Once or twice a month, when City Council Member Sheryl Cole is shopping for groceries, an African-American woman between the ages of 50 and 70 will approach her and say something along the lines of, ‘You look better in red.’ her laughter echoing in the small space of her city hall office, which is adorned with degrees, commendations and many family photographs, Cole smiled as she relayed this fundamental truth.
“It really feels like there’s a segment of the African- American community, especially women, that treats me like a daughter, like family,” she said. “It’s very sweet. There’s an ownership and affection that I don’t think ever existed before.”
As the first African-American woman elected to the Austin city council, Cole had a sense that things were different in the early days of her campaign in 2006. She recalled walking a block in east Austin and being greeted by an older African- American gentleman at the door. “He said, ‘Young lady, I don’t know anything about you. But my wife keeps pulling up your website. I guess I’ll go get her.’” Cole said, who grew up north of Dallas in Wichita Falls. “So, she came to the door and gave me a hug.”
A proud resident of Wilshire Woods since 1994, Cole certainly has her share of LGBT neighbors, but her connection goes deeper than neighbors or would-be supporters. Cole is pleased to have a family friend, who is gay, as the godfather of her sons. “I don’t want to diminish the political role, but to really change minds you have to have relationships,” she said, adding that her sons call him “Uncle Scott.”
“It’s so important that discrimination not be labeled or messaged as against only one particular group,” said Cole. “In solidarity, there is strength.”
Her leadership was instrumental in forming a partnership with Travis county to the Waller Creek Tunnel Project, which will take 11 percent of downtown out of the flood plain and pave the way for the redevelopment of a huge swath of land–in effect, making it possible for Austin’s version of the San Antonio river walk or Chicago’s millennium Park. “It will be our downtown water and the crown jewel of the city,” said Cole, who studied accounting at UT for her undergraduate degree. “Lots of people have tried to make it happen and worked on it but haven’t been able to get the ball past the finish line.”
Another area of focus that she’s particularly proud of is the council’s resolution to build 350 units of permanent, supportive housing with a priority for low-income residents. She believes strongly that Austin needs to maintain its sense of community and inclusiveness–and that the education of its children is of paramount importance.
“I always tell people, I was a PTA mom and I went to city hall to rest,” Cole said, smiling. Ultimately, it was her school-based activism that led to her public service career. She served as tri-chair of the 2004 AISD Citizen Bond Committee. When the initiative was approved by voters, Cole said that Austin “had made a strong statement for its future” and a reporter asked if she was going into politics. The rest is history.
Cole said her biggest challenge as a parent of three boys, ages 15, 17 and 22, is making sure they open up and express their concerns and staying connected amidst everyone’s busy schedules. One way she unwinds is by jogging on the trail in the morning.
Public service requires a range of skills–diplomatic and otherwise–and Cole ’s six years serving on the board of Planned Parenthood taught her a tremendous amount about making magic happen when a range of constituencies and personalities are involved.
Before she enters a meeting, Cole might get a glass of water and take a moment by herself to get centered. When she was in the first grade that was the first year that schools were integrated. Recalling that era of racial strife, Cole , who said that she’s keenly aware of being the only African-American woman at various points in her daily life, struck an optimistic note about the country’s progress in the area of civil rights.
“We have this saying in the African-American community, ‘to whom much has been given, much is depended,’” she said. “You feel like you’re standing on the shoulders of a lot of people who gave a lot for you to have the opportunity, so you don’t want to disappoint.”