After DEI Cuts, This Sixth-Gen Austinite Is Losing Access to UT

Nyeka Arnold, executive director of the Healing Project nonprofit and student in UT’s WIELD Texas program (Photo by Katherine Irwin)

Nyeka Arnold is a sixth generation Austinite. Before they came to Austin, her family was enslaved just a few miles east of the city, in the cotton farming town of Webberville. It was her great-great-great grandfather, Rev. John Henry Winn, who founded St. John Freedom Colony in Austin in the early 1870s.

Community leadership seems to run in the family – in 2021, still without a college degree, Arnold co-founded the nonprofit Healing Project. That same year during Winter Storm Uri, she drove down Austin’s frozen roads in a white van, personally picking up more than 200 homeless Austinites and bringing them to warming shelters.

Though Arnold’s family have been leaders in Austin longer than the University of Texas has existed, none have attended. For most of the university’s history it would’ve been impossible. UT resisted integration even after a Supreme Court ruling demanded it, and it wasn’t until 1956 that it accepted its first Black students.

Arnold herself was 12 or 13 before she ever stepped foot on campus. It was a field trip to visit the Longhorns women’s basketball team.

“I got my poster signed by this young lady named Tiffany, and she was a Black woman,” she said. “And that was something I could relate to. She showed me love and she saw me. And I was so nervous, just so star-struck because she looked like a star in my eyes, going to the university.”

Arnold, now a mother of two, became the first person in her family to attend college last year, pursuing her bachelors from Austin Community College. This January, she also started coursework in UT Austin’s WIELD Texas, a two-year executive leadership and entrepreneurship program that not only teaches women of color practical skills, but also emphasizes networking in the community. The goal was to help women of color get hired in high-power roles and attract investors. Under the umbrella of Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity (DEI), WIELD and its sister program the Product Prodigy Institute have ended every semester with a Shark Tank-style “Demo Day,” which sees diverse students pitching their business ideas to real-life investors in the community.

But now, just one semester in, Arnold’s losing her shot to learn at UT. The WIELD program is one of the DEI initiatives the university announced Tuesday that it would dissolve. At least 60 people were laid off this week following a March 26 letter from state Sen. Brandon Creighton which warned that “merely renaming DEI offices or positions” would not comply with Senate Bill 17, the state’s new law banning DEI at public schools. The larger Division of Campus and Community Engagement that houses the WIELD program had already undergone changes to ensure all programs were in compliance with the law.

“I thought I would never be able to touch this environment, and now that has been taken away,” Arnold said. “And it feels like Jim Crow.”

Denné Reed, a UT anthropologist who was also DEI coordinator for his department, feels similarly. He still has his job, but his DEI work has been eliminated. “I honestly feel that Texas is hostile to fairness,” Reed said. “It feels like the bad old days of Jim Crow racist stupidity are making a resurgence.”

Arnold doesn’t know how completing WIELD would have changed her life, but she knows how it’s altered other people’s lives. While most of WIELD’s students are enrolled at UT Austin, some community members, like Arnold, audit classes. Product Prodigy graduate Rodolfo Galván Martínez said the program’s founder and instructor, Rubén Cantú, fought for that auditing option. “If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” Galván Martínez graduated from Texas State, but he describes his time in Product Prodigy as life-changing. A DACA recipient, Galván Martínez now works as a software engineer at IBM in Boston. “All my cousins, my dad, my stepdad, my uncles – they all work in construction. Quite literally building Austin, right? And I think that’s amazing work. But you know, what I’m doing now, building software to help in aviation, that’s something that’s completely new. It’s not something that I would have gotten intrinsically through my family.”

Robert Hudson was one of the first students to audit the Product Prodigy program when it launched in 2019. A Black man raised in rural Alabama by his grandmother who worked at a chicken factory, Hudson doesn’t hold a college degree. But, in part thanks to the program, he now works in Human Resources at a major nonprofit in Austin.

“When I first stepped on campus at UT it felt weird. It did. It is not welcoming at all,” Hudson said. He described the Office of Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship, led by Cantú, as the one place on campus where he felt he could be himself. “Rubén was creating a place where we could challenge these spaces that are not letting us in to not only let us in but to let us be us.”

In a public statement on the office’s Instagram account, Cantú described the decision to dissolve the programs as coming, “both rapidly and unexpectedly.” It’s unclear if Cantú will still have a role at UT when the office closes July 5. UT spokespeople had not responded to our request to comment as of publication.

For Galván Martínez, reading the news about the office’s closure was devastating. “This decision, it will be so impactful – for many people who don’t even know that they’re impacted right now. They won’t know what they could’ve had,” he said. At the same time, it was no shock. “I don’t feel safe in Texas. And quite frankly, that’s one of the reasons why I decided to move.”

Hudson isn’t ready to leave, and Arnold is dedicated to Austin for life. They’re hanging on to hope that programs like Cantú’s will move somewhere else in town – maybe through a private school unaffected by SB 17, or through nonprofit partners.

“My p​​rofessor [Cantú] really genuinely loves his job,” Arnold said. “So when he tells us that he’s going to always be there, that he’ll teach under a tree if he has to, I honestly believe it.”