Mertha notes examples of people speaking out

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 16, 2001

On Thursday night, I talked myself into learning a lesson.

Friday, March 16, 2001

On Thursday night, I talked myself into learning a lesson.

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I’m getting ahead of myself here, so let me explain.

At the end of last week I received notice of the meetings I would have to cover this week. Looking over the list of times and dates, I spied one day that upset me a bit – Thursday.

On that day, a Planning Commission meeting was scheduled, only one hour before the town hall meeting I had planned to attend. Given the lengthy discussions that had ensued at Planning Commission meetings in the past two months, I knew this one would be a marathon session. So, I went into Thursday crossing my fingers that everyone would have their say in the first hour of the Planning Commission meeting and the commission would vote quickly, so I could rush off and participate in the town hall meeting.

About one hour and 15 minutes into the Planning Commission meeting, I was still writing on my notepad and was estimating another 45 minutes before I’d get to the library for the town hall meeting. I underestimated. It took an additional hour and 15 minutes, bringing the grand total meeting length to 2.5 hours.

Now stay with me here, the lesson(s) is coming soon.

When I arrived at the library, I had to park on the street. WOW! I was pleasantly shocked, which maybe shows cynicism and a lack of faith on my part. I apologize for not thinking better of you.

The meeting was standing-room-only and people of all ages were inside. One by one, people shared their experiences in Austin and the crowd responded with applause.

At one point I was convicted by what a member of the audience said. He asked why the newspapers referred to Stacey Cotter as Richard Cotter’s "adopted son," instead of just as his son. That was me he was talking about. Instinct told me to fight back, to point out that I had never described Cotter in my articles, that his race was unknown until the Herald ran a picture of him … and there I stopped.

What good did it do to defend what I wrote? Didn’t the fact that I was feeling defensive mean that the questioner had touched a nerve? I decided to let the issue roll around in my head for at least a week. Hear that rattling sound?

Walking from the town hall meeting, I tried not to be upset about missing most of it because of the Planning Commission. In fact, I stopped my internal whining long enough to see the situation from another angle.

The people who attended the town hall meeting had participated in an incredible event in the history of Austin, but I was fortunate enough to have witnessed another.

Citizens – all women, in fact – rose and addressed the Planning Commission to voice their opposition to the Primrose development proposed for their neighborhood. I watched as people were empowered to make their voices heard.

In going over the Planning Commission meeting in my mind, I found a phrase that is often repeated during diversity discussions. The citizens speaking against Primrose all voiced that they have nothing against the project, but they "just don’t want it in their neighborhood."

The representatives of the developer defended the project and said their presence would improve the neighborhood in the long run. Substitute a human being for a housing project and "not in my neighborhood" takes on a whole new meaning.

I don’t claim to know who is right in this situation. In fact, despite the fact that I found the above correlation and think Primrose will be an asset to the community, I completely understand why the citizens are concerned about their children’s safety and their property values. These are hard questions, folks. They’re life questions, not trivial.

The Planning Commission’s job was to listen to both sides of the issue and make a choice. With either choice they made, they knew it would be unpopular to at least someone in the room. But they spoke their mind and voted, nonetheless.

And the subject of diversity is similar. Each of us hopefully listens to both (or many) sides present issues and then we choose which side we wish to support. If even after hearing – truly hearing – a person speaking about a view they hold, you choose to remain with your original perspective, at least you’re better educated for the experience.

In each case, we speak if we are convicted to express our truth, and hopefully someone will be there to applaud each step we take in our understanding and growth – no matter what direction that step leads us.

It’s your perspective, you own it and you get to decide who to share it with. Hopefully, after Thursday, we all will choose to share our viewpoints with people more often. I know that’s one thing I learned from observing two gatherings which, just by occurring, become one of millions of chisel strikes or a flutter of pressure from a potter’s hand to shape the emerging sculpture that is Austin’s future.