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Broadening the Franchise: Seeking Diversity in Austin Government

If you’ve been around Austin for a while, chances are you’ve heard Andrew Zuniga's sentiments before.

“This is not the same Austin I used to know,” Zuniga said. “Because I was away for 40 years see?”

Zuniga is a musician. He’s 79 years old.

“Well, it’s a lot bigger, a lot of traffic and more people,” he said.

And now, every other face in Austin is the face of a person who is Latino, African American or Asian. Nowhere in Austin can you hear more languages spoken than in classrooms across the Austin Independent School District. There, English learners come from homes where languages like Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Urdu, French, Farsi, Portuguese and Russian – among many others – are spoken.

But if minorities make up more than half of Austin’s population, they did not make up that same percentage of voters in November’s election.

“As much progress as we’ve made – and it’s important to talk about the progress,” said UT Professor Richard Reddick. “We’ve had legislation, we’ve had an African American president – everything is good – well, no, no we are not. Look at life indicators, look at the educational attainment statistics. Those tell the true story.”

For instance, African Americans and Latinos do not graduate from AISD schools at the same rate as whites. Minorities also are less likely to have health insurance. Reddick says voters rally around politicians who actively support the causes that affect them. So, politicians should learn to “speak” the cultural language of their voters. Asians, Ali Khataw says, in their cultures, value things like integrity and achievement.

“I remember some days where my parents – I would bring my report card home and I would have all A grades,” Khataw said. “But under character, I would have a B because I was a mischievous guy and I was a little troublemaker. And that was not tolerable by my parents. They would say go back to your professor and apologize and get that grade changed.”

Khataw is with the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce. He says community leaders could flip the low Asian turnout in Austin if they displayed similar values.

“I am a cultural hybrid – my mother is from Monterrey, Mexico and my father was from Hong-Kong, China,” said Juan Wah.

For Wah, engagement will come when Austin's different cultures feel as if they are understood. Community engagement is his area of expertise with Capital Metro.

“Americans are a bit more individualistic – which is a great thing,” Wah said. “They work very hard, but alone. You see then that in other cultures it’s a group effort. Everything has to be OK with the group before anything can be done.”

Austin voters spoke about this need for engagement across all areas of the city when they passed the 10-1 plan. It created a city council comprised of members representing 10 individual districts with only one member – the mayor – running city-wide. But whether it changes the face of Austin representation remains to be seen.

You can be part of a conversation on engaging Austinites in the civic process Monday, Dec. 10, at KUT’s forum with the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life and KLRU. “Why Bother: Engaging our Changing City” will take place at the ACC Eastview Campus From 7 pm to 9 pm.  

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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