Where do we start? There have been no words lately. I guess I’ll start by saying that whatever I say here is going to be wholly inadequate, will not hold any solutions, and will not please everyone who reads it, because honestly, there’s nothing anyone can do or say that would ever fit any of those categories. Some of you have reached out and asked where I stand. As your representative, you deserve to know my thoughts on issues, even if they aren’t issues that are coming in front of our dais. I can only speak for myself and as always, my viewpoints do not reflect the rest of Council or the City of Leander.
While race is important, I want to talk about the broader aspect of equality. Don’t worry, we’re still going to talk about race. Hang with me. First, a little background.
I grew up in California. Yeah, I know, I’m one of those who flocked to Texas. So many people I meet here have this image of California as sunny and warm with sunshine and beaches. That’s southern California. I never lived there. I lived in northern California, just outside a city called Oakland; maybe you’ve heard of it. Yes, that Oakland. I grew up in the ghetto, in a poor school district, in overcrowded classrooms. I grew up around a hell of a lot of crime.
Around 4th grade, I was branded the “narc” by the neighborhood kids when I ran home and told my mom that my friends were playing with a gun they found. It had been tossed behind some bushes by a couple of guys who crashed their car in a pursuit with the cops after robbing a bank. The next year’s adventures were more interesting when an explosion on the next block taught us all the term “meth house”. In that neighborhood, nothing was ever safe: anything you left outside for a second would be immediately stolen, home invasion robberies happened brazenly to anyone, and violence happened daily and at random.
A friend of mine was murdered at 13. Thirteen. She was stabbed multiple times and her throat was slit. She bled to death. Thirteen years old. I have a 13 year old right now. I can’t fathom the depths of that grief. Around here, when a child dies tragically, the school brings in grief counselors. We didn’t have anything like that. She wasn’t the only kid in the school district murdered, she was just the one that I knew.
Speaking of school, we didn’t have anything you have out here. There was no school bus. There was no football stadium. No marching bands. No swim teams. No color guard. My high school’s softball team practiced on asphalt. No sliding. We didn’t need much though, as most kids dropped out or were expelled anyway. Our graduation rate was only just above 50% when I was there.
I was able to look up some of the data that was recorded for my high school the year I graduated. It reflects an incredible diversity, but an absolute failure of the system. My graduating class ended up being only 263 students, the smallest in the entire district (see high dropout rate referenced above). Of those 263 students, they are recorded as follows: 48 White, 40 African American, 89 Hispanic, 31 Filipino, 20 Pacific Islander, 35 Asian. Out of all those, only 55 students met minimum university enrollment requirements upon graduating. I wasn’t one of them. I know 4 girls who died, several friends who dropped out and/or got themselves arrested at various times, but don’t know a single person from school who ever attended a university. Not one. Not even myself.
So why does this matter? Because right now everyone is talking about systemic racism, redlining, and privilege. While we’ve identified some of the problems, I know from my own experiences that there’s a heck of a lot being left out and if we don’t address it, we’re only going to put a band aid on the situation.
So let’s start with racism: does it exist? Hell yes it does. It taps into humans inherent need for tribalism. Tribalism is hard-wired into humans since the dawn of time. Think Oklahoma State vs UT. In fact, tapping in to that tribalistic side of people is one of the oldest tricks in the book for political campaigns. I Like Ike. Yes We Can. I bet if you think back in recent local elections, you can remember catchy phrases and campaigns that tapped into your “us vs them” mentality. There’s a subconscious rush that comes with feeling like you’re a part of a team.
The problem, obviously, is when the way you get that feeling is from absolutely disgusting hatred. And to that, I have no answer. I think we can shout all day “EVERYONE IS FREAKING EQUAL, STOP BEING DISGUSTING” and the type of people that are going to see skin color or gender or orientation or anything else as a reason to think of someone as less than aren’t going to care. It’s a problem bigger than my crappy ghetto education prepared me to solve. But I do know this: everywhere I turn, it seems half of America is calling the other half “woke socialist snowflakes” and the other half is responding by calling them “literal Nazis that need to be kicked in the face”. Seriously. And then when we see people fighting in the street, we’re shocked. Do you all not see how we’re dehumanizing each other daily? Posting “If you voted for that loser, just unfriend me now” doesn’t scream “I’m enlightened”. It says “I care so little about you and our friendship that I don’t even want to consider respecting your choices or even asking you about them so I can understand because maybe, just maybe there’s something I could learn”. That’s dangerous. And it’s become the norm.
I’m not saying that hating one politician or another causes racism. What I’m saying is that racism has always existed. It is an enemy that we will always fight. But normalizing an environment where we are devaluing each other, in my opinion is dousing that racism fire with gasoline.
That brings me to the next issue, which is that we’re only talking about this in the terms of Black Lives Matter right now, and they absolutely do. But please don’t lose sight of other marginalized people who are also being horrifically oppressed. Let’s take this moment, while the country’s eyes are upon the issue and say “don’t forget this friend too”. Have you ever heard of Kelly Thomas? Probably not. Most people haven’t. Kelly, by all accounts, would have never hurt a fly. He was white. He was schizophrenic, but he was never violent, never dangerous. He was a known entity. He was kind. He lived on the streets and went back to his parents home most nights to sleep in the backseat of their car in the driveway. One of the local police officers liked to bully him because he was an easy target and one night in 2011, unprovoked, that officer began beating Kelly. The officer and his backup then attempted to pin Kelly, who tried to get away, and was then tased 5 times and beaten while he screamed for his father and apologized over and over. When paramedics arrived, they weren’t even told about him right away, only about the officer who wanted his minor abrasions looked at. Kelly Thomas wasn’t even recognizable as a human being. He was put on life support and died 5 days later. Charges were brought against 2 of the officers, and they were both acquitted. There has been no justice for Kelly Thomas’ senseless murder. Mental health matters. Homeless lives matter.
Let’s talk about one a little closer to home. In 2015, Daniel Spencer was murdered in Austin by his neighbor, James Miller, who admitted to the brutal stabbing death and even led police to the body. The reason: a vague description of flirting by Mr. Spencer. Mr. Miller claimed he was so weirded out by it, because he’s not gay, that he had no other option than to kill his neighbor. It’s called the “Gay Panic” defense and guess what, that defense is actually legal in Texas and it worked. Miller was only convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to 180 days in jail and 10 years probation. If Daniel Spencer were a woman, or even just not gay, we’d call it what it really was: cold blooded, senseless murder. In the last legislative session, a House Bill was introduced to make this kind of defense illegal and it died in committee. As depressing as that is, it’s not unique to Texas. “Gay Panic” or “LGBTQ Panic” is only expressly banned in 10 states. Daniel Spencer’s life mattered. LGBTQ lives matter.
Lets talk about some other lives that mattered. Deputy Sandeep Sing Dhaliwal, one of the first law enforcement officers to ever wear a full turban, expressing his faith as a Sikh. Sergeant WyTasha Lamar Carter, who loved to sing gospel and be a cheerleader for everyone around him, officer and civilian alike. Officer Tiffany Victoria Bilon Enriquez, an Air Force veteran. Each one of them had a stellar reputation as an amazing human being who was doing good in the world. Each one of them left behind a family and children. Each one of them had status as a minority. Each one of them was ambushed and murdered in the line of duty, targeted purely for wearing a badge. None of them saw it coming. Their lives mattered. Blue lives matter.
Yes, we have a racism problem in the United States. We also have a sexism problem. We have a homophobia problem. We have a socioeconomic problem. Above all else, we have an empathy problem.
Lets try and reframe everything in empathy. Let’s start with Black Lives Matter and the notion of “white privilege”. This might get a little uncomfortable. I am white. I cannot change the fact that I’m white. I’m not going to apologize for being white. Does being white automatically give me the opportunity to grow up like I was on Full House? Clearly not. But do I fear being shot by police if I’m pulled over? No. Not really. I recognize I’m a nice white lady in the suburbs and that kind of thing doesn’t usually happen. I have had many incredibly upstanding black friends throughout my life though, long before BLM, long before smart phones, long before YouTube, who lived with this as a very real fear. This, my friends, is white privilege.
One of my most formative memories is of being a teenager and talking to the security guard at a local movie theater where my friend worked. I was there all the time. I knew the security guard well, a black man, probably in his early 30s at that time, stand up guy. One day, we got to talking about police and this grown, strong man openly cried in front of me. I was stunned. And he looked at me with tears all over his face and he said “you are so young, you just don’t know. You don’t know what it’s like. People can say they’re not racist, but it’s messed up out here” and then told me a handful of stories of being harassed by police and store owners.
When I look at Black Lives Matter and the notion of white privilege with empathy, I feel the pain that fueled my friend’s tears. I feel the grief of one of my mommy friends who worries for her son, that his beautiful dark skin will be all that someone will use to judge him one day at a traffic stop. Not his sweetness. Not his kind actions. Not how smart he is or that he goes to church every Sunday or what he wants to be when he grows up. Not how hard his parents tried. Everything reduced to another traffic stop. Another furtive gesture. Another unarmed black man. Another life lost. It’s not OK.
Inevitably, it leads me to a similar grief for my brothers and sisters in blue, who willingly put their lives on the line every day. I believe that most cops are good. Like anything, some are horrible and need to be gone. Good cops, like all good people, don’t like bad cops. Bad cops undo everything good cops spend years building and they put everyone’s lives in danger. Good cops hope they never have to shoot; they’re not looking for a reason to do it. Good cops are literally willing to die for you, a stranger, which is a mind boggling level of love. And when bad cops are allowed to exist in the system, good cops pay the price for it. It’s not OK.
And let’s think of the demands we put on our good cops. Not only are we asking them to deal with the aftermath of bad cops or other departments that have failed to serve the basic needs of the people, but these days we’re also asking them to deal with everything else we don’t handle as a society. We fail to provide anything near to adequate mental health care or resources for people, we won’t even de-stigmatize the issue of mental health. Who has to deal with suicide threats? Who gets called for schizophrenics? It’s not mental health experts. The first responders are the police.
How about the kids who grew up in neighborhoods like I did? The majority of these kids are going to come into contact with the police in their lifetimes either because they’re committing crimes or because of their associations with people who commit crime. Countless numbers of kids have grown up without a real chance of making anything of their lives. They have no successful role models. They’ve had nobody who sees them each individually as special, who’s told them they’re really good at something, who’s taught them a skill. They have no job training. Many of them don’t even have a diploma. We have failed them from the day they were born and who is going to end up dealing with it? The police.
We need to do better. It’s not enough to stand on the corner with a sign. It’s not enough to change our social media icons. Like a diet, if you want it to work, it needs to be a “lifestyle change”. You need to decide, “I care about my piece of the world so much, that I’m going to pay attention and commit to being involved at least enough to keep it from getting out of control”.
Know Your City
Leander has a lot of neighborhoods and while it’s not the most diverse place, each neighborhood has it’s own unique issues. Drive around town here and there and discover who your neighbors are. Look for the different school’s PTA facebook pages to get an idea of what they’re up to. You’ll be surprised at the vastness that exists here. Knowing a bit about the demographics, the density, and the people will help to reframe the way you see different developments coming to different areas.
Keep an eye on Planning & Zoning and City Council agendas and speak out when you see a development that you think is bad for an area. One of the things I’ve learned in the last few years is that the city zoned a lot of multi family housing in areas where the schools were already crowded and/or qualified as low income, specifically, within a 1 mile radius of the intersection of Hero Way West and Bagdad Rd. I refer to it as “stacking” the area full of the zoning, because I can’t think of another area with nearly as many apartments. And why not? It’s easy enough to do, because residents in that part of town are less engaged. They’re busy. Sometimes there’s a language barrier. If projects around Westwood and Northcreek got the kind of turnout that projects around Crystal Falls got, things would be different. Watch for development inequities and be an advocate.
Know Your Police
We’re really lucky here in Leander to have a great police department run by an amazing Chief. Chief Minton is a firm believer in community-oriented policing. He is one of the kindest, most patient and humble people I know. He takes any allegation of misconduct of an officer seriously. He cares about his officers and he cares about our residents and anybody passing through town. Under his leadership, the department has become accredited through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, which requires the department to regularly train in deescalation techniques for people in crisis, people living with addiction, people with autism, and people with other unique circumstances. This is an accreditation also earned by Cedar Park, Round Rock, and UT Police, but not Austin or any of the other cities or law enforcement entities in our area. The department also creates a report that details their interactions with the public by race and gender every year. It’s submitted to the state and available to the public on the city’s website.
Our department takes pride in their interactions with the public. They host the Citizens Police Academy, the Advanced Citizens Police Academy (if you just can’t get enough), Jr Police Academy (for kids in the summer), Police Explorers (for high school aged kids), and Coffee with a Cop. These programs are open to the public. The purpose is to help build a bond between residents and police. Police want to know what your concerns are and they want you to feel comfortable coming to them when you need help.
If you’re reading this and you’re not fortunate enough to be a Leander resident, my suggestion is to find out if your local police department participates in community-oriented policing. Hopefully they have some kind of open house, or academy that you can attend to get to know your department, their standards and methodologies. Not all departments are equal. If you have a concern, bring it up. If you feel like your concerns aren’t being addressed by your police department, bring it to your City Council.
Side note: Chief Minton released a statement earlier this week about George Floyd’s death and policing. Some of it, I have paraphrased, but I highly encourage you to read his own eloquent words.
Something I rarely saw in my neighborhood growing up were parents, especially fathers. There were a lot of single-parent households who were barely getting by and parents didn’t have the time to spend volunteering at school. A lot of them didn’t even speak English as a first language and so were little help for much of their children’s homework. These kids grew up with overcrowded classrooms, underfunded schools, and overworked teachers. In some schools around here, they just need people to fill in the gaps, take out small groups and help them with their reading. Other schools are going to need what my school should have had: long-term mentors. Consistency. Someone who looks like the child and is willing to visit one on one on a regular basis for years and help that kid get through school and on to college or a jobs program and make sure that he or she is prepared with the tools needed to live an adequate life. If you already have a child in school, this is your reminder to join PTA, get your annual background check done, and sign up when the teacher asks for volunteers. Mentorship, tutoring, and small group instruction have all been proven to help children succeed.
Help With Outreach
I’m going to say it: we suck, as a city, at getting people involved in things. Yeah, bunches of people will come out to a festival or an Easter Egg Hunt or sign up for Little League. But what about when we’re trying to get input on things? If you followed along when Council interviewed companies to create our Comperhensive Plan (and why wouldn’t you follow that of all things?) you would have heard me continually question outreach to our non-English speakers who are typically underrepresented at city functions and most at risk of having something undesirable planned for their area. No matter where you stand on language or immigration or anything else, we should all agree that it is not OK for the government to exclude you from decisions being made about the land that you own and are paying taxes on. This is really driven home this week as we talk about systemic racism and redlining of neighborhoods.
We can also see the lack of diversity in our boards and commissions. Just this past week, Council made appointments. We were criticized previously (and rightly so) that our Comprehensive Plan Committee lacked diversity, not just in ethnicity, but in geography. The issue was raised by a citizen, and I followed up. We were both told the same thing: we’re limited by the people who apply, which made sense at the time. But going into this week, excluding that committee, we had 66 members of boards and commissions, including Council. 59 of them are white. Overall, it was nearly a 50/50 split of male and female, though some boards were wildly one way or the other. Heavily male: Ethics (67%), Library (67%), Parks (60%), Planning & Zoning (72%), Citizen’s Advisory Commission (83%). Heavily female: Historic Preservation (67%), Arts (67%), Active Adult (70%), Council (57%). The Board of Adjustment is a 50/50 split when including their alternates. I’m not a fan of quotas, but I am a fan of accurate representation and when I look at these statistics, I don’t see a fair and accurate representation of the people of Leander.
We need to do better. We must connect and engage with all areas of Leander. We must have more diverse voices in positions to advise on the future of the city. When a board is going to have an impact that is felt by all citizens, Council must consider the balance of representation they’re putting on that board.
If you’re reading this and you feel like you can help get a more diverse group of people involved, we need you. Email me.
Fight The Power
There are laws and regulations all over the place that are more likely to affect people of low socioeconomic status. Pay attention to them and join the fight against them. Here are a few examples:
Curfew Laws – Juvenile curfews are commonplace. But think through them for a few minutes and you’ll realize the flaws. First flaw, it doesn’t affect the kid who owns his own car; it affects the kid who’s walking or on his bike. On its face, that’s a law that is going to have a disproportionate application based on socioeconomic status. Second flaw, it criminalizes otherwise perfectly legal behavior and teaches teens to hide from the cops. Why in the world would you want to create a reason for a child to enter the criminal justice system?
YMCA – As long as we’re talking about kids, I’m going to get this one out there: I’m opposed to the idea of Leander contracting with the YMCA for a rec center. I think it’s horrible. A rec center needs to be open to all and I think it’s bogus that we would make all of our residents pay taxes to support an elaborate building that they then must purchase a separate, extremely pricey membership to access. I do however think a rec center needs to happen. Our community needs to have gathering spaces, especially for teens and especially as we grow. What gets my hackles up most about YMCA? The standard answer from YMCA about the fees is that they have scholarships and will waive the fees for low income households, but here’s the thing: in order to do that, you need to have a parent fill out the form. Our most at risk youth don’t have a parent who’s going to fill that form out. It can be neglect, or drugs, or fear of deportation, or just a general disinterest, or any of a million things, but that kid needs access to that center the most. That kid needs to be off the streets and in a safe place where they can hang out with friends and play Foosball and drink Sprite. We can either be the community that front loads the expense by giving our teens a safe distraction or we can backload the expense in 20 years when a generation of kids left to their own devices have started down the path of getting in trouble. Pick your poison.
Unjust Fines – Did you all follow this story a couple years ago, when our Justice of the Peace, Edna Staudt spoke up and helped end a state program that was adding surcharges to drivers licenses for moving violations? If the surcharges weren’t paid within 105 days, the person’s license would be revoked and they wouldn’t be able to get auto insurance. It wasn’t that fines weren’t being paid because people were spiteful; people couldn’t afford to pay the fines. By taking away their license in Texas, where mass transit is limited (to put it mildly), you’re taking away their ability to legally get to work. So they’d illegally drive to work, and if they got stopped, they’d end up in jail for driving without a license, and they’d of course, have more fines. If they got in an accident, well, they’re now uninsured so, as Joe Exotic said “I will never financially recover from this”. That kind of law made sense to the people who wrote it at the time, but if they had taken a step back and run through a few scenarios, they could have found the error and saved thousands of people from heartache. Fight laws like this.
Listen and Validate
We all want to be heard. All of us. You can never expect peace or healing if you create a litmus test of what’s worthy of being heard and shame everything that falls short. Is your goal to feel superior to other people or is your goal to heal? I hope it’s to heal. In order to do that, we all need to listen to each other’s stories and validate what the other person is saying. Here are two important phrases that go a long way.
“What I’m hearing you say is ________________” – Put the person’s message into your own words to make sure you’re understanding it. Sometimes things are said in-artfully or something is lost in translation. Sometimes something is what it seems and this is a good way to confirm it. Either way, you’re getting clarification and at the same time letting the other person know they’re having a chance to really be heard.
“When you say __________, I feel __________” – This is a great way to help someone understand how their beliefs impact you. Chances are, if something a friend says or believes makes you uncomfortable, they aren’t fully aware of it. This is a drama-free way to clear the air. Bonus points if they’re able to follow this up with a “What I’m hearing you say is __________”.
There’s so much more I wanted to tell you here. I wanted to tell you about how my high school boyfriend dropped out of school to work his butt off and support his mother, and that when he lost his job years later he became just another Latino drug dealer until he got trained in a trade and made a real life for himself. I wanted to tell you about getting excused from class to sit in an office with a police officer, thumbing through books of mug shots, looking for the guys who randomly jumped my friend and deciding at 14 if friendship was worth testifying against gang bangers. I wanted to tell you about the importance of graffiti abatement programs, because real graffiti on your home isn’t property damage, it’s a marking that gets you shot. I wanted to tell you I’m terrified of guns because I’ve had them held on me. I wanted to tell you that I’ve never taken my kids to see where I grew up because I don’t feel safe there. And I wanted to tell you that every moment of my life since coming to Leander a decade ago has been dedicated to not letting this place turn into that. If we all promise to stay committed to ending racism, to ending inequality, to ending discrimination, to ending violence, to raising up those who have the highest mountains to climb, we are all going to be a lot better off.