Town meeting targets diversity

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 7, 2001

On Thursday, residents of Austin and the surrounding area will have a chance to speak from the heart.

Wednesday, March 07, 2001

On Thursday, residents of Austin and the surrounding area will have a chance to speak from the heart. On that day, a town meeting titled, "Cultural diversity in our community: What does it mean to us?" will be held from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the large meeting room of the Austin Public Library.

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George Thomas, moderator and outreach coordinator for The Welcome Center, said the purpose of the town hall meeting is two-fold. Thomas hopes the meeting exposes people to the total community – including people of color and those who are doing diversity work, native Austin residents may not be aware of. In addition, he hopes the ideas expressed during the meeting will be channeled into community circles.

The meeting will start with an explanation of The Welcome Center and an introduction from Thomas about who he is and what he does at The Welcome Center. Thomas then expects to speak about cultural diversity – "the myths, realities, benefits and facts in the city and county." Then, each of the panelists will give a very brief presentation on the work they do in the community, where they come from and how they see diversity.

The panelists include: Maria Acosta of The Welcome Center; Nitaya Jandragholica, Mower County court interpreter and cultural diversity director; Miguel Garate, Riverland Community College minority adviser; Sue Grove, an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Riverland; Gabe Garcia, chairman of the Austin Human Rights Commission; and Austin City Councilwoman Jeanne Poppe.

Entities involved in organizing the event include the League of Women Voters.

Following the introductions, the meeting will be open to active participation. Thomas stresses the word "active." If someone chooses not to participate, he said, they probably will not get anything of benefit out of the meeting. Anyone can raise a question or describe an experience they have had to get the discussion going.

"The battle (to bring understanding between cultures) will ultimately be won with dialogue and education," Thomas said. "The goal is to get beneath the surface."

Austin has had community circles in the past. However, they stopped last year. The purpose of the town meeting and the community circles is to foster understanding between cultures. Customs and concerns are explored, as well as racism.

"Racism is a learned behavior," Thomas said. "Be honest about it, without being ashamed."

"I have my own issues the community circles will help to resolve for me, too," he added. "We all have issues we deal with."

Thomas said once each person discovers where their preconceived ideas of another culture come from, they can go from there.

He expects that those who come and participate will find themselves connecting with others who attend, and will ultimately understand their own perceptions.

As moderator, Thomas will uphold certain ground rules. Only one person will be allowed to talk at a time and no threats of violence will be tolerated.

"It is OK to be angry; it is not OK to disrespect just because you’re angry," he said.

"I want a diverse group to attend," he said. "A total representation of the community."

He listed handicapped, senior, high school and college individuals, as well as those in the medical, legal and law enforcement professions.

He encourages each person to think of concerns or questions they have and to jot them down to bring to the meeting. Adding that refreshments will be served, Thomas said each person who plans to attend should be sure to bring a friend.

Call Kevira Mertha at 434-2233 or e-mail her at