Change Agent: Erine Gray- Aunt Bertha

Gray at Aunt Bertha Texas launch

Gray mingling at the Aunt Bertha Texas Launch in March

Two years ago, Erine Gray reached a turning point. After four years of creating efficiencies and cost-saving solutions as a consultant within the Texas state human services agency, he decided to pursue an idea that would attack a complicated system from the outside with a simple solution. He named this solution Aunt Bertha and put everything he had into making her a reality.

Aunt Bertha collects information on federal, state, county, city, neighborhood and charity programs and puts it all in one place online. For clients, this means they can be empowered to find available services themselves as the internet has become a ubiquitous resource anyone can readily access from the privacy of home computers and mobile phones. For social workers, Aunt Bertha is a efficient tool to help their clients find services which saves them much-needed time. For service providers, it is an accountability tool. Similar to sites like Yelp, users will eventually be able to rate and review service agencies, allowing a new standard of service to emerge and evolve.

Gray’s personal experience with the social service sector was the impetus that led him to pursue his Master’s degree in Public Affairs at the LBJ School of Public Service at the University of Texas in Austin, and eventually start Aunt Bertha. Gray and his six siblings were raised in a household where his parents struggled to make ends meet. Before they bought his childhood home in a small town outside of Buffalo, NY, his family lived in public housing. He qualified for free lunch in school and, as he explains in an early Aunt Bertha blog post, Gray experienced the embarrassment and shame so many kids feel when they’re different from their peers.

In his late teens, Gray’s mother, Donna, endured permanent mental impairments as a result of encephalitis. At 25, he moved her from western New York state to Austin to live near him and his older sister and relieve his father of being her primary caregiver. Gray then became her legal guardian and found himself in many a social service office working to get her medical and other state-offered care. He knows first-hand the amount of time and energy it takes to sit in a service provider’s office all day only to be told they didn’t qualify for care because a form was filled out incorrectly or because his mother’s condition was difficult to manage and the provider did not want to take her on. After many years of bouncing in and out of nursing care facilities and the state hospital, Donna has been happily settled in a small nursing care facility in East Austin for a little over four years. Gray visits her as often as possible and sometimes brings his dog, Rosie.

Gray with mom, Donna

Gray during a visit with his mom

Gray’s vision of Aunt Bertha’s success looks like this:

  • Government and private social service providers are using and paying for Aunt Bertha’s web-based software which will allow agencies to bypass the need for expensive and clunky, custom-built software packages, thus freeing up millions of tax dollars to continue service programs currently in danger of funding cuts.
  • Funding by investors and venture capitalists is secured so that Aunt Bertha can expand beyond Texas.
  • Most importantly, people in need feel empowered by using Aunt Bertha to get back on their feet, and have a voice within an online community to hold service providers accountable for both good and less than awesome practices.

To Gray, this accountability is the key to changing the system in the interest of providing better and more dignified service to those in need. He believes that online community will help de-stigmatize the idea of receiving help by allowing recipients to help each other and interact, making an inherently difficult process less isolating.

This vision is becoming closer to reality. In March, Gray launched Aunt Bertha for the entire state of Texas and was selected to be a fellow for the Unreasonable Institute. As a fellow, he will spend six weeks in Colorado this summer networking and learning best practices from other successful social entrepreneurs, and pitch Aunt Bertha to venture capitalists to secure future funding. Aunt Bertha was also recently accepted into the University of Texas Austin Technology Incubator (ATI), another path to funding and resources. Additionally, the Austin For the City network of faith-based service providers recently became one of the first to utilize Aunt Bertha software in beta mode so that Gray and his small team can work out any bugs before presenting to the larger market.

Big things are in the works for Gray and Aunt Bertha. For the social service sector, “That’s great news, sugar!”

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TX Roller Derby: Lynnie Bruise, Las Putas del Fuego

“I’m not scared of getting hurt, but I bruise like a peach.”

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Lynae Lee, aka Lynnie Bruise, co-captain of La Putas del Fuego, is the “toughest skater on the track.” She is one of the smaller girls out there- quiet and unassuming. Yet the minute she gets on the track it’s clear she’s a force to be reckoned with.

Lynnie was a longtime über fan girl of TX Roller Derby (TXRD) before she had the guts to try out five years ago. She came to every bout for four years, typically with her mom and/or boyfriend in tow. When Lynnie finally decided to try out, at the insistent urging of her boyfriend, her mom was supportive yet wary. Evilynn Carnitt, her favorite skater, is tiny like her and got knocked around a lot, but always retaliated with a vengeance.

Lynnie remains star struck by her favorite skaters. After her first win, Evilynn, now retired, was there cheering her on. “She was there in the crowd, with her tiny puta sombrero, screaming her ass off for me, alongside Axle Frikkin’ Rosie. They both came up to the edge of the track after the bout to hug me and tell me I did so good- It was maybe the craziest moment of my life, and definitely my favorite derby moment ever,” Lynnie recalled.

Off the track, Lynnie is a pre-school teacher, or as she calls it, a  “baby wrangler”. She says of her class of 1 year olds, “They’re smart and crafty, and you shouldn’t trust them.” Outside of baby wrangling and TXRD, Lynnie has little time for much else, but she loves the team and having friends. “Even splitting responsibilities with Shanx[zilla], it is more than a full-time job,” she says. “I just want to be a hermit when I’m not at roller derby, and watch nerdy TV shows.”

Lynnie is now a well-respected voice within the league. She used to think, “who am I to say anything to these girls?” Now she speaks up and people listen. Although she’s a more low-key than many of the other girls, she is a skater who clearly puts every bit of herself into the game. Keep giving them hell, Lynnie!

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Do Not Feed the Alligators

Esteemed fashion photographer for the New York Times, Bill Cunningham, said “He who seeks beauty finds it”. While he so adroitly documents fashion trends among the fabulous and unknown fashion pioneers on NYC streets, I am inspired to take this philosophy in a different direction.

In the past few months of living in Texas again I’m drawn to abandoned structures, cultural remnants, and the quirky activities of southern rural populations which can be seen on the side of highways. I’ve been on many short road trips to Houston and Dallas recently, along with a longer trip to New Orleans last weekend. I’ve tacked full hours, sometimes more, onto these trips by pulling over to take photos of things I stumble upon along the way. Many of these are structures and former enterprises which have been left and forgotten, yet have taken on a new beauty or poignancy that they perhaps didn’t have when they were in active use. Many of my favorites can be found in my portfolio, and can be purchased there. However, I will feature a series here on the blog as well.

After exiting I-10 somewhere between Beaumont and Houston I found a bird and alligator habitat preserve (and swamp) on my drive back from New Orleans this past Tuesday. I did not see any gators, but the mosquitos were plentiful. The swamp trees were creepily beautiful.


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Austin Texas Chocolate Festival

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of being asked to be the official event photographer for the Austin Texas Chocolate Festival. Chocolate is one of my favorite things, so you can imagine my excitement! Here are some shots from the delicious day.

Folks of all ages were able to enjoy the festivities and treats.

Chocolate and jalepeno infused vodka. So good.

Jams, teas, and other delicious things…

That’s all folks!

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Occupy Austin: Photos from 10.10.11- March on the State Capitol

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Occupy Austin- Profile: Kesha Rogers and the Reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act

To emphasize and highlight the diversity among the protesters, I will profile 1-2 people I meet each time I visit Occupy Austin. 

Kesha Rogers (pictured below) is one of six Democratic candidates running for U.S. Congress in 2012 across the U.S. under the platform promoted by the LaRouche Political Action Committee. The LaRouche PAC is run by long-time activist and conspiracy theorist, Lyndon LaRouche. Rogers would like to represent the 22nd district in Clear Lake, Texas, a suburb of Houston and home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. This district is significant to the LaRouche PAC, as space exploration is one piece of LaRouche’s seven part plan to create and sustain a new system of government.

The reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act is another part of the plan, and one that has gained the most traction within the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Glass-Steagall Act (aka the Banking Act of 1933) was passed by Congress and created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), along with other financial sector regulations designed to control speculation and keep separate the corporate banks that received deposits and investment banks that issued securities.  Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999 through the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act which effectively removed said separation. This repeal is attributed as the cause of the 2008 (and ongoing) financial crisis, which was the impetus for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. Representative Maurice Hinchey of NY proposed that the restoration of Glass-Steagall be included in Dodd-Frank and then proposed the restoration as a separate bill, but both measures were refused by other House Democrats.

Because I like my political coverage mixed with humor, I’d like to share this clip from an episode of The Daily Show aired on 7.28.2011, with an update on where the Dodd-Frank Bill currently stands.

While no representative currently in office has adopted or been elected on the LaRouche platform, many have voiced support for the establishment of more stringent regulations and reforms. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) has introduced legislation (HR 1489 aka the Return to Prudent Banking Act of 2011) to restore Glass-Steagall-like regulations, which, according to the LaRouche PAC, has garnered support from 45 house representatives in addition to a large number of unions and municipalities. Rogers says that by supporting the passage of Glass-Steagall, the supporting members of Congress are indirectly and passively supporting the impeachment of the President. To put this in context, here is a brief rundown of the additional pieces of LaRouche’s plan:

1. The impeachment of President Obama before the 2012 Presidential election
2. The restructuring of the financial sector under a “Hamiltonian Credit System”
3. Using this credit system to
– Build the North American Water and Power Alliance, an investment in infrastructure and technology
–  Further fund space exploration endeavors and create a space exploration alliance among the U.S., China, and Russia
– Invest in nuclear power infrastructure
4.  The establishment of a Civilian Conservation Corps modeled after the one started by FDR in his New Deal to create jobs for the unemployed and to make possible the projects mentioned in item 3

HR 1489 does not include any other aspect of LaRouche’s plan, nor does it suggest or even allude to the impeachment of President Obama. As stated on Rep. Kaptur’s website, HR 1489 does, ” [repeal] certain provisions of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and revives the separation between commercial banking and the securities business, in the manner provided in the Banking Act of 1933, the so-called ‘Glass-Steagall Act’. The affiliations currently between certain entities would be required to be dissolved.”

The LaRouche PAC is a passionate group with a plan. In spite of extreme and hostile rhetoric (likening the Obama Administration to the Nazis is just one example), it is apparent that they are frustrated with the current system and want a real solution.

Kesha Rogers is a Houston resident who ran for Congress as a Democrat in 2010 and plans to run again in 2012. She has been an activist with the LaRouche PAC for 7 years, and will marry a fellow LaRouche PAC activist in 3 weeks.


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Occupy Austin- Profile: Ian

Today I was only able to make it out there for an hour, and I unfortunately missed the March on Bank of America. The protesters I talked to said it was a success and the police officers have been extremely nice and helpful throughout. The vibe is still really positive, although the crowd was a bit smaller today when I was there, as compared to yesterday. Larger crowds are expected over the weekend.

To emphasize and highlight the diversity among the protesters, I will profile 1-2 people I meet each time I visit Occupy Austin. Today I spoke with two men with very different backgrounds and personalities, but similar sentiments, who shared their thoughts with the crowd. This is Ian.

Ian is an artist and activist, and the quintessential image of what Occupy Wall Street critics and the media would like to portray all of Occupy Wall Street to look like. He has been shown on at least two segments on Fox News, and while he concedes some excitement about being on TV, he understands why he is being targeted. Ian is aware that his look is “weird”, even for Austin standards. However, what the media coverage doubtfully included is his ideology and message. He is one of many “occupiers” who knows the movement must be solution-oriented in order to make real impact. Ian is involved in the alternate currency movement, which is working to establish a medium of payment and trade not based on the current dollar system controlled by the Federal Reserve and its policies, but one that is created by the people and local communities. According to Ian, this shift will cause “quality to become the focus [when producing consumer goods], as opposed to mass production”. This can also take the form of time and services, such as time bank systems set up by municipalities and community groups. (TimeBanksNYC is just one example of this type of system.)

Ian has been an Austinite since December of 2010, and grew up in Vermont. However, in 2009, at the age of 19, Ian set off to travel around the country. During his travels he discovered the Rainbow Gathering, a network with communities all over the country, based on unconditional love and mutual respect for all, regardless of creed, race, political leanings, etc. Additionally, he has built houses for those in need and worked on over 10 garden projects across the country.

Next up: Sterling

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