Our evening–and my first LEAP Center event–began with a trip to the Glade Gallery, which hosts not only beautiful art, but also many of the events held by the World Affairs Council.
At the Glade Gallery we viewed an array of paintings and sculptures. As we were roaming the gallery, we noticed some art pieces that also happened to be for sale- some were priced up to $31,000!
And we even saw a Marc Chagall!
Our main objective of the evening, however, was to hear from Julián Cárdenas, who was speaking on Venezuela’s political and energy situation–and how these are being affected by the Russian-Ukraine War.
Considering Mr. Cardenas served in the Venezuela State Department, is an energy expert, and a law professor at the University of Houston Law, he was a good person to hear from on this topic!
Mr. Cardenas and WAC’s able moderator Ronan O’Malley discussed the challenges faced by Venezuela since the Chavez and Maduro regimes, of which there many. With economic policies that aren’t working, the country facing sanctions imposed by other countries, and widespread corruption among government officials, Venezuela is also facing soaring inflation–in fact, inflation has climbed to thousands of percent, making the US’s inflation rate of 10 percent seem tame.
Cardenas discussed numerous topics we needed to learn about: realism v. idealism in foreign policy, the G-7, NAFTA, and programs such as “food for oil.” We also learned the term “brain drain,” of which Cardenas was a part–he left when conditions became intolerable there.
Following the main discussion, we were able to chat a bit with Mr. Cardenas, pose for a photo, thank the wonderful WAC staff, and head out for dinner.
We drove down to Casa Medina just in time to grab a couple of seats before they closed the kitchen. The service was excellent, and the food was solid! I ordered the shrimp enchiladas, and I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of shrimp and cheese on top. I am a bit of a shrimp enchilada connoisseur, and this dish is a guaranteed 10/10 on the Ashlyn Parker scale!
We’ve previously volunteered for the Senior Center, but only indirectly. For the past two years, we’ve assisted with “Empty Bowls,” hosted by the Wynne Home, and the proceeds from that fundraiser go to the Senior Center. But we’ve never helped directly with the good people there, and so helping the staff and board members thank the Center’s regular volunteers at their “Volunteer Appreciation Dinner” was a nice opportunity.
And while this may have been our first time to directly help the organization, the Senior Center has been helping others for the past 45 years! Help, indeed: in 2021, the organization provided more than 52,000 meals to those who are food insecure in Walker County!
Director Stacy Loll led the proceedings, we and the Junior Service League of Huntsville, and Board members Linda McKenzie, City Councilmember Jon Strong, Alice Ellisor, Robert Patteson, Ellen Willett, Karen Hewitt, Mary Douglas, Brad Davis, Bart Davis, Susan Retzlaff, Rosie Knight, and Dick Morton all assisted.
Their goal was to thank the many regular volunteers who assist the Senior Center, especially those that volunteer for the “Meals on Wheels” program.
For our part, we worked at greeting, drinks, and to a lesser extent, desserts. Our tasks were straightforward and pleasant; working with good people for a good cause is almost always pleasant!
Ms. Loll recognized various volunteers…
…and we also heard testimony to the hard work of JD Davis, who served as Board Chairman until his passing last year. His family was on hand, and the Board did a good job of honoring his service to the Senior Center, including providing a plaque to the family.
Linda McKenzie and Alice Ellisor also bought two tickets to the Isaacs, who are appearing at the Old Town Theatre. A lucky volunteer came away with a fun night of entertainment!
One unexpected delight was that we were also offered the opportunity to eat. Humphreys did a fine job with the catering, and the food, some gift bags…
…and the genuine appreciation of the Board, reflected the deep gratitude we all feel for the regular volunteers who help make the community a stronger–and better–place.
Judge Hatchett was very enthusiastic as she shared her stories and words of wisdom to inspire all the attendees. Unlike other speeches, Judge Hatchett meandered around the room and asked questions of attendees. She encouraged everyone to establish professional and private goals and to stick to them!
For us, the breakout session was an opportunity to learn from senior managers at the conference.
After the breakout session, she left us all pondering her powerful message: “on the other side of fear is your freedom!” Reminding us to not be afraid to act upon our dreams and do what we are meant to do.
Receiving a standing ovation from the audience, Judge Hatchett walked off the stage to converse on a more personal level with a few of the attendees. It was then that we realized what a small world we live in when we “bumped” into Scott Wayman, who, as it turned out, is married to Diane Gottsman! For those wondering who Mrs. Gottsman is, she comes to Sam Houston State University (brought in by Career Success) every semester to teach us about etiquette, and we very much enjoy her annual visits, where we pose with her in annual selfie.
So, we did that with Mr. Wayman!
As we got ready to leave, we said our goodbyes to Ms. Breland, Mr. Wayman, Mr. Stokes, and Judge Hatchett.
We are looking forward to attending the 2023 TCMA Conference in Allen, Texas!
As we sprinted to the last day of our conference trip, we prepared for our busiest and most fulfilling day. We headed to the Lost Pines resort for a delightful breakfast and one of our last opportunities to network and learn from other city employees. Our conversations soon came to an end when the World-Renowned ER Physician and Iraq War Veteran, Dr. Sudip Bose took the stage.
Dr. Bose spoke on how to be the best leader, even when while under A LOT of pressure, which is something that various city managers have dealt with through COVID-19 and its effects. Utilizing his military background as an analogy to various situations, Dr. Bose was able to relate with the many city managers in attendance.
Dr. Bose reminded us that “challenges without support are discouraging,” stressed the importance of knowing when to let go of a situation and move on, and highlighted the importance of knowing when a window of opportunity is presenting itself.
Perhaps most important was his message emphasizing preparation, a lesson he learned in the military: “the more you sweat in peacetime, the less you will bleed in war.”
Dr. Bose’s closer was perfect lead-in to the different sessions that we would hear, involving: (1) cybersecurity and (2) how and why it is important to address mental health needs.
The cybersecurity session focused on the importance of addressing and having a multi-layered defense and an Incident Response Plan.
Ryan Burns with Texas Municipal League (TML), who is a former SHSU graduate, led this session addressing all the concerns of its attendees as well as covering what he thought was most important.
Without saying too much, Burns advised everyone on how “it takes everyone to combat a cybersecurity threat and each city must plan, prepare, and test their plans, revising as necessary.” As city managers and employees, they must be PERFECT all the time compared to a hacker who only needs to get it right once.
Morgan and Isabel reported that the session covering mental health was comforting to see so many cities focused on the mental health of their employees.
TCMA has partnered with Deer Oaks Employee Assistance Program to provide mental health support for its members. Rep. Kristina Herrera, explained the various services that will be available for TCMA members and their families and the importance of utilizing them. The concept, as with all proactive health efforts, is that providing mental health services is not only the right thing to do, but will ultimately lead to a happier, more productive work force.
The City of Austin awaited us, so we left the conference early after enjoying a quick lunch!
We had the pleasure of meeting (and, for some of us, re-meeting) a passionate artist, Daniel Arredondo, whose work entranced us for almost two hours. One of most prevalent themes in his work is “what lies beneath,” the idea that what is beneath the surface is often more important than what is on the surface.
It may be appropriate, then, that his work often depicts trees. But he also showed us his landscapes and, in a new twist for him, his recent, more abstract pieces.
Arredondo’s passion was apparent throughout our visit. We asked him how he knew when a painting was done, and he simply described it as a gut feeling.
Morgan seemed to gravitate toward the pieces that were more southwesterly in appearance, a bit reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe landscapes. Jessica was fond of his signature style paintings of “what lies below,” landscapes of trees and their roots growing underneath–so much so that she bought one of them!
We also got to see him in action! Arredondo demonstrated how he starts an abstract painting and described why he chooses the media that he does. He mentioned multiple times that he has never done a demonstration in front of others; it was such a treat! I loved how passionate Arredondo was, how detailed he was in his descriptions of his process, and the hospitality with which he welcomed us. Today was filled with so much laughter, great conversations, and fellowship. It was a great day to start the end of our trip!
At the end of our stay, Arredondo gifted us with pieces that will serve as reminders. Some of his earliest works adorned the front of the cigar boxes, and he was kind enough to let us choose ones that spoke to us.
Many, many thanks to Daniel Arredondo for showing us was art is from the other side of the canvas.
We switched gears from the roaming hills of West Austin and headed for the heart of Austin, the Texas State Capitol.
We began our capitol tour much like we do others, by commenting on the interesting or unique architectural features and designs. Professor Yawn walked us around the groups and explained that the extensions to the structure were fundamental in accommodating our Texas-sized legislature and staff. While the extensions and supporting features are new, they did not distract from the aesthetic of the Capitol established in 1885.
The red limestone exterior of the Capitol seemed to glitter in the setting sunlight, and we made our way into the north entrance. Upon opening the front doors, we of course stopped to look at the 7-pound door hinges, detailed with the Texas Seal.
We posed with Elizabet Ney’s rendering of a young Sam Houston…
…and pondered on the surrender of Santa Anna.
But, of course, from the rotunda, the most interesting piece is the interior of the dome, which is beautiful.
And we also followed toured the floors viewing the different governors throughout history, settling on our favorite.
As we were leaving the sun was just setting under the tree line and we snapped our final photos.
After a lovely tour of the capital and a relaxing drive around Austin, we were ready to kayak and spend some time on the peaceful water of the Colorado River.
And while Jessica and Izabella accomplished a peaceful journey, that certainly was not the case for Morgan and me.
I knew it might be a bit rocky when Morgan began our ride by saying, “Isabel…I’ll do my best not to yell at you.” Part of our problem is that we thought I, sitting in front, should be steering, when, in fact, that was Morgan’s job. (Editor’s note: both parties lacked any semblance of navigational skills, exacerbated by the fact that Morgan is often flummoxed by even simple directions.)
Our meandering, inefficient paddling, however, did not prevent us from seeing a beaver casually swimming along the shoreline!
While we worked just to paddle forward, Jessica and Izabella enjoyed a leisurely tour along the river, using what Jessica referred to as the “slow-and-steady approach.” Although we aren’t ones to judge, it did appear that Bella was allowing Jessica to do much of the work….
Around 8:30 pm we began to paddle to the dock. The trip back was where Morgan and I experienced the most action. We attempted to convince Jessica and Bella to tow us into the dock, but they selfishly refused to play along. This left us to our own devices which, at one point, rendered us fighting limbs and the shoreline, running aground (and encountering a spider–eek!) as we ineffectually tried to return to the dock.
Despite these misadventures–or perhaps because of them–we very much enjoyed our time on the water, and it was a fitting and madcap ending to a wonderful day.
…who introduced our keynote speaker for the general session, Nora McInerny, whose talk, “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” played on themes she discusses in her podcast and books.
She displayed her dry, witty sense of humor while also touching on loss, grief, change, and new beginnings. Most importantly, she addressed the ability to genuinely answer the question, “How are you?” I think we often answer with the word “fine,” which is okay, but sometimes, it’s okay not to be okay.
Following McInerny’s inspirational words, we had a chance to meet her and discuss her talk.
She was very generous.
Today was a unique day with their awards luncheon! Once the doors opened, we scurried off to get a table and save Huntsville’s City Manager, Aaron Kulhavy, a seat next to us. For most of the luncheon, we were conversing with Aaron to get to know him and learn more about city management.
Our entrée for lunch consisted of Ham with Barbeque sauce, and grits, accompanied by a variety of vegetables such as corn and some delicious carrots. Once we finished our main dish, we started on our dessert which was a delicious fruit tart with oranges and strawberries. Countless city officials were recognized for their outstanding work and accomplishments throughout the years. It was truly an amazing and rewarding experience.
Once the luncheon was over, Aaron Kulhavy took us around and introduced us to multiple people from the surrounding areas before we split off to the breakout sessions.
Isabel enjoyed the economic development conference presented by Imelda Speck, the Economic Developer in Irving, Texas, which is Isabel’s hometown! Speck along with the other panelists talked about the effects the Covid-19 pandemic had on their cities and small businesses. Isabel found it interesting to hear about the programs the City of Irving implemented to try and soften the blow. Jessica found this session particularly easy to understand and follow thanks to her Finance Internship with the City of Huntsville.
In ways, her internship with the Finance Department helped her understand things in different sessions such as previously mentioned and the strategic plans session. However, this can also be said of Morgan after interning with the City Secretary.
Morgan’s favorite conference, All Disasters are Local, Your Emergency Program Should Be, Too, by Nim Kidd. Kidd talked about three new technologies that they are putting in place to cover more bases regarding emergency management. It was also intriguing to know how they are also starting the first academy in the nation for emergency management and will be placing 100 new agents in 100 new counties.
Despite many good sessions today, my all-time favorite was the opening session with Nora Mclnerny.
Dinner in Downtown Bastrop
Once the conference wrapped up for the day, we were beyond excited to explore downtown Bastrop and eat at a local place. On our way to Piney Creek Chophouse, we took a moment to admire the various bookstores, coffee shops, and beautiful homes in their downtown. Piney Creek Chophouse is a nice neat little local restaurant that has a unique architectural design and interior that adds to the character of the place.
Often Professor Yawn forgets to feed us, but makes up for it when he treats us to a fancy steakhouse. Never failing to get us appetizers to hold us over until our entrees arrive, we ordered Crab Cakes, Crab-Stuffed Mushrooms, and Bruschetta.
We were also provided with a delicious, crafted artisan bread accompanied by butter. The crab cakes were bursting with flavor, and we even convinced Jessica, who isn’t a fan of crab or seafood, to try a bite! We couldn’t get her to try a mushroom, but maybe we’ll have some better luck next time.
As we waited for our main entrees, Professor Yawn gave us a quick crash course about dining etiquette. Soon enough, our main entrees were brought out to us, Morgan and Izabella shared a Filet Mignon served with Mashed Potatoes and Haricot Verts. Jessica and I both shared a New York Strip accompanied by Mashed Potatoes and Haricot Verts as well.
Professor Yawn enjoyed a Strawberry Salad and a side of fried Brussel Sprouts which we all absolutely loved.
Each dish had its own quality that made it special, and each dish was full of different flavors. We all had our own unique experiences. After our main dish, I was sure I was full and had no room for dessert…. I was wrong.
Dessert included an exquisite Bread Pudding, A Molten Lava Cake, and Banana Foster. I found the Banana Foster the most interesting since our waitress brought the dish out covered in flames which certainly made for a cool and unique presentation. The Banana Foster had a very strong cinnamon taste and a slight hint of coconut, it was one of the favorites and there was not a single piece left on the dish. The Bread Pudding had more of a sweet, rich taste and the Molten lava cake was very neatly presented, and the brownie was super rich and paired with the ice cream, it made for a wonderful combination.
We all had a great time at dinner, and it was the perfect way to end a long eventful day.
Prior to the kickoff of the TCMA Conference, we went to the Blanton Museum of Fine Arts, where we got to learn, look, observe, and interpret various kinds of art! For some of us, it was our very first art museum.
Morgan’s favorite exhibits were American art and Modern American art. Her favorite artist, Albert Bierstadt, had a painting that she liked called “Sioux Village near Fort Laramie.”
The painting featured a native encampment in 1859 that was centered around a sense of calmness and was overall, a beautiful, timeless piece. I can understand why Morgan liked the piece, as well as the artist!
Isabel admired Cilado Meireles’ artwork called, “How to Build Cathedrals” which was created in 1987 and composed of 600,000 coins, 800 communion wafers, 2,000 cattle bones, 80 paving stones, and black cloth. This piece was probably the piece that everyone had different interpretations of, which again, is the beauty of art!
The cattle bones were hanging from the top, almost like a ceiling, while the coins were scattered around the bottom, and the wafers acted like a spine from pennies to the bones. It was overall a very dynamic and intriguing piece.
Jessica loved the beautiful Ellsworth Kelly Chapel, which I believe was another of the group’s favorites! It was comprised of a circle of squares and a sun-colored glass that had all the vibrant colors.
When the sun shined through, it was even more beautiful! Its walls were decorated with Ellingworth black and white paintings that brought out the colored glass.
Whether a piece is simplistic, challenging, controversial, disruptive, or detailed, we learned it’s ultimately up to the viewer on their take always of art.
Clay Pit, Jessica Cuevas
We then ventured to a neat Indian cuisine restaurant, Clay Pit, for lunch. For many of us, it was our first time having an Indian dish. Our appetizers consisted of Naan, Samosas, and Papadum which was like a flattened-out tortilla with lentils.
The appetizers were delicious, but we mostly enjoyed our flavorful and savory meals which ranged from medium spiced Butter Chicken to Chicken Kabobs and Coconut Curry Chicken. One of the great things about traveling with LEAP is that they encourage and provide us with opportunities to try new things.
Texas City Management Association, by Isabel Behm
Once we finished our delicious lunch in Austin, we began to make our way back to Bastrop to kick off the Texas City Managers Association Conference. On the drive into the resort where the conference was being held, we were met with a beautiful scenery surrounded by nature.
The first event we attended was Career Development. The presenter, Larry Gilley, is Vice President and Executive Recruit of Strategic Government Resources.
We also heard from four panelists, Matt Mueller (Town Manager of Little Elm), James Childress (Town manager of Flower Mound), Dalton Rice (City Manager of Morgan’s Point Resort), and Chrystal Davis (Assistant City Manager of Carrolton).
The recurring theme of this session was how to strengthen your resume, as well as your interviewing skills. We got to hear first-hand about what these specific city managers looked for and how exactly they dealt with balancing and managing their workload. Some of the main points of the presentation were to get to know the position you’re applying for prior to an interview by either reviewing the city’s website as well as their city council members and knowing why you are the right fit for the position itself.
When the panelists were given time to speak, they gave countless pieces of advice about how exactly to be successful in those positions. The biggest piece of advice that stood out to me was the advice given by Chrystal Davis. She stressed the importance of being able to take time to breathe and assess your priorities so that you can have a work-life balance and be able to manage your home life as well. Some other things mentioned were the importance of knowing your own personal strengths and weaknesses and being able to let your team succeed and learn from their mistakes. It was an amazing experience to be able to hear from these city officials firsthand and get an inside look at how exactly they managed their specific towns/cities.
Interestingly, we finished the night at a reception, where we spent more than two hours…
…meeting with people, learning new things about city government, and networking in the hopes of landing a job when we graduate!
Although it is summer, the LEAP Ambassadors look for ways to learn. Thus, when Ken Holland, Chairman of the Board of Adjustments (and HISD Trustee), invited us to attend a board meeting to see how the City works, we jumped at the chance.
Mr. Holland prepped us for the meeting by supplying the agenda ahead of time and explained to Yvette and me what a Board of Adjustments does. He told us that the board is made up of citizens who wish to serve their community (much like City Council, which is also a board). The seven members of the board meet when there are cases to be discussed, and they do not get paid for their time.
Before the start of the meeting, we spoke with Aron Kulhavy, City Manager, for a while and I was also able to introduce Yvette to Kevin Byal, Director of Development Services for the city.
The meeting began, just like City Council, with the pledges and an invocation. The next item on the agenda was a Public Hearing for a variance request.
A public hearing consists of three parts: (1) a description of the variance, (2) comments in favor and (3) comments against. Public hearings for a variance are a time in the meeting in which a representative from the city will explain the issue and why the citizen is requesting a variance. Once the representative from the city explained the facts of the variance, the Chairman, Mr. Holland, opened the floor up for comments from the public.
The second part in the public hearing calls for comments in favor of the variance, and a representative for the citizen gave a detailed description in favor of the variance, which involved property on a setback line for the construction of a new structure. Previously, on the land in which the new structure was to be built, there was a structurally unsound shed that has since been removed. The owners of the property are looking to build a pool house on the site of the previously existing structure. However, due to the layout of the property and usage of the land, the structure would encroach on the setback line by 4 feet.
The property owner then spoke in favor of the variance, as did a neighbor who believed it to be in the best interest of her property as well.
The third part of a public hearing calls for comments against approval of the variance, and at this meeting there were none.
Mr. Holland closed the Public Hearing, and then began the 6th item on the agenda; for members of the board to discuss and decide on approval or denial of the variance.
After some deliberation and discussion, the Board of Adjustment decided to approve the variance with the staff recommendation of a four-foot setback with a 1-hour fire-rated wall assembly required.
The meeting was interesting from start to finish, and I am grateful we were invited to watch our community at work!
The LEAP Ambassadors would like to thank Chairman Holland and the City of Huntsville for inviting and welcoming us to learn!
As our first day came to an end, we attended another fantastic Houston World Affairs Council event at the Amegy Tower featuring Joel Simon, who discussed topics from his book Infodemic regarding censorship associated with COVID-19. As a nice bonus, we also had a chance to meet former LEAP Ambassador Esme Mata, who after graduating from SHSU, went to the Bush School at TAMU, and is now working for Harris County. And we had a chance to see Amegy Tower for the first time!
As we know, COVID-19 is still a very controversial and confusing topic, but Simon–with skillful moderating by Ronan O’Malley–was able to articulate how the COVID-19 pandemic led to various types of censorship across the globe.
The most fascinating subject Simon talked about was how some countries installed tracking apps on their subjects’ phones, so that they could see where they travel, whom they interact with, and whether they have potentially been exposed to COVID. If a person has interacted with a COVID patient, that individual is given mandates to stay at home or go to quarantine, and if they don’t, they can be fined or otherwise penalized. In some cases–as in Russa–individuals were given notifications in the middle of the night, and if they did not respond in time, they were assumed to have broken quarantine, and fined.
It was interesting to learn more about how other nations responded to the pandemic and how censorship policies, in most cases, hurt their country.
One item of particular interest was the importance of local news and leadership. National news figures and media have the “reach,” but they lack the trust, the sense of shared identification with locals. Local newspapers, local reporters, and local leaders share that identity, but almost thirty years after the advent of the internet, they no longer exist in many communities. They lack the reach. So, citizens were not getting information from people they trusted in many cases, and they also lacked information that the national media could not give: such as where to go locally for vaccines, or where medical supplies could be purchased, and the like.
The whole experience was very informative and easy to understand and Simon’s answers to our questions were very knowledgeable regarding censorship, which I appreciated.
After Simon spoke, we were able to get a signed copy of his book, followed by a picture! It was a great opportunity to see old friends (LEAP students and WAC staff), learn something new (from Joel Simon), and make new friends (Esme Mata).