After several years as an activist leader on the Luther campus during the turbulent late 1960s and early ’70s, Celeste Austin ’73 climbed aboard a Greyhound bus bound for San Francisco. The young political science major had recently embraced her homosexuality and was eager to begin the next stage of her life. She thought California held great promise. Austin’s journey through the next decades wasn’t always smooth, but she found her niche dedicating herself to working with the homeless.
Today Austin is director of special programs at the Living Room, a day center in California’s Sonoma County dedicated to serving homeless and at-risk women and their children. “San Francisco is a city known for a lot of hills, and it’s a great metaphor for my life—I’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” she says with a quiet chuckle. Yet the challenges have led Austin to a point of peace and happiness and imbued her with a powerful sense of empathy that serves her well in her life’s work. “I’ve always cared about people and I’ve always been a social activist in some way or another.” Her years at Luther played an important role in shaping that personal development, she asserts.
Austin grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, and participated in the Department of Education’s Upward Bound program, an initiative that serves students from low-income families as well as those from families where neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree. She was selected by local black community members to participate in the first open-enrollment at Malcolm Price Laboratory School in Cedar Falls, Iowa, for a time before returning to Waterloo to graduate from East High School. “When I began thinking about choosing a college, Luther stood out because of my Upward Bound Experience there and what I found—a small, liberal arts college that was gorgeous, serene, and had a spiritual element.”
Austin threw herself into life on campus, majoring in political science and later black studies and learning how to effect change. “The late ’60s and early ’70s were a tumultuous time—for this country and for me,” Austin observes. “There was a lot of awakening going on for me during my years at Luther, for which I was grateful, but I also struggled. I was active, but I was also really angry,” she concedes. “My paternal grandfather was murdered by vigilantes before my father was born, and that legacy deeply affected my family.”
During her years on campus, Austin helped to found Luther’s Black Cultural Center through collective activism and served as the first female president of the Black Student Union. She also worked as a draft counselor, assisting conscientious objectors who were seeking deferment from service in the Vietnam War. “My experiences at Luther were formative in many ways. I gained self-confidence, realized that I could be a leader, made some wonderful friends, and had some great experiences—I saw Duke Ellington perform at Luther while I was a student!”
Six months before graduation, however, Austin decided to drop out of college. “Maybe it wasn’t the wisest decision,” she says in retrospect, “but it taught me to be bold, take risks, and follow my dreams.” Yet Austin also continued to nurture memories of the good times at Luther. “Having attended Luther College and had some successes, I kept those experiences in the back of my mind, and during the tough times I reminded myself, ‘You’ve been in college, you’ve held leadership positions, you can do this—yes you can!’ It took me a while to get back to that place, but I did it.”
Austin ultimately returned to school, earning a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies at Sonoma State University and a master’s in social work at San Francisco State University. These days she spends her time helping other women get back on their feet. She organizes classes in expressive art to aid women who have experienced trauma and can’t yet verbalize their fears and needs; leads empowerment and meditation classes to help women combat anxiety and PTSD; and offers one-on-one case management to women who have regained their footing and found housing, but still require some support. “After getting their lives back on track, our clients often miss the sense of community and shelter that they’ve found at the Living Room, so we focus on phasing people up rather than phasing people out,” she says.
Austin credits her family and community for her more-than-30-year career working with nonprofits and doing social work. “I grew up in a strong African American community, and my family was very church and community-centered. I carry the lessons I learned in my youth with me today. I want to be of service to others and help those who struggle—those roots run deep.”