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Boise Councilwoman Lisa Sánchez says she has no access to 'those rooms where housing decisions are made'

Lisa Sanchez was elected to the Boise City Council in 2017
Lisa Sánchez, City of Boise City Council
Lisa Sánchez was elected to the Boise City Council in 2017

Councilwoman Lisa Sánchez turned more than a few heads during the October 11 workshop session of the Boise City Council.

Lawmakers were being briefed on affordable housing – or the lack thereof. Sánchez was disappointed; not in the analysis per se, but she said it was the latest in a long line of not being at the table in conversations regarding housing.

“They’re also not living in the body that I live in. I am the only person of color serving on this council, and it’s a unique perspective that I bring,” said Sánchez. “When it comes to housing, I have experienced housing discrimination.”

Sánchez visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about that moment, her growing frustration, and how “it is a volatile time to be a renter.”

“With all due respect, the only way at times that I feel that I'm heard is if I do it publicly.”

Read the full transcript:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. There was a moment in last week's workshop session of the Boise City Council that certainly grabbed our attention.. so much so that we needed to know more. The council was being briefed on a recent analysis of affordable housing or the lack thereof. In particular, the analysis came from the Urban Line Institute's Terwilliger Center of Housing. But then Councilwoman Lisa Sánchezspoke up… not so much about the analysis, but about the panel that authored that analysis. Something was up because what followed for the next few minutes was … well ... give a listen:

LAUREN MCLEAN / LISA SÁNCHEZ: I'd prefer that that be brought to me than provided to staff.

Madam Mayor, with all due respect, the only way at times that I feel that I'm hurt is if I do it publicly. I have repeatedly asked to be a part of conversations like this, and it's like I'm a ghost.

PRENTICE: We are grateful that Councilwoman Lisa Sánchez can spend some time with us this morning. Good morning.

SÁNCHEZ: Good morning, George.

PRENTICE: If you will. Can you take us to that moment in particular? You were looking at the list of the authors of this particular study. And well, that triggered something, a response. But can you put us in that moment?

SÁNCHEZ: Well, first of all, thank you so much for your inquiry about the situation, George. The reality is there are many moments leading up to that particular moment, and that is, in fact, the issue. I've served on the Boise City Council for a few years now. As you know, I'm in the first year of my second term. And so it's it's been these moments where I have felt that the perspective that I bring to the council has not always been used to the best of its ability. And so this would just be the latest in a long line of those instances. And I think that's important for folks to know that it's not just one particular instance. And it's difficult because I think most people, when they view me being outspoken in a public setting, they probably wondering why didn't she bring this up in private? Why is this not happening offline? And the truth is, these conversations have happened offline and there hasn't been much action. And so as a result, I left with no alternative except to speak up in full view of the public. And so what I what I'm bringing as far as a member of this community who has been voted twice to serve on this council is a perspective that only I can bring. Surely my other council members and mayor have all probably rented at some point, but they're not renting at this time.

And as we know, it is a volatile time to be a renter. They also are not living in the body that I live in. I am the only person of color serving on this council and it is a unique perspective that I bring. So when it comes to housing, you know, I have experienced housing discrimination. Again, a really valuable perspective that I bring. And it's important for folks to make space for those perspectives. Certainly when the community has elected a member to represent those perspectives. Now, some folks might say, well, maybe you missed the email. Maybe I did. I still haven't seen this email. And I if I missed it, then here's here's what I'm hoping I can get in support from my colleagues moving forward. If you look around and you see that your your colleague who represents the perspective of people of color, of renters, has somehow not made it into the room, perhaps there can be another level of inclusion where you inquire. It's like, has is Lisa been a part of this? Does she know about this? Because I've had had that sort of support in the past. I've had people who've really worked hard to ensure that that perspective is reflected. And, you know, this might seem a bit dramatic or hyperbolic, but I don't think so. When I think about what's been in the news over the last year, I think about the legislation that Senator Melissa Wintrow brought forward at the Idaho State House to address the sins of our city, of the people who formed our city, who embraced redlining, to separate the people in our community based on their race. It's not something that I'm making up, as you know, George, It's real. Senator Winthrop brought forward legislation to empower homeowners who find this hateful, racist language in their deeds and empowering them to remove that hateful language. We recently at the City of Boise, celebrated the dedication of the Erma Hayman house. The significance of this woman in our city's history is because she was a leader within her neighborhood, a neighborhood where she had to live if she wanted to be a homeowner, because that particular part of Boise River Street was reserved for nonwhite people. And I bring these things up because I say that even though we remove the racist language from the deeds, even though we celebrate today, a woman like Erma Harmon. Those sentiments are still part of our culture and we have to be watchful and mindful of it. As purposeful as it was to separate people by policy all those years ago. We have to be equally purposeful about correcting the mistakes of the past.

PRENTICE: Lisa Sanchez,It's so interesting because in my jumble of notes, as I was listening to last week's workshop, I wrote down the word “redlining.” So let's talk…let's go there. And can we talk about racism, implicit or otherwise? In the layers that come with it …not being seen, not being heard? And when you represent so many others, that implication can be tenfold?

SÁNCHEZ: And I think the danger of us looking to the past, George, like when we talk about Senator Wintrow's legislation, which I applaud and I think if anything highlights how our city was created, I know we we don't like to hear the words right, white supremacy, but that is a white supremacist philosophy. When you decide to shape your city based on who can live where. Boise, Idaho, is not upwards of 90% white by accident. It was designed to be that way. When we think about someone like Irma Heyman being a leader, as an African-American woman, as a black woman in Boise, Idaho, all those years ago, she was a leader within her own neighborhood. What would it be like if Erma Hayman was alive today and she was serving on the Boise City Council? How effective would she be in that role? Would she be welcomed into the rooms where decisions are being made? These are questions that I think about all the time.

PRENTICE: I want to read this right…this is an exchange you had with the mayor: “You said, with all due respect, the only way at times that I feel that I'm heard is if I do it publicly.”

SÁNCHEZ: I am held accountable to my constituents, just like my colleagues are. But there is an added onus on me, George, because I am the first Latina to even seek a seat on the Boise City Council, much less be reelected. I have to I have to take into consideration the members of my community who may consider a run for city council themselves, and I need for them to know that it's not enough to win your election. You also have to commit to doing everything you can to be effective in the role that your constituents have voted you to serve. And that cannot mean waiting for permission, waiting for an invitation. You can certainly ask with respect, but if you are not heard, you have to do it publicly so that at the very least your constituents know that it's not that you don't want to be in those rooms. It's not that you don't want to participate in the process, but perhaps there may be some gatekeeping occurring. And, you know, at this point, George, I don't want to say that folks are purposefully being exclusive, but we are now at a point in our evolution as a society that we need folks to be purposeful in undoing the harm of the past and certainly creating our city in a way that it separated its people based on race. And again, that's not something I'm making up that is documented. We have to be just as purposeful in undoing that harm because it is a harm. It is a harm to keep people separated based on something insignificant, such as the color of our skin. I think about former council member Jerome Mapp, who, as far as I know, is the first and only African American black man to serve on the Boise City Council. Councilman Mapp was the first person I reached out to for mentorship and guidance when I decided to run for the City Council in 2017. And one of the things he said to me is, Lisa, what are you passionate about? Whatever it is you're passionate about, you need to bring that to city council and you need to lean into it. And what I'm passionate about is diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and justice George. And in fact, my first encounter with the city once I was elected was to review a document. It was a pamphlet of sorts that was used, I believe, as a marketing tool to recruit people to work for the city of Boise. It was very slick, beautiful pamphlet, had kind of a Wes Anderson kind of vibe in terms of its color palette, very hipster like. But as I flipped through the document, I saw the word redneck, and it made it gave me pause because I'm a former civil rights investigator. George, that's something you should know is once a. Civil rights investigator. You can never look at the world through a different set of eyes. I always see the world from that perspective and to know that a document was produced by the HR department of the City of Boise that had the word redneck in it gave me pause. And I. I saw that and I thought, okay, I get it. They're trying to be funny. They're trying to have fun with with personnel policy, trying to make it more easier for people to read. Because as personnel policy goes, it's pretty dry. It's not the most exciting read, but I think in the attempt to be jocular, to be funny, they may have overstepped. And so there was a lot of items in that particular pamphlet that made me realize, well, I think leading into diversity, equity and inclusion at the city of Boise is perhaps the path that I should take. And in fact, I did do that work. I did initiate work to to educate us at the city of Boise for us to eventually put a strategic plan together. And for some reason I was removed from that d-ii work last summer. And I still don't know what the reason is for for my removal, but that is an example of of steps and decisions that were made that really didn't include me. As I look around at my colleagues who have their own specific passions that they're devoted to, I see them running with it. I don't see them being closed off from those opportunities. And I think certainly in in the climate that we're living in now, having somebody who is well versed in those issues being involved, I think is important. And that would be me not only as my as a as someone living in a body that has been marginalized, but also somebody who's dedicated their lives in service to expanding the notion of diversity, equity, inclusion in people's work, and certainly something that I think the people of Boise want.

PRENTICE: As you know, we gave this story the space it it deserved most certainly last Wednesday morning. I'd be remiss if I did not note that other media here in Idaho … some other media, have picked up the story since then. I am curious, though, about the reaction and what you have been hearing from constituents and particularly your colleagues.

SÁNCHEZ: I've heard nothing from my colleagues. Yeah, I participated in an event on Saturday. Council President Clegg has this wonderful initiative, the 100,000 Tree Challenge, where we're trying to plant 100,000 trees over the next several years. And so I participated in that event, and I did briefly see her on Saturday. But other than that, no, I have not heard from my colleagues.

PRENTICE: Can I pause you there for a second, then?  Are we talking about some kind of chill in the room?

SÁNCHEZ: Not necessarily. I think because of COVID. Yeah. Unfortunately, I think this particular council, we haven't had as much opportunity to be close as the council that I participated in in the beta administration, just, I think quite fairly because of the nature of COVID. It has really, I think, kept people from having those opportunities to be closer.

PRENTICE: But can we assume that you would welcome a conversation.

SÁNCHEZ: Oh, absolutely. You know, and that's that's what's difficult is I know these conversations are not easy to have and they're painful and people are afraid to say the wrong thing. But I would challenge my colleagues, my mayor, they are very talented people. They're very bright and they're very brave and bold people. They have shown their courage in a variety of ways. I think they can do this. I think we can have these conversations. And the thing is, I'm not trying to catch somebody doing the wrong thing, George. You know, I had one of my colleagues say to me that. You know, perhaps the reason I'm not invited to some of these important meetings is because people are afraid that I will make them feel racist. And I thought, you know, well, that's a chilling thing. If if somebody's just feeling that my mere presence is going to make them feel a certain way, the fact that somebody has the power to preserve their own comfort over what is the right thing to do and the right thing to do is to have someone like myself who was elected fair and square to serve with the Boise City Council. I should have access to those rooms where decisions are being made.

PRENTICE: Are you saying that a person elected to public office said that?

SANCHEZ: Yes. Yes. I don't know if if the individual was trying to give me a perspective of trying to be helpful in some way of, you know, maybe if you change your ways, they said maybe they'll we'll let you in the rooms. I don't know. But it's it's hard to ignore somebody saying something like that, that perhaps the reason you're not invited into those spaces is because people are afraid that you will make them feel racist.

PRENTICE: Well, talk to me about your constituents then. What was the reaction there?

SÁNCHEZ: You know, something that has been said to me and about me that I appreciate, and that is that I'm an authentic person. I think people, if there's anything that they can expect from me, it's honesty and that I will be real and that I will share what I'm feeling when I'm feeling it. Maybe another person might take a beat to construct their their message, but I think it's important to be honest. I think that's what our constituents expect from me. And so far, I, I don't think I have behaved in a way that would be surprising to them.

PRENTICE: Surprising to your constituents?

SÁNCHEZ: Yeah, I don't think it I don't think it's surprising to them. I think after five years of of having to serve in this capacity, I think they've kind of gotten used to what to expect from me. You know, there's something that comes from not being a veteran politician. This is not something that I aimed for, as it were, the last time I was in politics. I was was 30 years ago when I was elected the first Latina student body vice president at Boise State University. So it took quite a while for me to get back into politics. But I think it's important that we have people with different styles and different approaches to the work, and apparently so do our constituents, because again, they sent me back to City Hall this past year.

PRENTICE: Well, we are always anxious to have that conversation on this program and on all of our spaces. So for at least for this morning, Councilwoman Lisa Sánchez, thank you.

SÁNCHEZ: Thank you so much. Thank you for all that you do. George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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