Why the ruling in the Fisher case is a win for Texas

Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in a discrimination suit against the University of Texas, prepares to speak at a news conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
FILE — Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in a discrimination suit against the University of Texas, prepares to speak at a news conference in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, Oct. 10, 2012. On Thursday, the court issued its second ruling in the case, upholding the University of Texas admissions policy.

The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is likely rolling over in his grave at the news that his esteemed colleagues decided 4-3 to uphold the University of Texas position in its fight to keep its race-conscious admissions policy.

Had Scalia been alive (or a similarly inclined justice appointed in his place), the chances of a definitive win for UT would have been slim. However, despite Scalia’s and others’ attempts to portray the university’s policy to diversify its student body as a mechanism for letting in unqualified minority students at the expense of qualified white students, the majority of the court on Thursday recognized the inherent value of a diverse university environment and the narrow role race plays in UT’s admissions process. At the same time, the majority acknowledged the great impracticality of creating a college admissions system that relies solely on class rank as has been suggested by Fisher’s lawyers.

READ: Supreme Court upholds UT’s race-conscious admissions in Fisher case

It’s important to note that Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin was never an affirmative action case in the classical sense.

“Affirmative action”  conjures images of quotas and admissions officials stamping applications until they have enough black and brown faces to fill out their classes. That is a practice that has been deemed unconstitutional in higher education since 1978. Since then, the court has continued to deem constitutional the idea of using race and ethnicity  as one among many factors in admissions, a practice that the UT policy followed when it denied admission to Abigail Fisher and a practice that it continues to use today.

EXPLORE: The history of the UT affirmative action admissions case: Fisher v. University of Texas

This is probably where I should disclose two facts. First, I worked at the university for two years and helped craft its media response to the last Supreme Court decision in the Fisher case in 2013. Second, I have long personally objected to affirmative action as a matter of public policy, which is notorious for causing as much harm as good — casting a pernicious shadow of doubt on the abilities of minority students and professionals and, in some cases, setting up students who have been failed by our public education system for greater failure.

It’s the false suggestion of enduring quotas that feed narratives like the one being pushed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in response to Thursday’s ruling: “The University of Texas is one of the finest educational institutions in the world. The opportunities it offers should be available to all students based on their merit, not the color of their skin.”

Exclusion or acceptance based on race alone is inappropriate in government. But recognition of institutional inequities in access to education and placing a value on a multicultural and heterogeneous enrollment is not only constitutionally valid, but essential to the future of higher education and this state.

As  I found myself at the age of 17 unwillingly defending affirmative action saying in a classroom of mostly white high school seniors: “What do we replace it with? The playing field is far from level.”

The answer is policies like the one used at UT Austin — policies that give value to our differences, whether they be race, socio-economic status, language of origin, family responsibilities, work experience and relative SAT score compared to others at their school. Taken holistically, there is value in having a student body that is heterogeneous and not allow the fact that one semester of having to work to support a family or discrimination that kept a student from being placed in an honors class for a semester would keep a student out of the University of Texas.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

“A university is in large part defined by those intangible ‘qualities which are incapable of objective measurement but which make for greatness’….Considerable deference is owed to a university in defining those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.”

Interestingly, Kennedy used the arguments of Fisher’s lawyers against them. Led by her attorney Edward Blum, the team had suggested that if greater numbers of minority students were the university’s aim, then UT should just extend the Top 10 percent rule to the entire student body. (At UT, the top 10 percent is really the top 7 percent, but that’s a whole different discussion.) Of course the upshot for the University of Texas whose enrollment would quickly be 100 percent filled to Top 10 percenters would mean the university would have to decline admission to immensely talented musicians, dancers, athletes, scientists and academics, who in their devotion to a single area of accomplishment would be denied admission if they were in the Top 10.5 percent of their class rather than the Top 10 percent.

Kennedy wrote:

“Class rank is a single metric, and like any single metric, it will capture certain types of people and miss others. This does not imply that students admitted through holistic review are necessarily more capable or more desirable than those admitted through the Top Ten Percent Plan. It merely reflects the fact that privileging one characteristic above all others does not lead to a diverse student body.”

Yes, there are universities like Texas A & M University who say they do not consider race in admissions. They recruit heavily in areas that UT doesn’t not, and they have had some success. However, A & M also is not bursting at the seams with Top 10 percent students and so they have the flexibility to make offers.

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While Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. may thrash in his dissent, accusing the university of deception and railing that Thursday decision is “affirmative action gone berserk,” the reality is that a university charged with training leaders is not well-served  by using a single measuring stick for access and the value of diversity is greater than simply measuring melanin.

Studies abound about how black and Hispanic children are less likely to be evaluated for gifted and talented programming, more likely to receive harsher punishments for classroom behavior, less likely to be recommended for honors classes, are less likely to participate in summer enrichment programming, are less likely to be steered by teachers to math and science. I could go on.

Abigail Fisher has spent the better part of the last eight years arguing that her spot had essentially been taken by an unqualified minority. In fact, court documents show that one African-American and four Hispanic applicants with academic and personal achievement index scores lower than Fisher’s were accepted into a provisional admission program, but so too were 42 white students with scores equal to or lower than Fisher’s. Meanwhile, 168 black and Hispanic applicants who had scores equal to or higher than Fisher’s were denied admission.

READ: Fisher v. UT, the affirmative action case the Supreme Court can’t quit

The Supreme Court landed on the right side of this case, which should have never gotten this far. Although with the failure to replace Scalia one wonders if this ruling will become an asterisk, or if his fiery, anti-affirmative action rhetoric would have compelled Kennedy to come down on the opposing side.

But I can accept UT’s admissions policy as a constitutional bridge for affirmative action until the day we don’t have to have this conversation about the role of race in educational and economic opportunity. Unfortunately, I fear that will be a while.

 

 

Will CommUnityCare clinic closures help or hurt?

The shuttered AK Black Clinic Thurday June 16, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
The shuttered AK Black Clinic Thursday June 16, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Editor’s Note: This blog entry has been updated.

The fallout continues over CommUnityCare’s decision to close two public clinics in Austin last month and shuffle services around at others. It’s worth noting that CommUnityCare receives property tax support from Central Health. The American-Statesman’s Julie Chang reported that although CommUnityCare officials  attempted to call and mail all patients information about the closures, the changes have left some of the area’s neediest patients surprised and looking for alternatives.

I reached out to Latino HealthCare Forum president Jill Ramirez via email for her thoughts and further insights into the closings. I’ve also reached out to Central Health officials for their response and hope to post those comments later.  Here’s the full text of responses provided by Ramirez:

How does closing these clinics — and sending patients to alternative clinics — improve the service level and quality of healthcare to the community?

Closing clinics and sending patients to alternative clinics can be beneficial if these clinics meet service gaps in access and whether the gaps are related to specific populations, specific areas of the community, specific health care services, etc. A community health assessment should be done to help identify those gaps. Once the gaps are identified, the community will be able to determine what model of care will address the community needs. The community must be engaged from the start and be involved in the discussions of service discontinuance and there should be a transition plan. In Central Health’s case, they have not typically engaged the community in services planning. Most of the (negative) issues they have brought on themselves have been the lack of involving the community.

Will transportation be an issue for any of the communities affected by the clinic closings?

Access barriers create discrepancies in the number, type, and timing of health services leading to poorer health status. Transportation is a commonly identified barrier to care but is understudied in terms of the detail needed to address more direct health and transportation policy interventions. Central Health has underestimated the impact of transportation in their service planning (see discussion of closing of Northeast Clinic closing below`). Central Health has not provided any information about the impact of clinic closings, transfer of services in terms of transportation. Typically they draw a linear line and estimate miles driven and don’t incorporate that a large part of the service population use the bus and don’t own cars and are elderly. Studies have shown that barriers such as distance, access to an automobile, and availability of someone to drive them to a clinic are potential major problems. Their lack of business planning with regard of transportation has been consistent.

Aside from transportation, what additional hardships might patients experience because of the closings?

Other barriers include disruption of treatment, loss of providers with which they are familiar, cultural and language issues, and personal experiences. More broadly, non-financial barriers are distributed unequally across the population and are felt in greater extent and depth in the poor, minority and other vulnerable populations. This may be due to not only the amount of care they receive but also the content, quality, and continuity of what care they do receive.

What type of communication did patients and the community as a whole receive prior to the closings? How could communication been improved?

Communication was always non-existent. Central Health has not learned from the best practices used in the development of the Southeast Health and Wellness Center in working with community health leaders that are trusted community members in understanding the service changes and assisting in communicating changes if warranted.

Are there any other clinic closings scheduled? If so, do affected communities know of the planned changes?

As discussed above, Central Health proposes to continue to close clinics, again without any discussion with community stakeholders. The most recent clinic is the Rosewood Zaragosa clinic.

Other thoughts on changes regarding clinic closures:

Central Health has not dealt with the community and neighborhoods in a transparent, collegial and respectful manner. Their track record reflects this:

  • Intrusion into the Gracywoods neighborhood in the development of the North Braker Lane Health Clinic. Central Health bought the land, initiated re-zoning in an established neighborhood without any prior notice to the neighborhood organization(s) resulting in community strife over a clinic that could have been planned in an effective manner.
  • While planning the North Braker clinic, Central Health closed the Northeast Health clinic at 7112 Ed Bluestein, the only clinic serving Northeast Austin. Central Health forced many patients to have to travel further north to meet their clinic needs. The closure was also without notice. As a result, the community protested as this created hardship for many patients to make the trek with two to three bus transfers. The Northeast area had been without health clinic services until the recent opening of the Peoples Community Clinic in the Northeast area. But, because there has much growth to the northeast, the area is still underserved.
  • In 2105, Central Health and CommUnityCare staff announced that they were closing the Rosewood Zaragosa clinic and moving resources (s) to the clinic  planned at Huston-Tillotson less than 2 miles away. The staff’s official reason was that the Rosewood Zaragosa clinic required facility improvements. Rosewood Zaragosa is one of a few clinics where community members have access to the clinic’s medical services on one side of the site and access to public health resources on the other side. This is a one-stop for the community where patients can get healthcare and health services in one location. This is the type of best practice that Austin has been striving for and it is already functioning through the Rosewood Zaragosa clinic and center. Last year, the community mobilized when it learned of plans for this closure and sent a strong message. The Central Health Board heard that message loud and clear and the proposal was withdrawn. Yet, the CommUnityCare clinic director continues to plan for this closure and has begun talking about it. It is also important to note that this clinic serves a Latino population.

Mayor says go big on transportation, but colleagues go small

Traffic backs up on northbound Mopac during the morning commute into downtown Austin on Monday, May 2, 2016. LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Traffic backs up on northbound Mopac during the morning commute into downtown Austin on Monday, May 2, 2016. LAURA SKELDING / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

In announcing a $720 million bond package to overhaul key traffic corridors, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said it’s time to “go big or go home.”

He is right. Yet some of his colleagues are going small — so small, one has to wonder if they are traveling in the same traffic as the rest of us.

It’s time to go big because Austin’s busiest arteries – including North and South Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road and Airport Boulevard, all built decades ago– have not kept pace with the area’s explosive growth. The Austin-area is approaching 2 million people, but still traveling on roads more suited for a time when the region was half its current size.

Austin residents have a remarkable opportunity to do something about their transportation predicament. Adler’s so-called Smart Corridors initiative offers bigger and bolder results when matched with Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson’s proposal to overhaul Interstate 35. Imagine that the region could see meaningful relief to congestion over the next decade with roads and transit features that appeal to drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and public transit commuters.

FROM EDITORIAL: Questions linger, but Watson’s plan would get traffic moving on I-35

Watson should reconsider one measure in the plan to drop I-35 lanes that run through Austin below street level. Aside from being overly expensive, dropping 1-35 lanes would further displace African Americans, Latinos and lower-income people from East Austin neighborhoods already undergoing massive gentrification. Watson has not addressed either the cost or the impact of burying I-35 lanes.

If anyone doubts that traffic is a major headache than check out the findings of a recent poll that identified transportation woes as the worst thing about living in Austin.

That is what 51 percent of 600 respondents answered on the poll commissioned by the Austin Monitor earlier this month. Housing was second, at 20 percent.

Against that backdrop, one has to wonder why some Council members are putting up competing bond packages that are too small to get the job done.

RELATED COVERAGE: Austin leaders have ‘big’ discussion on transportation ideas

City Council Member Ann Kitchen seems well-intended by advocating for a $300 million transportation bond package whose debt could be retired without an additional tax rate increase. Adler’s initiative, by contrast, would require a 2-cent per $100 of valuation increase, adding about $50 a year to the property tax bill on a $250,000 home.

It’s important to keep one’s eye on taxes, but Kitchen’s approach doesn’t go far enough to create the kind of transit system that shifts people from cars to other modes of transportation, particularly Capital Metro buses.

Kitchen corrected me when I called the bond package the “Kitchen plan,” saying it was the joint creation of the Council’s four-member mobility committee she chairs. As such, she said it was a starting point for debating a transportation bond package for the November election. The council has until Aug. 22 to decide what if anything to put on a November ballot.

It calls for spending $121 million on key corridors: Burnet Road, Airport and Lamar Boulevards, East Martin, Riverside Drive and East Martin Luther King Boulevard. That compares with about $500 million Adler’s proposal would spend on corridors.

The Kitchen-backed proposal also would steer $46.5 million to Loop 360 and Parmer Lane, $39.7 million to sidewalks and $22 million to bike pathways and trails. Adler’s puts more in all of those with sidewalks receiving $55 million, $20 million for protected bike pathways and $30 million for trails.

And if two plans were not enough, Austin City Council Member Greg Casar is offering a third competing bond package. Its price tag, at $720 million, is the same as Adler’s, but it’s too small in geographical reach and vision.

Casar’s proposal does steer much of the bond money, about $420 million, to corridors identified in Adler’s plan. But it also shifts $180 million Adler included for chokepoints in neighborhoods west of Mopac to sidewalks, bike pathways and trails. In all, bike and pedestrian projects get $300 million. That’s a political nonstarter. Not only does it ignore Austin’s more affluent and vote-rich communities west of Mopac, it pits drivers against cyclists and pedestrians.

Casar explained his initiative as one aimed at promoting “a future where hopefully the majority of Austinites do not have to be trapped in single-occupancy vehicles on their daily route to work.”

I, too, share that vision, especially since my own commute, now at about 50 minutes one way during peak times, has more than tripled in 15 years. But that future won’t arrive anytime soon without a cultural shift that gets people out of their single-occupancy vehicles and into other modes of transportation. That can’t be done by force or other such pressures. If that were true, it would have happened already, given Austin’s horrific congestion.

The shift that Casar wants only can happen if people change their view of public transit. That requires creating a high quality commuter experience with buses that move on express or managed lanes so they keep reliable schedules and are not stuck in traffic; pull-outs for buses so drivers aren’t stuck behind them when they stop to pick up or drop off commuters; smart traffic lights that can be timed remotely from the city’s traffic management center so traffic can be managed in real time for weather, accidents and flow; protected bike lanes so cars don’t get stuck behind cyclists and cyclists can ride safely; and sidewalks to provide a safe path for those who want to walk to bus stops, work or shops.

FROM TRAVIS COUNTY COMMISSIONER BRIGID SHEA: Austin’s sky might hold answer to traffic congestion

It means designing an integrated system that invokes technological advances with an eye to future modes of transportation that will look very different than what we have now.

That means going big.

Local LULAC’s ‘State Of Latino’ guide is helpful summary of best practices

Juan Rodriguez and Mary Lou Rodriguez dance as Celsius band performs during The La Condesa 7th-Annual Cinco de Mayo Downtown Block Party on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of the 1862 Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla over France, which occupied Mexico. The May 5th holiday has come to be a sort of Hispanic St. Patrick's Day in the United States that is celebrated by people of every ethnic background. (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)
Juan Rodriguez and Mary Lou Rodriguez dance as Celsius band performs during The La Condesa 7th-Annual Cinco de Mayo Downtown Block Party on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. (RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

In an increasingly gentrified city, even well-intentioned projects can have a negative effect on existing communities if the overall needs of a specific population aren’t taken into consideration.

So then, how can policymakers avoid overlooking obvious solutions? Members of the League of United Latin American Citizens District XII say they have an answer: Read the recommendations in its recently released “State Of Latinos Austin Texas 2016” guide.

The report, which was presented last month, is a summary of best practices, existing projects and other initiatives already underway in various sectors in Austin. The compilation of so much information offers valuable insight. With a still new 10-1 Austin City Council structure, it makes sense to have a resource that council members can use to familiarize themselves with many of these initiatives as they work on new policies and programs.

The document, LULAC’s District XII members say, aims to “provide some guidance on deliberate steps toward ending persistent racial outcome disparities in specific policy areas.” There’s no way around it; because of Austin’s history of discrimination, disadvantages associated with race remain deeply embedded in the city.

As a solution, LULAC’s report lists three reminders for social change. They are:

  • Include equity as a criteria for inclusion and prioritization of policies.
  • Target benefits to Latinos and other vulnerable populations.
  • Prioritize the provision of resources where they’re most needed.

Currently, the catch-all term that addresses much of the inequalities that persist is “affordability.” But as we all know, affordability doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone. For many low-income individuals and families — of which the majority are Latino and African-American — affordability can equate to the ability to meet basic necessities. And, as history shows, helping low-income residents has rarely been a priority for Austin’s leaders and policymakers.

But things are changing.

Today, local leaders and organizations are increasingly partaking in crucial conversations about affordability and inequality in Austin. Much good work is already being done – including in the business, health, housing and education sectors – to address the issue. However, many of those efforts are fragmented.

That’s bad news. When policymakers don’t have the whole picture, it’s easy for things to get lost in the cracks, members of LULAC’s District XII say. That’s why they created the report.

“The guide is a reminder, and a starting point in some cases, for city leaders to focus attention on specific details and to identify core issues and introduce the vocabulary of racial equity into conversations,” Cynthia Valadez, a member of the group, told me.

The concerns outlined by the document align with the city’s Hispanic Quality of Life initiative, which aims to determine what the city can do to improve opportunities and living experiences for Hispanics, a historically underserved community. Since launching the initiative in 2008, the city invested in demographic research and analysis, collected community feedback and had an oversight committee in 2013 – the Hispanic Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission – present a final report with recommendations.

Following the recommendations of the 2013 report, the city has made some changes, like increasing funding and expanding programs at the Department Health and Human Services, as well as creating a Hispanic/Latino Leadership Program at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center.

What about all the other recommendations made in the report? What’s the status of those?

As David Green, the city’s media relations manager, told me, “there isn’t a single master list of the myriad actions the city has taken in regards to the recommendations from the June 2013 report.” It makes sense to have a master list to reference, which could act as a reminder of what else needs to be done.

What’s next for the Hispanic Latino Quality of Life Resource Advisory Commission is presenting a summary later this year that will outline actions and more recommendations, Green said in an email.

It would be wise for the committee to take a good look at LULAC’s guide to ensure the best outcomes for all present and future initiatives targeting low-income Austinites.

Looking forward, the LULAC guide will not only benefit city leaders and policymakers, it could become a vital instrument for the person who serves as the city’s chief equity officer – a newly created seat that has no official start date. That post will lead the newly formed city of Austin’s Diversity and Equity Office. The creation of the office was a direct result of the requests made by Hispanic/Latino Quality of Life Advisory Commission members. Currently, the city is searching for a candidate for the job and has scheduled community forums for feedback about which qualities Austinites would like to see in this new leader.

With so much work still left on the affordability front, the LULAC guide would be a useful tool of reference for all city leaders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Council trio should find better way to flex fiscal muscle than deny help to needy

The Austin Shelter for Woman and Children, which is operated by the Salvation Army, on Thursday, October 8, 2015. Expanding the shelter is the centerpiece of the Salvation Army's first capital campaign in more than 27 years, with the hopes of buying seven adjacent acres to the current facility. The land would house a new building which would double the amount of woman and children the shelter can serve. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN
The Austin Shelter for Woman and Children, which is operated by the Salvation Army, on Thursday, October 8, 2015. Expanding the shelter is the centerpiece of the Salvation Army’s first capital campaign in more than 27 years, with the hopes of buying seven adjacent acres to the current facility. The land would house a new building which would double the amount of woman and children the shelter can serve. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Why on earth would Austin city leaders block money for the venerated Salvation Army?

Yet that is what three city Council Members did when they suddenly, because of absences, had the power to nix $210,000 in funding that already had been approved – and budgeted. In other words, the Council’s duty at that point was simply to cut a check.

The move last week by Council Members Ellen Troxclair, Sheri Gallo and Don Zimmerman was aimed at flexing their fiscally-conservative muscle regarding budget matters. But their actions were neither fiscally sound nor morally defensible, particularly considering that the money was to expand social services at the organization’s Austin Shelter for Women and Children.

It was, however, a civics lesson in how Austin’s 10-1 council conducts business.

The American-Statesman’s Nolan Hicks reported that the money was blocked by procedural gridlock because it lacked the necessary six votes to be approved. It seems that it takes six votes of the 11-member council, and not just a simple majority, to approve any item. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo could find only five votes in favor of the grant for the Salvation Army because Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Delia Garza and Ann Kitchen were in Washington, D.C., to campaign for a $40 million federal transportation grant in the Smart Cities Challenge. Hicks reported that the conservative trio effectively vetoed dozens of minor measures along with the Salvation Army’s grant funding.

And as Tovo noted, it’s disappointing that the vote to postpone the Salvation Army’s grant also failed by the same three votes.

Gallo, a self-described fiscal conservative, but moderate on other matters, told me she voted to block the grant, along with other spending from the general fund, because the city’s stabilization reserve fund had dropped below 12 percent, the level required by council’s financial policy.

Gallo added that City Manager Marc Ott has yet to provide a plan on replenishing it. Replenishing it, Gallo said, would have to be done through the general fund, the same source for the Salvation Army grant. Stabilization reserves dropped because the fund was tapped about $400,000, Gallo said, to steer more money to salaries of lifeguards at city pools. As a reserve, the stabilization fund is used for unexpected expenses or emergencies.

“It’s very important to make sound decisions that comply with the city’s financial policy,” Gallo said, adding that her constituents expect her to be vigilant over city spending that impacts their taxes and other costs. “We can’t fund everything so it’s a balance of decisions.”

Troxclair and Zimmerman did not respond to messages I left Friday by email and phone.

I appreciate Gallo’s position. But in holding up money for women and children experiencing homelessness, those council members missed an opportunity to demonstrate a different kind of conservatism — the compassionate kind.

In Austin, women and children are the fastest-growing segment of a homeless population that has ballooned to nearly 2,200 people on any given day, according to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition. On average, more than 400 women and children in Austin are living from place to place — including in cars, under bridges and in other unsafe conditions — while they wait to access shelter and other social services needed to help them move toward self-sufficiency, Salvation Army officials have said.

And the Salvation Army’s Austin Shelter for Women and Children is on the front lines of serving them. It gave shelter to 367 women and children and helped move 246 to stable housing last year. Why hold these folks hostage over what amounts to a tiny amount in the scope of a near $1 billion city budget?

Tovo said the item will return to the Council agenda on Thursday and expects it to pass with a full council present. That is good.

As a former member of the Salvation Army’s advisory board several years ago, I got a first-hand look at what the Christian-based organization does in the Austin area. The experience changed me. I no longer could look past the many homeless people on our streets without seeing my own responsibility as my brother’s and sister’s keeper. I was so moved by the Salvation Army’s long, compassionate reach that I made it the top charity on my list of giving, and have continued to do so.

Most years I personally drop off a check at their East Eighth Street headquarters. It’s not an easy walk up those steps, past dozens of men and women, disheveled and smelling of the night before, but it’s a necessary walk – one those council members should make.

Who is Mayte Lara? Meet the girl behind the tweet

graduation
Mayte Lara Ibarra, valedictorian at Crockett High School, speaking at her graduation ceremony.

Seventeen-year-old Mayte Lara had no idea that her brief Twitter post would blow up on social media. The Crockett High School valedictorian has gotten caught up in a national firestorm that reflects the intense political climate in this country surrounding immigration.

MayteLaratweet

In case you missed the headlines, Lara was thrust into the national spotlight after she tweeted her accomplishments, adding that she is an undocumented immigrant.

“Valedictorian, 4.5GPA, full tuition paid for at UT, 13 cords/medals, nice legs, oh and I’m undocumented.”

American-Statesman education reporter Melissa Taboada reached out to Lara via email. Here’s the full text of her response to Taboada:

 

American-Statesman: What accomplishments have you achieved?

Besides being the valedictorian of my class, I was also the class president the last two years, National Honor Society president, and a member of the Austin Youth Council and other smaller organizations. I also got wait-listed at Harvard University, which was originally my dream school, but I don’t know if that matters.

One of the biggest hardships I’ve had to overcome was the stereotype of people like me. Many people think that people like me can’t be successful. We have all the odds against us, and I think it’s important to highlight the fact that anything is possible, regardless of your status. I’ve accomplished things that most people wouldn’t think a person with my background could have, and I’m proud of that.

I also used to be extremely shy. I remember how all throughout elementary and middle school I would never volunteer to speak in front of large groups of people, and I would turn the color of a tomato if someone even addressed me. But that changed in high school. I decided to do things that were completely out of my comfort zone, and I’m glad I did, because then I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I still get incredibly nervous prior to a presentation or speech, but I absolutely love it once I’m talking.

WATCH: Mayte’s valedictorian speech

Q: What motivated you?

Personal drive. Apart from my teachers, parents, mentors, and friends, who have been nothing but supportive throughout everything, I have been my own motivation. I’ve overcome lots of things, and I’m proud of that. And because of my past accomplishments I know that I have it in me to accomplish even more. I have goals, and I’m ready  to work towards them. It’s important to be confident in your abilities, because the way I see it is, if you don’t believe in yourself, then no one else will.

Q: When did you move to the U.S., why did you go through the DACA process?

I’ve lived in Austin for the last 15 years. I went through the DACA process because it offers help to students like myself. DACA provides me with a permit to work and study here in the United States (therefore it provides a Social Security number). It doesn’t offer a full on residency, but I’m hoping that sooner or later it will open up that path so I can become a permanent resident from the country I was raised in and have lived in my whole life.

Q: Explain what you’ve gone through since your tweet went viral. What would you want to say to critics? Supporters?

I just want to clear some things up about the tweet I posted, since there seems to be a misunderstanding.

First and foremost, I can fully admit that I should’ve been more cautious about my word choice, especially in these times where everything you say gets twisted and bashed on. However, I don’t deserve the harassment I’ve been receiving.

The reason I posted that tweet was to show others that you can accomplish anything, regardless of the obstacles you have in front of you. It is a common trend on Twitter to highlight your success through a tweet like that, and I saw many other students from across the country doing the same and sharing the things they’d overcome, so I thought I’d share mine.

ALSO RELATED: An open letter to Mayte from James Barragán

I, of course, didn’t think it would receive all this attention. At first it was receiving a lot of nice and supportive comments, but just like with anything, you’re going to have people who take it the wrong way and comment harsh thing. After seeing all the harassment going around, I thought it was best to just deactivate my Twitter, in attempts to ignore the harmful comments. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to Twitter, I’ve realized that social media is filled with so many mean people, who always have something to say. But I just want everyone to understand that my tweet wasn’t made to mock anyone.

I just wanted to show that no matter what barriers you have in front of you, you can still succeed. And I do pay taxes, have a DACA which allows me to work and study here and I have a Social Security number. And I’m grateful for everything I’ve received. It wasn’t just handed to me; I worked for it. Most of the money I earned was through scholarships, since I can’t even fill out the FAFSA. I had to bust my butt to look for scholarships that I could apply to.

I plan on becoming a resident and then a citizen at any given opportunity. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Also, a lot of people think that because I used a Mexican flag emoji, I’m not grateful for the opportunities this country has given me. I’m extremely grateful. The only reason I used that emoji was to show that I’m proud of my heritage, and to show that we can do great things. The tweet was also made in like two seconds. It was a tweet. People shouldn’t be taking it to heart. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love this country and the doors it’s opened up for me. I’m not bragging about anything, just highlighting my success. And to my supporters, thank you, thank you, thank you. All the messages and kind words honestly mean the world to me. I’m super grateful for the support I’ve received, it has definitely made things much easier to deal with.

Remembering Muhammad Ali, a man of the people

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Legendary prize fighter and civil rights activist Muhammad Ali, entertainer Gregory Hines and Austinite Kanwal Sharma in Sante Fe in 1999. Sharma worked with Ali and Hines as part of a project for Apple in the late 1990s. The friendship lasted over the course of decades. The photographer is Greg Gorman.

The fact that Muhammad Ali is remembered for both his radical rhetoric and his humility is a testament to his greatness.

The civil rights legend and boxing champion will be laid to rest on Friday in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. But the outpouring of remembrances of his humor and his accessibility highlight the rarity of his larger than life personality.

WATCH VIDEO: The Greatest, Muhammad Ali: 1942-2016

Remembrances have poured out from all corners of the globe: Basketball star Kareem Abdul -Jabbar in Time, photographer Neil Leifer in GQ, President Barack Obama in USA Today. The theme in all of the tales, whether from Ali’s youthful days in the 1960s to his softer, more subdued years as he fought Parkinson’s, is his remarkable ability to talk to anyone anywhere.

Obama refers to it in his commentary this week in USA Today:

“And we admire the man who, while his speech has grown softer and his movement more restricted by the advance of Parkinson’s disease, has never lost the ability to forge a deep and meaningful connection with people of all ages.

Asked why he is so universally beloved, he holds up a shaking hand, fingers spread wide, and says, “It’s because of this. I’m more human now. It’s the God in people that connects them to me.”

The magic of Ali is that you didn’t have to be famous to partake of his humanity. Upon hearing of the legend’s death, Austinite and marketing and brand consultant Kanwal Sharma posted a series of photos over the weekend on his Facebook page highlighting his decades long friendship with Ali, his wife Lonni Ali and Ali’s official photographer Howard Bingham.

A LIFE IN PHOTOS: Muhammad Ali, who riveted the world as ‘The Greatest,’ dies

In 1996 Sharma was a marketing manager for Apple in California. Apple was in bankruptcy, yet to be saved by Steve Jobs. Sharma’s mission was to develop a global campaign to showcase how Apple products made a difference in the world with the help of 100 extraordinary people around the world with varying areas of influence — entertainers, athletes, scientists, astronauts. Sharma’s job was to persuade them to lend their names and time to the project without a budget to pay for endorsements. The campaign had a cause marketing element, uniting the participants with inner school children to break down barriers.

That is how he met Ali.

Sharma walked into the room for the first meeting and Ali and Bingham, who was nearly always at his side, were passing whoopie cushions back and forth for the entire meeting. And from that moment on a friendship was cemented, including pranks for which Ali was notorious, continuing even after Sharma left Apple and moved to Austin.

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Muhammad Ali and Kanwal Sharma goofing around in California. Sharma approached Ali for a marketing project for Apple, which started a long-term friendship with the legendary boxer.

“[Ali’s] persona and cut across the cultural and generational gap,” Sharma said. “We all gravitated to him. All the athlete at the Olympics wanted to be with him. Little kids wanted to be with him, and he — the world’s most famous human being — wanted to be with him.”

That Olympics, of course, is most memorable for  the moment with Ali lighting the torch in Atlanta. The stories, Sharma says, are too many to tell. But a few include: Being invited to the LA Marathon and Lonni and Ali put Sharma up in their suite for the night; performing with Ali in a powwow at Taos Pueblo, celebrating Sharma’s birthday; being at the Sydney Olympics and seeing how all the world’s young athletes wanted to be with him;  being invited to walk the red carpet for the premier of the Ali movie;  getting various prank calls, the best one being a call from Bo Derek who was with them for the Fight Night Gala in Phoenix.

READ: Ali’ to return to theaters to celebrate the boxing legend

Through it all the fun and good times, Sharma also recalls the deepness of Ali’s faith, even in relation to his Parkinson’s diagnosis which was already taking a toll.

“‘It is what God gave me,’ he told me,” said Sharma. “He said it “makes me observe life in a different way.” It is the kind of thing that has been written before in newspapers, but to see it first-hand was awe-inspiring.”

My family’s path crossed with Ali 26 years before Sharma. If anything the continuity proves that the warmth that Ali exuded was not a product of age or illness, but an extension of his true self.

COMMENTARY: Muhammad Ali helped make black power into a global political brand

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Jim Watkins, Muhammad Ali and Charlie Lipscomb at Virginia Tech in 1970. Wakins and Lipscomb were students and Ali was visiting their fraternity house after speaking at the university.

My mother and father met at Virginia Tech in 1969 when the African American student population was still tiny, but extremely tight knit. My dad left Tech and joined the Air Force, but my mother still attended the events thrown by his fraternity Groove Phi Groove.

When black celebrities came to campus, they often stopped by the Groove house, which was also a general gathering place for black students. Ali stopped by one night in 1970 after speaking on campus. My mother was there that night, as was my godfather Jim Watkins.

Watkins, who was one of the founding members of the campus chapter, was interviewed about that night for for the Virginia Tech Black Alumni Association. The picture, at right, was taken that night with Ali on the telephone changing his flight plans — the plane was supposed to leave at 11 a.m. and Ali stayed with the students until 2 a.m. Watkins is standing next to Ali.

Here’s my godfather’s recounting:

I don’t know what group got him on campus to come speak but after he spoke, and everybody went on stage he was talking to people and these other white fraternities were talking to him trying to convince him to come to their parties they were having. Just three of us, the Groove brothers went right up there, everybody spoke, and he just looked like he couldn’t wait to speak to us. And when he spoke to us we were like we have this house in town, and we would like to have a get together.  We weren’t even having a party that night because we were going to hear him.

But he came over and we got some brothers to come over to the house and he sat in the chair in the house and we all sat on the floor listening to him talk about the Muslim faith and different things that has happened to him over the years and he kept talking and he just kept talking answering questions. Next thing you know his bodyguard said we have this 11 o’clock flight and he said no I want to continue to talk….I gained more respect for that than from anything he’s ever done. He could never do wrong after that as far as I’m concerned. There were a lot of things he could have done that night instead of talk to us.

 SEE MORE: Photos: Muhammad Ali mourned around the world