Months ago, Mayor Adler formed a task force in order to address institutional racism. This was far overdue, especially after stories started circulating years ago about how Blacks were leaving Austin, which was the reverse trend, compared to other growing cities around the US. Normally, Austin is revered as the Live Music Capital of the World; so this embarrassment had to be eventually addressed.
Fortunately, I found out about this meeting a few days before it took place last Sunday afternoon at a nearby historically Black university, Huston-Tillotson. In addition to Mayor Steve Adler, the other panelists included Huston-Tillotson President, Colette Pierce Burnette, AISD Superintendent, Paul Cruz, City of Austin Diversity Officer, Brian Oaks and moderating the discussion was Austin American-Statesman Senior Editorial Writer, Alberta Phillips.
Given my proximity to the university, I’d allowed enough time to get there, but had no idea I’d have to park so far away and walk across an unpaved parking lot in the blazing sun and across the campus, which I’d had the foresight to locate on a campus map prior to leaving home. I joked to myself that this was my mini-freedom march, which I wouldn’t dare say out loud because people before me have actually risked their lives to march for freedom, the recognition of which humbled me and chased away any complaints I may have had about the parking situation.
Since this task force meeting was in collaboration with the League of Women Voters (LWV), there were plenty of signs guiding the way to the chapel where the meeting was held. Indicative of the LWV, a check-in table and refreshment table awaited those of us who’d trekked to be in attendance. I’ve attended LWV meetings before and have always enjoyed how organized, respectful, and informative they were. This meeting was no exception.
Despite being a few minutes late, I found a seat near the front among the large audience. I’d missed most of the student speakers, but caught LWV President Cinde Weatherby’s overview of the league’s activities. I especially appreciated that she gave us a brief history of LWV, acknowledging that the group originally concerned itself with white women’s vote when it was formed in 1919. I loved that mention since it set the tone for why we’d all gathered there in the first place: to unpeel the layers back from institutions and organizations and reveal how people of color have been marginalized from full participation. She also made the appeal to everyone who wanted to get voter information should text 42828. Plus, anyone who wanted to become a Volunteer Deputy Registrar (VDR) should speak with a LWV member after the meeting.
Mayor Adler shared with us the he’d received many calls after forming this task force, saying that they thought it was a good idea. In the same breath, they asked, “Could you call it something else?” To which he said that they had just proved his point.
Here are my takeaways from the discussion that ensued, which I wrote down on my ever present notepad:
- AISD has 60% poverty students and pays the most into recapture as far as tax money is concerned.
- AISD is closing “Black schools” on the east side of Austin while building “White schools” on the west side of Austin.
- In 1928, Austin divided the city and invested differently into the east and west sides of town–a legacy that still manifests itself today.
- Officer Oaks stated that the city shouldn’t show up with all the answers, but should have conversations with the community because the people closest to the problem are also the closest to the solution. Suggested three things: 1) normalize racial equity; 2) organize around equity with the community actively involved; 3) operationalize equity by taking positive action.
- President Burnette stated that the fact that we’re having this conversation is the direct result of the task force. Systems don’t change until people do. When leadership changes, then change can take place. Then she gave some examples to identify if someone is part of the problem: a) you don’t call out a racist joke; b) you look around and remain silent about the lack of diversity in the staff; c) you feel that bad things always happen in another part of town and doesn’t affect you.
- Mayor Adler pointed out that homelessness should be dealt with through intervention programs rather than jail.
- Superintendent Cruz said that the first step has to be training leaders to tackle institutional racism since they have to change the way things are done.
- Moderator Phillips stated that Obama was who America wanted to be, but Trump is who America is.
- AISD’s suspension policy changed because students of color were being suspended a lot for minor things.
- All panelist agreed that students of color should receive reparations in some shape or form.
- We need a root-cause analysis about housing to see which solutions to implement (co-op, intergenerational housing, and so on).
- There needs to be accountability around the percentage of housing that’s affordable within new development. In reality, less is set aside and often there’s complicated and prohibitive bureaucracy involved to discourage participation.
- Gentrification improves property, raises property value and displaces low economic status people, but who’s responsible for these displaced people?
- Gentrification also involves the environment since investment in property mostly serves people with money, but property where poor people live must also have positive investment.