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Guest Commentary: Listening session shows Austin remains positive community

We recently had the privilege and pleasure of hosting a pair of community listening sessions on the issues of interactions with law enforcement and race relations in Austin. The speakers (listed below) represented a broad range of ages, ethnicities, roles and tenure in the Austin community, and they came to our Zoom calls with a spirit of genuine sharing. In addition to the two of us, the “listeners” included Welcome Center Executive Director Herve Idjidina, Mayor Tom Stiehm, Police Chief Dave McKichan, and County Sheriff Steve Sandvik.

Almost every speaker reported having positive interactions with our community law enforcement officers. Some contrasted it to other towns, states and even countries where they had previously lived and where their experience had been less favorable. A number of longer-term residents said that community interactions with law enforcement had improved significantly in the past ten years.

Many speakers described Austin as a welcoming community. One speaker noted that our community is nationally recognized for its work on diversity, and people from other communities are often “blown away” when they hear what is happening in Austin: the Welcome Center, Apex Austin, honorary council members, Assurance Scholarships, AHS Sports, Taste of Nations, etc.

At the same time, however, our speakers were candid about how we as a community can do better. For example, we heard suggestions about enhanced police training to avoid racial profiling and to emphasize de- escalation techniques. Another idea was to bring in mental health workers to assist with law enforcement in some volatile situations.

A major theme from our speakers was the idea of mutual respect. To help foster the idea of mutual respect, some of our speakers suggested looking for more opportunities in which officers and community members could interact “outside of the job” (acknowledging that these might have to wait until COVID is under control).

One common suggestion was the need for more ethnic diversity of teachers, administrators and staff at the schools, and also in the ranks of law enforcement. Both need to prioritize hiring bilingual and/or multicultural staff, and to improve retention. Also, we heard about homes where several family members are trying to use just one computer and often with limited internet access.

These listening sessions should be seen as one step in a larger journey for our community. We look forward to working with agencies and individuals

who are inspired to tackle these challenges. We are proud to be part of a community where people are welcomed, safe and appreciated.

Sincerely,

Jeff Ettinger, Chair

Bonnie Rietz, Vice Chair The Hormel Foundation

Speakers: Gema Alvarado-Guerrero, Austere Apolo, Jason Baskin, Kristi Beckman, Sumit Bhagra, Santino Deng, Nyamach Duop, Lori Espe, Miguel Garate, Jayne Gibson, K’pru Gold, Trish Harren, Nitaya Jandragholica, Sara Karki, Steve King, Pal Koak, Molly Lanke, Pierre Lilly, Zhara Lilly, Melodee Morem, Layiet Nathanael, Oballa Oballa, Karem Salas Ramirez, Raul Silva, Bill Taufic and Dale Wicks.