Ater 28 years of being in Austin and constantly asking herself “where are all the Black people,” Bini Coleman is excited to be helping to lead a movement to cultivate a greater sense of connectedness for Black people in the city.
Coleman says she “always felt a little bit like a fish out of water in Austin,” in part, perhaps, because of her naturally quiet, introverted nature. The daughter of a Black father and German mother, she says there was almost never a quiet day in her house in Garland, Texas when she was a little girl.
Her next closest sibling is seven years older than her, so she spent half of her life with lots of people around, and half with very few, following after her father, just wanting to be in his company. “I was always the person in the family that had lots of strong personalities, I was the one who got along with anyone and could go to anyone’s house and could mediate any situation,” says Coleman, who describes herself as the peacekeeper, mediator of the family.
In my house, we talked about race every day
Coleman was acutely aware of racial injustice very early – from both sides of her family.
“In my house, we talked about race every day,” she says. Neighbors walked into the house commenting to her mother about “her Black husband.” What Coleman remembers as “a lot of low-level cultural competency,” which she says made her acutely aware from an early age of how different people are, and how those differences impact how we feel about and interact with each other.
“Something that resonated with me very strongly was just the injustices [in] how we treat people,” she says. Her mother’s father had led a resistance against Hitler in Germany during World War II, which got him detained in a labor camp. She never met her father’s parents, but grew up primarily with his family and spent most of her free time watching Black history documentaries and going to the local bookstore to listen to taped speeches of Min. Louis Farrakhan and Malcolm X. By late high school, she says she was “kind of borderline militant, Black nationalist.”
Coupled with the knowledge of Black history and a desire to advocate for liberation, she used her natural mediating ability to make a difference in her school. “If something was going on, my friends would bring it to me, and I would go to the principal and work it out,” she says. But she also found herself arguing over every injustice – religious, racial, political – and had to learn to tone down the fight and pick her battles. “Arguments about religions, arguments about race, it’s only a set-up to infuriate a person, and once you’re in that mode, you’re no longer having a productive conversation. You’re just trying to win,” says Coleman.
Coleman was an all-star athlete coming out of high school, and it took some undoing to learn to back down from some fights. “I’m a little competitive,” she laughs, but she’s learned that particularly “with things that were really close to me, I just realized I needed to stop engaging in certain kinds of conversations with certain people.”
Instead of “walking around hostile and bitter,” she committed herself to “doing whatever I can do to change the way people are being treated.”
working with youth, working with community just kept pulling me
As a businesswoman, she has given up a lot of opportunities to be powerful and wealthy, turning instead to work where she feels she can make the most impact.
“I still love business, but working with youth, working with community just kept pulling me,” she says. She’d often find herself unfulfilled in the workplace, but “I never got bored with the work that I did in the community. … That’s the only thinking that keeps me going,” she says.
After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, where she also walked on as a volleyball player, she went on to pursue an online Master’s in Business Administration. She then funneled the expertise and learning from that program into her company, 212 Catalysts. Her main goal at 212 Catalysts is to help small businesses launch on secure ground, as well as guiding larger businesses through process improvement, “all with the ultimate goal of helping the community and moving things forward that are defective in reaching families who have needs and trying to reach some of these disparities out here,” she says.
Now, as a co-founder of the African American Leadership Institute, Colemans says, “If there’s anything I could leave to Austin that would make me feel good, it would be for AALI to be a staple here in the Greater Austin community so people don’t go through what I have gone through,” in terms of feeling like she didn’t always belong.
As she’s gone from the frontlines of the fight to programs work, supervising staff who can serve as the frontline change agents, Coleman says her primary focus is “making sure that we get it right so we can serve people better.”
But she still gets nervous every time she starts a new project – and that’s how she knows the work is a calling. “I’m spiritually convicted that this is what I was meant to be,” she says. “There’s just an anointing, and it supersedes my knowledge or my ability or my talent.”