natasha Harper-Madison (09:16):
They clean it up. They do new fixtures and new appliances and they bring everybody back in and then they address cyclical poverty by addressing workforce development, financial literacy, digital literacy. They do this thing where they call it “cradle to college education”. And so they’re talking really early childhood education all the way to college. They do savings match programs. They have all these programs that they deploy simultaneously to really help pull people out of poverty that otherwise, you’ll never transcend it if it’s five generations deep. And that to say they have what they call a community quarterback. I didn’t coin the term, but I like the concept of it. And I use it a lot. My idea is what if we had a community quarterback for every single zip code in the city of Austin. Somebody who can take a regular community needs assessment, figure out who’s in the most need, and how to address their issues.
Natasha Harper-Madison (10:10):
Are there organizations and services that are already available? So frequently, there are non-profit organizations that are fully funded and fully staffed, and can’t find the people that need their help the most and vice versa. The people who need their help the most can’t find them. I think we’re going to have to, as a city, just be more intentional about making that connection and being able to take a look at it from, you know, the city is more of a, it’s a business, right? It’s not all altruism. The city has a finite budget and they need to be able to prove, you know, the value of a thing. And I think when we take that concept to a spreadsheet and look at the numbers, we’ll see the savings and indigent care costs. And, you know, people having health disparities, it costs the city money. Not having access to transportation, being underemployed, not having good childcare, sending kids to school under-prepared. All those things cost the city money. If we could just deploy, you know, one person per community, maybe two people per community, we’d still be saving the city money and we’d be addressing those needs and getting people connected to the services that are already available that they need.
Lisa Graham (11:17):
So we talk about getting people connected to services, but you know, you’re currently running for office. What have you found in terms of civic participation in your district? And what is the turnout in your district? We talk about across the country, we have a problem. I think in Texas, we have a huge problem. In Austin, we have a huge problem in terms of voter turnout. What have you seen in your district and how do we start to combat this issue of people just not turning out to vote?
Natasha Harper-Madison (11:43):
I think we start by sort of really digging into the issue. So I think we put a lot of focus and energy in voter registration, but Travis County doesn’t have a voter registration problem. We have a people showing up to the polls and voting problem.
Lisa Graham (11:56):
So is that across the district or across the city?
Natasha Harper-Madison (12:00):
Yeah, for sure. I mean, if you look at the numbers, this is all public record. If you look at the numbers, D-1 is by far the lowest voter turnout district. And I think that’s for a lot of reasons, including sometimes civics is, you know, sort of inaccessible to people in positions of poverty. If they’re differently abled. If they’re elderly. You know, and there are ways around it. But again, like my concept with the community quarterback, if we don’t have people getting out and saying one, you got to do this. If you want to change things at a municipal level, you have to show up and vote at a municipal level. That means you’ve got to get all the way down to the bottom of that ballot. You know what I mean? But there’s a reason that people don’t. You know, if you don’t have the information readily available, if you don’t know exactly how to do it in a way that’s effective, then it’s intimidating. And I think a lot of people are intimidated by the process. So those of us who are civically engaged and active, it’s our responsibility and our duty to bring people along with us, including helping them to become more informed.
Lisa Graham (12:56):
What are those conversations that you have in your district in terms of getting people down to the bottom of the ballot? What are the issues that are important to talk about that resonate with individuals? That get them excited? That get them passionate? What have you found during this campaign, or just living in your district and being active there for the last several years?
Natasha Harper-Madison (13:15):
A couple of things. I say, keep it positive. You know, saying, hey, well, if you don’t like how the federal leadership is deploying agencies, then you got to go vote. I don’t think that helps. I also don’t think it helps to approach it with this sort of air of condescension. Like, you know, people don’t want to be taught per se. They want to be included, you know, and that’s been my approach. And just really talking about the implications of some of these offices on your life. You know, make it resonate with people because it actually affects the roads you drive on, the home you’re able to live in, the school your kid go to. I think, just making it personal.
Lisa Graham (13:56):
And what have you, I was asking you this earlier before we started recording and I’d love to talk about it while we are recording. But, you know, with your background as an entrepreneur and as an advocate in the community, connecting folks to the government, how has that affected how you’re campaigning? Do you feel you’re doing things differently? And what do you feel you’re doing differently than maybe other candidates who don’t have that experience or background?
Natasha Harper-Madison (14:19):
I’m definitely talking to, I mean, and this happens to be my favorite part. This is the part that I could do all day is talking to constituents. I love getting out in the community and talking to people and asking them what their concerns are and having them be really candid and telling me what they are. That’s definitely one of the things that I think is affected or influenced by my background with asking people, what is it that you need? And so I really appreciate being able to apply that. I’m also making a concerted effort to include people who are otherwise underrepresented, or just not included in the conversation at all, which sort of brings me to my plea. You know, I really am pleading with young people to get involved, you know? And on that note about keeping it positive, I don’t say, you know, our current leadership, isn’t doing what you need. What I do say is our current leadership, you know, they’re older people and in 20 years, they’re not going to be involved. But they are so directly involved in the infrastructure that you are going to inherit. Don’t you want to have a voice that says the city that I want to see when I’m 40 years old is going to look like X? That means you have to start now. You got to get involved right now. So I’m making a real concerted effort to talk to young people and talk to underrepresented people.
Dan Graham (15:33):
The demographics in your district are changing pretty rapidly and that’s one of the big conversation pieces that’s happening right now across the city. How do you think about those changing demographics and who you represent? And how do you kind of approach that level of dynamic change that’s happening as we speak?
Natasha Harper-Madison (15:50):
I definitely make a concerted effort to talk about intentional communities. That’s part of the problem. I think points of contention come in, when people 1) don’t feel like they’re being represented and 2) when they don’t feel like they’re welcome in a community. And so you sometimes get people who don’t feel like they’re welcome, because they’re new to the community in D-1. And then sometimes you get people who don’t feel like they’re welcomed, because they are historically a part of this community that is so rapidly transitioning. So we talk a lot about, from a campaign perspective and just the work that I do with my neighborhood association and with the merchant association, we talk a lot about being good neighbors. You know, we say old neighbors, new neighbors, we say, be a good neighbor. We talk a lot about being intentional about, you know, creating the tapestry that is this community. It is changing. And I like to say that ain’t all good and it ain’t all bad. But if we pay close attention to how we do it, we can get it right.
Dan Graham (16:45):
I’m also curious given that you came from a place where you made a very conscious decision that your life was going to be about purpose and about impact, how did you decide that going into politics was the best way to achieve high scale impact?
Natasha Harper-Madison (17:01):
Coming to this really profound and distinct realization that nothing moves unless policy does. And if we don’t have leaders that are in positions of power to affect policy that are paying attention to some of these things that were, you know, just really burning holes into my eyeballs. There was policy that needed to shift around land use and I was made aware of that because I was watching it happen around me. You know, watching my neighborhood change so quickly. Watching how merchants were suffering, if for no other reason, this lack of affordability in commercial real estate. And then realizing the parallel between what small business owners were going through was the exact same as what residents were going through. And that’s all policy issues.
Dan Graham (17:43):
Let’s say every newly elected council member got to pass a piece of policy upon entering the position, what would be yours?
Natasha Harper-Madison (17:54):
The first one would be, let’s talk about inclusionary zoning. Let’s talk about zoning our neighborhoods in a way that makes sense. Let’s talk about amenities driven development. I don’t know. I might need to trademark that. But the concept in my mind would be, you know, fair housing dictates all. You can’t say only single mamas can live here or only elderly people. But if you build it in a way that it makes sense for those people, so workforce development housing, housing that has childcare centers built into it, and maybe even offset the cost of rent by being able to work at the childcare facility. The same for elderly people and differently abled people. Having services built into housing and having mobility and multimodal transportation options really close to multifamily housing. So I guess, long story short, I would shoot straight for affordable housing.
Lisa Graham (18:46):
And you touched on it a bit, but you know, with all the business moving out to East Austin and a lot of the displacement that’s happening, if you were to be able to sit down with a lot of these businesses moving in and a lot of the changes that they’re making, what would be your biggest piece of advice for how they should be interacting with the East Austin community? When they move offices in, when they have new developments, how should they be behaving? Who should they be talking to?
Natasha Harper-Madison (19:14):
I’d say do your research. So there’s an organization called OCEAN – Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods – and it’s a compilation of the over 100 neighborhood associations that affect the Central East Austin Neighborhoods. Talk to those people. Talk to the merchants associations. I mean, even if your business isn’t faith-based, go talk to the churches. Talk to people who are historically a part of this community. Get on Nextdoor and listen to what people’s concerns are.
Lisa Graham (19:42):
If not for anything, Nextdoor can be quite entertaining.
Natasha Harper-Madison (19:49):
I would say, do your due diligence and get to know the neighborhood before you move into it. I think, you know, organizations sometimes they go where they can afford to go. Where it’s an opportunity, if for no other reason, it’s all about money. So, that corporate social responsibility piece, you know, really deploy some of the tenants that are described there, including get to know the neighborhood before you go to it. Get to know the neighbors before you go to it. Make sure that what you’re offering is culturally appropriate and you know, that people can actually afford what the thing is.
Lisa Graham (20:24):
You had mentioned merchants associations, and I know you’re also involved in civic engagement. You’ve also been involved as an advocate. I feel like those are great prongs that really can come together in terms of like a full model of how to really empower a community. Are there other angles that people need to be taking if they’re really wanting to empower community to get involved? Other than getting along with the businesses, being an advocate for people on a day-to-day basis, and then getting people civically engaged. Are there other pieces of that pie that people need to be looking at?
Natasha Harper-Madison (20:59):
Absolutely. So those are all good ones, but just sort of basic advocacy. So early on, one of the things that I sort of became infamous for was going to the pawn shops and giving them a hard time. Because if you have pawn shops and payday lenders that are extending loans to people at 500% interest, they’ll never pay that back, you know? And so I think if you have the ability to advocate for people, even when they don’t know you did it, do it. We talk a lot about, we have this invisible, good neighbor contract with the Davis Thompson neighborhood association (which is my neighborhood association). And we talk about this good neighbor contract in the way of, if you extend courtesies and kindnesses to your neighbors, it sort of, it builds this intentional, beautiful community element. And then we all just sort of stick together, you know, in a way that we do advocate for one another, whether or not the person knows you did it.
Natasha Harper-Madison (21:49):
I watched this young guy bringing a pot of soup across the road to one of our elderly neighbors. And I asked him why? And he said, because she’s my buddy. She shares her heirloom seeds with me and teaches me how to propagate plants. You know, do more of that. You know, there was a lady in the neighborhood who she was calling the cops a lot, you know, and us having the ability to have this conversation about, you know, the impact, the implication of police interaction for black and brown people, you know, is oftentimes negative. And so just really knowing when police involvement is necessary and when it isn’t. And when you know your neighbors, you’re less inclined to shoot straight for the red button.
Lisa Graham (22:32):
We hear so much about how isolated our society is becoming and how we do tend to keep to ourselves.
Dan Graham (22:38):
Yeah, because I was just wondering, when would you have time for that given your Facebook updating and TV show binge-watching? Because that seems like it would detract from those things.
Lisa Graham (22:54):
And that was going to be my question, you know, how do you begin to empower people to, hey, get out of your own world a little bit. Open your front door. And have you seen the types of community, you know, that type of caring a soup to your neighbor, are actions like that occurring at a less frequent rate? Or is there a way to empower people to start doing that now to get them out of their own head?
Natasha Harper-Madison (23:19):
I think so. I think initiatives like National Night Out, you know, really build on those sorts of initiatives and making it more local. And I mean really local, like micro neighborhood local. And having the city encourage it. Having the County encourage it. Having faith-based organizations and non-profits encourage people to get together more. I think, you know, coming to the realization that the closer we are, the more we’re able to advocate for one another. The closer we are, the less frequently we find ourselves in situations where, you know, things happen and nobody knew, you know? And so it’s just so interesting though, right? In this digital era, we can either be much closer and more informed, or stuck in this silo where we’re not interacting with people at all and everybody around us sounds exactly the same.
Lisa Graham (24:14):
Yeah. And going off of that, I think my last question is, we hear a lot about how Austin is so siloed. And it is very segregated. And so if there was one issue that your district is facing that you would like to tell or inform the rest of the city that this is happening and they may not know about it, what would that be?
Natasha Harper-Madison (24:36):
I don’t know that it’s an issue that other people don’t know about necessarily, because you know D-1 is not the only place where it’s happening. But this rapid transition in our community, it puts us in a position to where we really have a golden opportunity to be an integral part in the future development of this part of the city. And it doesn’t stop in D-1. D-1 is the epicenter of massive transition and massive acquisition of land and property, both from a residential and a commercial perspective. But if we’re at the table right now and we effect how it happens in D-1, then we also affect how it happens in the rest of the city. So transition, you know, from the perspective of development is the biggest concern for most people in my community. If I had to say there’s a real close number two, it’s food insecurity, which is tragic and shameful that there aren’t enough accesses to healthy food options for families in D-1. And that’s certainly something that a lot of other districts in the city aren’t experiencing.
Lisa Graham (25:39):
Well, thank you so much for being here, Natasha. This has been great. I’ve loved hearing from you. We’re so happy to have had you today. We are very inspired by your work and can’t wait to continue to watch what you do in the city. We’re really lucky to have you here. Thank you very much. The Change The Rules podcast is sponsored by Chez Boom Audio. Chez Boom Audio is the leading audio post-production company for TV, film, advertising, audio books, and podcasts in Austin, Texas. And we’re so honored to work in their studio with the wonderful Shayna Brown. You can find her studio at https://chezboomaudio.com/. If you’d like to learn more about Natasha, her work, and her campaign, you can find more at www.natashaharpermadison.com. And if you want to hear new episodes every week, please subscribe to Change The Rules on iTunes. And we will see you again next week.