Jan 20, 2019

School Trustee Woody Looks for Ways to Make Del Valle Better

Reporting Texas

Portrait of Susanna Woody courtesy of Roy Woody.

“Susanna Woody, Del Valle ISD trustee, community organizer. Del Valle is my life right now.”

That’s how Woody, a 36-year-old mother of three, introduced herself to the Travis County Commissioners Court during a September meeting where commissioners would approve the fiscal 2019 county budget. Woody told the commissioners that the county and Central Health, the county’s public health provider, weren’t doing enough for Del Valle — a community with only one health clinic, a facility that was open only two days a week.

Woody, who was accompanied by her husband, Roy, grew visibly frustrated as the commissioners offered what she felt were platitudes: They’ve partnered with local school districts to co-locate clinics at schools; dollars for Del Valle-specific projects are coming, despite the slow pace of government bureaucracy.

She told the commissioners that she appreciated all the words. But, she said, “it’s ridiculous that 2018, outside of one of the most progressive cities in the state, the nation, we don’t have a comprehensive health facility or plan in the rural community.”

It was Woody’s first appearance at a Commissioners Court meeting, despite the fact she ran and lost in the March Democratic primary for Precinct 4 county commissioner, a seat held by Margaret Gomez for 23 years. (Woody, who said her kids and her job as a project manager at Advanced Micro Devices often prevent her from going in person, usually livestreams the meetings from work. She has attended multiple Central Health board meetings.)

But this kind of direct action was about 10 years in the making. Although she grew up in a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood at the edge of Del Valle, her eyes were not open to the inequities plaguing the eastern crescent of Travis County until her 20s. Having moved back to the area after attending college in Austin, she found that nothing had improved despite the passage of time.

Those who know her describe Woody as someone unafraid of questioning the norm and pushing back against authority, who doesn’t mince words, who wants to see results. It’s an approach that has propelled her activism.

Del Valle is an area of about 17,000 people southeast of Austin. Central Health data show that more than two-thirds of Del Valle’s population is Latino and more than a fifth of the families there live in poverty, with the greatest concentration in the area close to Austin. Despite the level of poverty, the area is surrounded by toll roads and is home to Circuit of the Americas, a multimillion-dollar race track.

There is one Capital Metro bus route in Del Valle. There are no grocery stores. Many homes sit in a floodplain. There is no comprehensive health care facility.

With little progress in the area over the past decades, it’s hard not to get emotional, Woody said. It’s hard not to get frustrated when elected officials fail to give people what they need. And when they fail, Woody said, it takes people like her who can make the time to “go and express their disappointment and the need for services.”

Woody (née Ledesma) grew up with five siblings in Stony Point, a poverty-stricken community on the outskirts of Del Valle in Bastrop County. “When you grow up poor and in a rural community, your main concern is survival,” Woody said. “You don’t worry about who’s elected or who’s going to help me fight the fight.”

Woody had her first son, Caleb, when she was 19. She went on to earn a degree at ITT Tech in Austin, then moved back to Del Valle. She married Roy Woody about 12 years ago and had two more children, Tayla and Lando.

Her activism began around 2010. When she took Caleb to his first day of kindergarten, parents were restricted from entering the classrooms. Woody then learned that the district didn’t allow campus-affiliated parent-teacher associations. Convinced that parents should have a forum to advocate for their children, Woody and a group of other residents created a community PTA. One of those parents was Rebecca Birch, who would go on to become president of the Del Valle school board.

Around the same time, Woody helped found the Del Valle Community Coalition, an advocacy group that, among other things, opposed the construction of Circuit of the Americas and petitioned for a grocery store in the area.

In 2011, Woody was elected to the Del Valle school board. Birch said Woody has been one of the most vocal and active trustees. She led an effort to roll back a punitive dress code, pushed for higher teacher salaries and increased benefits, called for expanded day care access for teachers, insisted on holding faculty to high standards in evaluations and found places in the budget for things missing from campuses, such as bathroom mirrors.

“Sometimes you get board members who come in and they’re not so comfortable questioning the status quo, and Susanna’s never been one that has a problem questioning the status quo,” Birch said.

With each effort Woody took on, she saw a bigger picture of her community’s needs. Her time on the school board has shown her what she wished she could change: limited transportation for students and a lack of health care facilities for families in the district. Those were out of her control as a trustee, but the county could do something about them.

“So I got the courage to run [for commissioner], and because I’m from this area, I know the needs and I know what can be done,” she said.

Gomez won the primary election by 67 percent. Woody attributed her loss in part to her focus on activism rather than electioneering.

“Unfortunately, most of my activism was more local within the community, not attending clubs and city-type meetings and whatnot. I have three kids and a full-time job; I don’t have time to go schmooze with people, you know?” But she conceded that schmoozing is needed for endorsements and donations. Lesson learned. She plans eventually to run again because she believes Gomez “is still in a reactionary mode.”

Days after Woody spoke to commissioners, Central Health announced that the clinic in Del Valle, which had been open only two days a week, would be open an additional day. Woody was sure that decision — and, in fact, the opening of the clinic itself — wouldn’t have happened without her and her fellow activists’ intervention.

“With a lot of elected officials, if they’re not being scrutinized on camera, they’re not going to go out of their way to say, ‘We heard you and we did something about it,’ ” Woody said. “Do I think they would’ve done anything had we not been there? No. Absolutely not.”

Gomez and Central Health spokesman Ted Burton said the timing was coincidental. Although community input is a part of the process, expanded health services have been in the works for years, they said.

Andrew Costigan, a Del Valle resident and a doctoral student in educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, gravitated toward Woody when he met her and Roy at a Democratic Socialists of America meeting as Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was gaining traction in 2015.

Costigan got to know Woody better in 2017, when he began block-walking for her commissioner campaign. Between her lived experience in Del Valle and her work with the school board, she would be the perfect commissioner for Precinct 4, he thought.

“Susanna is from a community where all the kids, when they’re growing up, have their views and themselves and their speech shut down,” Costigan said. “She transcended that. She’s not afraid of Margaret Gomez. She’s from Stony Point. This is like child’s play, having the courage to get up there and take Margaret Gomez to task.”

Costigan believes Woody can run for an even higher office than county commissioner. He wants to see her take out state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin.

But Del Valle is her life right now.

“I hope that in four years, people will see that I actually can help,” Woody said. “If not me, somebody else that’s willing to run that has the same type of mindset of getting East Side up to par with West. Del Valle and the eastern crescent is a blank slate, and [the commissioners] have an opportunity to make this area something that other areas can look forward to. So we’ll see what they make of it.”