Can Austin Become Courageous?

Author’s note: This is the third article I’ve written about race and diversity in Austin. I sincerely hope that my intent isn’t overlooked. I am not writing to cast the city that I call home a “bad guy. ” I’m writing for two reasons. The first is to understand my own experiences, my daily walk and my transformation. For a long time, I compartmentalized what I lived each day instead of thinking about how it made me feel. It’s easier to move along if you don’t think too deeply. Once I realized avoidance was my survival mechanism, I decided to confront the issue head on. It helps me think through everything and it might give someone a different perspective (I truly hope so). The second reason I write is because it might give someone the courage to share their story or it might inspire someone to step up and create change. I believe that most of us want to live authentic lives filled with richness. May this serve as a reminder to you to live your best life and to be a drum major for whatever inspires you.

A line was drawn in the sand at Austin City Hall yesterday, and quite honestly it hurts.  

A new city manager came in and said he wants all assistant city managers to re-apply for their jobs. He also shared that a national search will occur to ensure Austin has the best leaders at the table. Several of those who instantly became candidates for their own jobs are minorities: one is African-American and the other is Hispanic. The NAACP announced they will investigate whether African-American employees are being treated unfairly at City Hall.

Unfortunately, now the NAACP has a reason to broaden their investigation because the city’s Equity Office is under investigation. A complaint was filed last spring  claiming that the African-American Chief Equity Officer and another African-American staff member were hostile to certain community members.

Meanwhile, earlier this month, the Equity Office shared that several streets in Austin will be renamed because they hold the names of confederate soldiers. The report that was released also said the city’s name should be reconsidered for the same reason. As you can see, tensions are rising in the city in regards to race.

It’s a Mess

Here’s what I’ve heard from people on Thursday. “It’s a mess.” “What’s going on in this town?” But I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised because this pot has been boiling….for decades. As a friend from California told me, “Because Austin is a fun place to live doesn’t make it immune to what’s going on in America today.”

I began working on a post last week to share my frustrations with conversations (or the lack thereof) about race and diversity in Austin, and the news out of City Hall prompted me to share it now and also, frankly, to be a little more blunt because I think it’s so important that we have open, candid, and authentic conversations, so here’s my original post.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler challenged community organizations to send their staff and volunteers to a training called Courageous Conversations. Before I tell you about the training let me back up a couple months.

Austin is a place where many (myself included) have felt an unspoken element of racism. Many say they see it when they move here and notice how few people of color have a seat at the table of local government or boards. Or they might notice how neighborhoods seem segregated along color lines. Just this week I met someone who just moved to Austin from New York City, and for her, the lack of diversity and inclusion is dramatic. She said, “I can be in a restaurant and be the only person of color.” That’s something I haven’t grown accustomed to, even after living here for a decade.  It’s something that is complex and hard to understand in a city known for being a liberal, progressive enclave in conservative Texas. Many politicians have called Austin, “the blueberry in a sea of red.” How can a city that’s celebrated for being open to all have this unspoken but nonetheless pernicious element of exclusion and prejudice? And more importantly, why are people unwilling to have a transparent conversation about it?

The Problem Runs Deep

The city’s history will give you insight into this. So will the report by the Mayor’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities.  If you dig, you’ll learn there was a time when African-Americans couldn’t get electricity or water turned on in their homes because they didn’t live in a certain “zip code.” Over the past year, I’ve talked to many who are starting a movement to talk openly about Austin’s past and rewrite its future. Many moments have given me hope. There’s one in particular I will never forget. During a talk, Mayor Steve Adler told a large group about how his task force came about and then shared that several people asked him to change the name because they felt that using the word “racism” was too harsh. The Mayor persisted because he felt that you have to “call it what it is.” Talking about it is one of the many steps needed to move forward, he said. Bravo, sir, bravo.

Then, in March, the city experienced a wave of terror when bombs that seemed to target minorities began to go off around the city. I don’t scare easily. I travel by plane several times a week, I love large cities, and some of my favorite countries to visit are daily missile targets.  Nevertheless, I was scared shitless by the idea of a bomb-laden box being placed outside my front door. The Amazon delivery driver is my best friend. How dare someone make me uncomfortable in the city I call home, much less during a time when hundreds of thousands of visitors were here for South by Southwest.

But let’s return to the Courageous Conversations training. Now you have an idea of why Mayor Adler encouraged community organizations who do programming to send staff through the training. The  goal was to have 1,000 graduates by the end of the year. I went with a colleague to the two day training. I’ve been through many diversity and inclusion trainings. In fact, next month I’ll begin working on a certificate through Cornell University because I’m so passionate about the issue. I thought it would be the same ole, same ole. Much to my chagrin, it wasn’t.

The Talk…

Facilitator Glen Singleton is a gifted individual who has the ability to teach based on research and data and then drill down to your behaviors and emotions. As a person of color, I was forced to think of when I realized that I was different and how race impacted my life. I told the story of when my mother had “the talk” with me when I tried out for cheerleading. As chief-protector-in-charge, she felt obligated to tell me I was different and the school I attended had one African-American cheerleader on the team. I should work hard but not expect to get a slot. I did work hard not only to learn cheers but also ironed my ribbon before putting it on my ponytail so I could have as much of an equal shot as everyone else of making the team. I think I shocked my mother when I told her I made the team. I worked so hard that the try-out cheer is ingrained in my head, “Acadian Cougars yell A-M-S.” And, of course, I still know the moves. Did you expect anything less?

My partner at the training was a Caucasian female who shared that she didn’t have much interaction with African-Americans. I said a little prayer that I didn’t judge her or show any emotion on my face. It was pretty hard for me to hear, but I really struggled to believe. I could give her a hall pass on understanding how she didn’t have black friends in Austin because…. well…we aren’t many here, but she told me she had lived in cities in the South where I knew the population is nearly a 50/50 split. How was it possible she had no African-American friends or acquaintances?

I drove home that night in tears. I said a second  prayer for her that night before I went to bed. My partner didn’t return to the table the next day. Instead, she sat at a table where there were more people that looked like her. You know, I wanted to find her to apologize if I made her feel bad, but I avoided the potential conflict. In hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have because avoiding the conversation is how these issues have been exacerbated and perpetuated. I promised myself I’ll never walk away again.

Remain Hopeful

I still left with great hope. Glen is truly a fabulous facilitator with a calling to help create change. He will serve as my inspiration as I embark on my studies at Cornell. One thing he said will forever stick with me. You see, I’m an action oriented person who thinks there is a tool or data to fix EVERYTHING. Here’s the advice Glen gave the crowd, “Some of you will look for tools to solve problems related to race. You won’t find one. You need to learn to listen to people and to understand their stories. You also need to know how to tell your own. Conversations and storytelling are the only way to begin to do this work.” Mind blowing! That’s when I realized that our training wasn’t about some formula and action steps. It was about how to be an active listener who is empathetic and who can step up to have conversations to move our community forward. Glen was giving us the tools to take our most precious resource, our story, and use it to heal our community.

The end of day two wasn’t as heavy as day one and I was disappointed not to see rainbows and unicorns as I walked to my car. With all seriousness, one training over two days won’t bring resolution to our city. BUT I do think it will give decision makers and those who work with them a new perspective so that they might step up courageously to do the right thing the next time they are called to do it.

You can learn from  Glenn by reading his book or visiting his website. Or listening to him on You TubeMost importantly, think about what can you do to be drum major for healing. It might be volunteering in an underserved community or adding a diverse volunteer to your non-profit board. Each of us has a role to play in changing our community for the better. It’s your time. Own it and have more courageous conversations!

PS. Just today, KUT Austin aired a story about the training. I was fortunate to be interviewed by reporter, Audrey McGlinchy during the two days. You can listen to or read the story on their website. If you want to help change our community and make it an inclusive place, do me a favor….share this article with two friends! #MovementMakerTribe

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