UPDATED on Monday, Aug.22:
Time, it seems, is what the majority of Austin council members needed to properly address the insensitive remarks made on Thursday by Council Member Don Zimmerman to a group of school children.
Mayor Steve Adler’s delayed response came on Saturday in form of an official statement posted on the city council’s online message board. In it, Adler called for respect and civility from all members of the council.
“We cannot let our policy or political goals, even our frustrations and disappointments, create an environment or culture where those testifying before us arrive or leave scared, humiliated, disrespected, or fearful of their interaction with us,” Adler wrote.
Also on Saturday, Council Member Kathie Tovo sent the Statesman Editorial Board the following Open Letter —a gesture I most appreciated:
An Open Letter to the students and parents of Hart and Wooldridge Elementaries, and the many other community members who were gathered at the City Council meeting on Thursday or witnessed it on television:
We want to express our sincere apologies for the offensive remarks directed your way by another member of the City Council.
The comments were hurtful and insulting, and we want you to know we don’t agree with them or share our colleague’s views and perspective.
Later, Council Member Delia Garza eloquently condemned the remarks on behalf of many of us on Council. This experience has been a vivid reminder of a key tenet of the No Place for Hate campaign: that each of us has a responsibility to confront bigotry and prejudice and to call out hateful speech when we hear it.
Please make no mistake: the position our colleague expressed is not one we share, and we believe everyone who comes to City Hall has a right to be treated with respect.
We’re proud to live in and represent the diverse families who together make up this city we love.
The students and families who came to testify at City Hall on Thursday spoke eloquently about the need for quality afterschool programs and parent-teacher support specialists. We commend their leadership in advocating for these important resources on behalf of their larger school communities – and for their commitment to making Austin a better place for all of our families.
Council Member Ora Houston (District 1), Council Member Ann Kitchen (District 5), Council Member Leslie Pool (District 7),
Mayor Pro Tem Tovo (District 9)
Council Member Delia Garza, from the dais on Thursday, addressed Zimmerman’s remarks. She posted a statement on her Facebook page on Friday, as did Council Members Greg Casar and Sabino Renteria.
As of Monday noon, Zimmerman had yet to provide a formal apology.
On Friday, Aug. 19: It’s not surprising – much less shocking — for Austin Council member Don Zimmerman to make questionable comments from the dais. But last night, during a debate over the city’s proposed budget for next year, Zimmerman’s words to a group of children in attendance were indefensible.
The children, all students of the Austin school district, were at City Hall to ask for the support of the council to approve funding for after-school programs in Austin public schools. After Council Member Sherri Gallo encouraged the students and their parents to become more civically engaged, Zimmerman offered this advice to the children:
“I want to ask you to pledge to finish school, learn a trade, a skilled trade, get a college education, start a business, do something useful and produce something in your society so you don’t have to live off others.”
Do something useful? Don’t live off others?
Let’s for a second assume that Zimmerman intended to be inspirational. He should have stopped at “start a business.” Or maybe even at “do something useful.” But he didn’t.
Instead, he insulted the children, who, unlike many kids their age, were doing just as Gallo suggested – being civically engaged. Those children Zimmerman suggested be useful when they’re older, already are being useful by lending their voices to the cause of all children across this city. At least to me and many others, their presence a the council meeting signals that these children and their families are motivated and already aspiring to graduate, go to college or enter the workforce and contribute to Austin’s economy.
Luckily — after receiving input from the community during the remainder of the meeting — Council Member Delia Garza came to the defense of the children.
“We do not condone what he said,” an emotional Garza said to the audience. “We have your back, not just the ones that are brown or black on this council.”
Later, other council members took to Twitter to show their disapproval of Zimmerman’s words. Then, on Friday morning, Garza expanded her condolences in a Facebook post (posted below).
Still missing, however, are Mayor Steve Adler’s rejection of Zimmerman’s words and most importantly, an apology from Zimmerman. That needs to happen soon.
Below is the text from Garza’s Facebook post:
The City Council meeting last night was an emotional one. In addition to our other Council agenda items, it was also the first of a few public hearings we will have on the proposed budget before the final budget adoption.
For those who have never been to a hearing on the budget, it’s an opportunity for anyone from our community to address Council and comment on what priorities and values should be included in the budget. We had over 5 hours of speakers signed up though not all spoke.
There was a group of elementary school children there asking for funding for after school programs and one of the little boys started crying while speaking as he talked about all the great things these programs do. I always admire the children who come speak before Council. I remember the first time I addressed the Council as an Austin Firefighter and I, as an adult who professionally walked into burning buildings, was extremely nervous. Public speaking is no joke, so I always sympathize with the little ones who are brave enough to come have their voice heard.
After most of the children spoke Council Member Zimmerman chose to give advice to learn a trade and to “do something useful… so you don’t have to live off of others.” The chamber immediately erupted in loud boos. I wish I had responded quicker, but honestly, and unfortunately, I often stop listening when he starts talking because these types of comments for him are not uncommon. I did eventually respond because I felt it necessary for the public to know that the majority of the Council does not condone his hateful comments. After adjourning close to 1:00 a.m. and getting some sleep I feel the need to say a little more because this hateful rhetoric towards Latinos in our community is unacceptable and has to stop.
Mr. Zimmerman will never fully understand the privilege he enjoys simply because of the fact that he was born a white male, nor will I attempt to explain that to him here. Latino families have lived through years of institutional discrimination but continually push on and work hard to support their families.
Do something useful you say Mr. Zimmerman? Let me tell you all the useful ways the Latino community contributes to our community – they help build the roads you drive on, pick the food you eat, repair needed infrastructure, clean the buildings where you work and live, serve the food you enjoy, patrol your streets, give CPR to heart attack victims, run companies, and sit on the dais next to you. And that’s just the short list of the ways we as Latinos “do something useful.” And many who do the most back breaking work aren’t paid a fair wage and even have to deal with wage theft, followed by threats and intimidation when trying to get back those wages they have rightfully earned. So even after working long and hard days, they still sometimes can’t make enough to support their family.
It’s amazing to me that decades after Cesar Chavez marched for fair wages and safe working conditions for farm workers, I sit in a building on the street named after Cesar Chavez and have to push tirelessly for fair wages we should already by paying for our City employees but, I’ll keep up that fight for as long as I have to.
No mother wants to have to go lobby her local government to ask for help with after school programs. She does is because she knows that program will allow her to continue to work so she can have the ability to put food on the table for her family. She does it because she wants to make sure her children never have to do the same. She does it because when you become a mother, as I have learned, you put your pride aside and do what needs to get done to support her family, and sometimes that means asking for help, speaking your mind, and exposing your heart and crying in public so your children will have a better life.
As a community, we should always do what we can to support those in need and even if we disagree, at the very least, as leaders we should respectfully listen to the constituents we were elected to serve. Thank you to all who had the courage to come and speak last night. I hope you keep coming and know that your voice does truly make a difference.