A Voice for Compromise: Councilwoman Jill Gaebler

I caught Colorado Springs Councilwoman Jill Gaebler rushing from a television interview. Her eyes glinted with excitement and a bit of mischief as she described a few techniques the makeup artist had used, but after a few moments, we sat down and moved to the business at hand. As a community advocate, Gaebler pinpointed some of the most pressing issues in our community, including storm water and revitalization of our infrastructure. However large these issues loom on the Colorado Springs horizon, we spent much of the interview discussing education, education reform, and the need for strong educational activism and volunteerism in our community. Her most important message, however, concerns cooperation. No matter the topic for debate, she asserts that we must find common ground.

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Deen: Currently, which issue in our community do you consider top priority and why?

Gaebler: That’s actually a very hard question. When it comes to really critical issues that need to be addressed right away, it’s got to be stormwater. Before I was elected in April, [the previous City Council] had the stormwater task force. They’ve been trying to look at ways to fund our backlog, which is anywhere from 300 million to 1 billion dollars, supposedly. In early October, they’ll come out with [a report]. City Council contracted CH2M Hill to really look at all the projects, give us a priority list and a cost.  We’re waiting to hear about that. Then, we’re going to figure out how to regionally accomplish working on that backlog. For me, getting that started and having that be a regional effort is critical. We have lost two people, now, in the last month because of the floods, and I don’t think we can delay this any longer.

Deen: No. It’s really not acceptable. How did the backlog begin?

Gaebler: Well, stormwater in the communities is funded through a tax or a fee. We had a fee for a few years, and it was collected on impervious surfaces. They sent you a picture of your property, and based on the amount of land you had that was home or concrete, those were impervious surfaces that water would run off. We were charged a fee on that. We were subsequently sued by Doug Bruce, and we passed Issue 300, banning that tax. Since then, we haven’t had any stormwater fees. For a few years in there, we were catching up and starting to address some of the backlog, but it’s just getting worse and worse. Once we address that backlog, it is just ongoing maintenance. We really need that because all of the communities downstream are affected. It really is our onus to look at that.

Deen: Absolutely. It has to do with us being better custodians of our land.

Gaebler: Better stewards and better neighbors.

Deen: Exactly. We all need to be good neighbors.

Gaebler: We’re in a global world.

Deen: We certainly are, and it’s interconnected. What I do affects the person next to me whether or not I want to think about it.

Gaebler: Yes.

Deen: Some of my upcoming articles focus on the Regional Business Alliance and their Rising Professionals. As a young professional myself, I find this a very important issue. What do you think Colorado Springs offers to young professionals, and how can we create a more attractive and vibrant community?

Gaebler: I honestly am not sure what our city offers young professionals. That’s an interesting question. We have great colleges here — and as an aside, I don’t know if you know this, but I figured this out a few weeks ago. UCCS, Colorado College, and the Air Force Academy are all, at this very moment, run by women. I love that.

So we have these great institutions of learning, and these people graduate, but I don’t know what happens then, why they leave, or what’s truly going on. When I read in the paper like we read last month, where we have a great local company in land resource holding that is moving to Denver because they can’t attract enough young professionals, then I think city leaders need to listen up to that. What aren’t we doing, or what should we be doing that can attract them? That’s actually something I just talked to the local news about. There are things that young people look for, and they want a vibrant downtown.

I personally have taken downtown on as my baby, and we have a lot of groups that are trying to do unique and different things. I don’t claim to be an expert on any of them, but I like to tell them that I’m trying to give them this big group hug. There’s a group trying to start a public market, kind of like Pike Market in Seattle. They want to do that downtown. I think it’s fabulous, and it hits on a lot of issues that I care about, whether it’s a food desert and local food and helping our lower-income people to learn other ways to eat instead of just McDonald’s simply because it’s cheapest, or something else. These folks would fill that nutrition gap. So this would be a very vibrant offering, an anchor, to draw people downtown. I’m a big proponent of that.

There’s another group, the Greenway Fund Group, trying to complete what’s called the “Emerald Loop,” which is a biking trail that links downtown. Although it’s not probably something by itself that’s going to bring young professionals, I think it’s just one more thing that shows that we care about our natural resources and outdoor amenities that obviously we have in abundance here.

So I’m working with them. They are also working on this lovely creek, which is kind of dirty at times, but they are also trying to bring the creek more into the community. If you go to America the Beautiful Park, right behind the fountain there’s a berm that goes down to the creek, and Greenway is working with the parks department to get rid of that berm.  It’s going to happen pretty soon. Then the kids can just come down and be at the creek. There’s also an effort to make part of that creek, from about Bijou to America the Beautiful Park, more floatable so you can tube. I actually tubed it this weekend. It was kind of hilarious. But I did it just to see what it was like.

But there are a lot of things we need to be doing to draw young professionals. We need affordable housing, and we have several groups working on that. We need a lot more mass transportation. Jan Martin has always been a big proponent for public transportation.

Later on, you talk about my nonprofit experience. Working at Greccio Housing for all those years with low- income community members — I mean, they can’t get to work if they don’t have a car, and they also don’t have public transportation. So we send a lot of mixed messages saying, well, “You need to get a job.”

Deen: Yeah, but they ask how?

Gaebler: Again, we need to work together to make sure these things happen, and young professionals want that. Right now our downtown, if you go down on a Friday night, there’s just a few things to do and most of them revolve around alcohol. I’m actually on a city group that is a safety group, and we’re trying to figure out how to make our downtown safer. I don’t really think it’s unsafe. Sometimes it looks unsafe because there are many homeless people walking around, but I think we’ll always have homeless people. They are just part of the fabric of our community.

Deen: Yes, they’re a part of any city’s community.

Gaebler: They are. But we do need to have a balance of the different types of people downtown, so that everybody feels comfortable being there, whether it’s all the G.I.’s drinking on Friday night — I mean, that doesn’t make me comfortable. So we do need to work together to try and fill in those gaps.

I’m serving on the Downtown Development Authority, which is part of the downtown partnership with Susan Edmondson. She has so many great ideas and is such a creative woman, and I have high hopes for her. She’s new in that role, and she can help us broaden our downtown experience.

Deen: I think that sounds fantastic.

Gaebler: But with young professionals, I’d really like to spend a bit more time talking about what happens after they finish school. Is it really just a business issue? Why aren’t we keeping businesses here? Why aren’t businesses coming here? All those conversations flow into the next conversation. It’s like the conversation we had about the airport.  Our airport isn’t thriving. Well, we don’t have enough business here to create demand and competition at the airport. It’s kind of a Catch-22. Some say that we just need to change the reputation of the city. Maybe that’s true.

In this whole region, they think of us as extremely conservative, not progressive, and you work for iComply, yet we can’t seem to wrap our heads around the idea of retail marijuana, and I think that’s a problem. We struggle with solar energy and doing some of these progressive things that young people want. Every time we ignore or say “no” to some progressive idea, I think that sends shock waves throughout the region. People say, “There goes Colorado Springs doing crazy stuff again that isn’t welcoming or collaborative or progressive.”

Deen: I think you’re right. We need to learn how to work with different people and bring everyone in the community together to make really good decisions about the future of our city. I’ve lived her most of my life, and I want to continue living here.  As I was saying earlier, I recently spoke with Joe Raso, and he said that we need to create a skilled and highly desirable workforce to draw diverse business sectors into the area to supplement new and established business. How important a role do you think education plays in creating a viable workforce, and how do we encourage education into those kinds of fields that companies will want?

Gaebler: Excellent question. I will probably sound radical in this statement. We already talked about how we have amazing universities in this city, lots of educated kids coming out of these schools, but I think we have too much emphasis on this one track of college education. We say that everybody has to get a college education.

Everyone is on a single track, yet all kids are different, and our schools, starting in high school, are all sending kids through this narrow track. I think we need to broaden that spectrum. Not all kids are meant to go down that track. All kids who are being forced onto that track even though it’s not a good fit for them [often] end up with nothing, drifting. They might be completely in debt having gone through some school and end up not finishing, or they might have a degree that isn’t useful to them.

So I would really like our schools, earlier and especially in high school — and this goes into the charter school question–all our schools can’t be the same. We are seeing more diversity in high school education offerings, but I graduated a while ago, and we had a lot more emphasis on vocational training. We’ve lost that to some degree. We don’t have shop anymore, leather-working, etc.

Deen: Those were fun classes.

Gaebler: They give kids an opportunity to use their hands and see if they have a natural ability or skill that is not typically offered. There are some great jobs out there in plumbing that actually earn a very good living. These jobs aren’t considered white collar, or something you would strive to do in this world, but are excellent careers that people would be happy to have if that type of work makes them happy. We’re not all meant to work in an office. I hate working in an office.

Deen: I do too, at times.

Gaebler: I think it starts a lot earlier as far as trying to build a robust workforce of people who are doing what they are meant to be doing and are happy going to that job every day. High school can’t only [give one] path, that path to college. I say “radical” because people aren’t supposed to say that kind of thing, today.

Deen: Yeah. I think that some people might take it as being politically incorrect to actually voice those issues, but you know what? My dad is the most brilliant mechanic I’ve ever known, and even though he doesn’t like sitting down and working on an Excel document, he can do it. I think, many times, he’d probably prefer to be out there working with his hands.

Gaebler: Yes. So that’s part of it. Going back to what Joe said, there’s the “creative class,” and the creative class is along there with the young professionals trying to create a more welcoming community. I’ve been interested in watching the Rising Professionals separate from the Regional Business Alliance and how that is going to work. Are you part of that group?

Deen: Yes, I am.

Gaebler: I’ve met with them, and I think they’re having some growing pains right now, but I think it’s going to be very exciting for you guys to have a voice that isn’t stifled in any way by a larger organization. And I’m not suggesting that was happening, but I think [sometimes] it naturally happens when you have any group above you. If you guys can create your own conversation, have your own voice, and push forward on issues you care about, as a single force, and I think people will begin to listen. You will become a very powerful group.

Deen: I agree. I think we’ve really got a great group of folks around my age who are really starting to work together to end feelings of community isolation. People might think, “Well, the Springs isn’t really that great.” But it is.

Gaebler: We need to change the conversation.

Deen: Exactly!

Gaebler: The Springs is great.

Deen: The Springs is a beautiful place. It’s fun, and there are always things to do. You just don’t always have as much communication, I think.

Gaebler: That could be. I love that I can walk out my door and be on that mountain in 15 minutes.

Deen: Yes.

Gaebler: It’s not like that in Denver.

Deen: No, It’s not. It’s a 30+ minute drive just to get to a somewhat interesting mountain, like Lookout Mountain.

Gaebler: Not the same.

Deen: Nope. So, segueing into the education topic a bit more, do you believe that the American education system needs extensive reform, and if so, what alternate models should we be looking at?

Gaebler: There are different things that do need to happen. Everyone working in education reform has good intentions, and I try not to put anyone down because [their intentions are to create] a better educated youth. I helped found a charter school here in town in District 11 where we had a lot of low performing schools. We wanted to give those families another option for their kids’ educations.

Parents, especially low-income parents, don’t have the time, the energy, or the transportation to be driving far away to some school. We tried to put it right in the center of town where it would be easy for families of low income to get to, and then they wouldn’t be forced to go to their neighborhood school that wasn’t doing well. So what happened was that we did this, and a lot of those public schools ended up closing. And at the time, I thought, ok, that’s good although I was continuing to tell D11 that I would like nothing better than for them to model what we’re doing to create a better business.

There does need to be competition in the education marketplace. So often, there’s no competition. The kids go to their local school. Charter schools have provided families choice in education. Not all charter schools are the same, but charter schools are one option. There are those who would say that charter schools are taking education dollars, and they are, but these schools are usually started by parents who create a charter, create an idea for how a school should be run, and ideally, there should be a need to really be able to express, show, and display evidentiary to show the need of this community. I don’t know how often this is happening, and maybe it’s too easy to start a charter school. Unfortunately, that makes all charters look bad. Charters are one answer.

I do think, again, that vocational schools can work. Having different options in the community is always good–that’s a huge part of the equation. There are those who want vouchers, but I’m not sure how I feel about vouchers. I know there are areas of very low income where, especially in big cities, where these poor children are going to horrible schools, and they don’t have a chance. These kids are never going to get out of that cycle of poverty, going to those schools.  We do need to figure out how to change this, but there are so many components to the problem.

And some of it is teachers unions. People don’t want to hear that, but teachers unions are part of the problem, [as is anyone] being resistant to any sort of change. Anything that could break [us] away from the way we’ve always done things is good because this system is not working for these families.

Back to Colorado Springs, what I did at Greccio Housing was work with these young adults, these 19 year olds, who are having children. And they shouldn’t be, of course, having children. They’re children themselves. They are working at McDonald’s, they are raising these children, and these children do not have a chance. Yet, we as a community, are always pointing at them and saying, “What’s your problem? Get a job! Do something!”

And it occurs even at that youngest level where we need to somehow be able to get that child and break them out of that mindset. Otherwise, that’s all they’re going to see. They’re going to model their parent and become just like that parent. And is it that parent’s fault?

Deen: No.

Gaebler: And then the child becomes that parent. We want to yell at them, but that’s all they know. So, we as a community, need to be part of that change, of getting that kid educated. If, by the beginning of third grade, that kid doesn’t know how to read at a third grade level, that is a very strong indicator as to whether that child will ever succeed. By third grade we know that.

Deen: That’s terrible.

Gaebler: We need to get to these kids when they’re young, and somehow ensure that all kids are going to a school where they have an opportunity to get a good education. I can’t force a kid to get an education, but they should have the same opportunity as any kid from any demographic or income level to receive education.

Deen: Agreed.

Gaebler: Our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, who President Obama has in there now, well, they have some good ideas and have been strong supporters of charter schools and common core standards. I’m much more of a local government person. I think education should be handled at the lowest level possible. We know our communities, we know what’s best for our locales, so I do have a few issues there. I know I’m all over the map right now. You’ve hit on my issue. I have very little effect on it in the role I’m serving right now, but at least I can be a voice.

Deen: That’s important, though. Your voice draws attention to the issue. Maybe we need to look at the problem, some possible solutions and figure out what we can actually do. What can we do on a personal level? What can we do on a local community and government level? And what, if anything, can we really do on the state and national level?

Gaebler: Locally, I think, I serve on the library’s board of trustees. That’s a free and available and amazing asset we have in our community, the public library district. We can encourage kids to visit libraries, get families to do that, if we can create for children of a young age that curiosity and wonder, that is what gives them an interest in learning. And if you can do that at a very young age, then you have, potentially, a learner for life. Libraries are a huge part of that, and so are your schools.

Deen: Absolutely.

Gaebler: So volunteering in your schools at the local community level, getting involved with a child, any child, and giving them that curiosity. I used to do that at Greccio, asking “What are you interested in? What do you want to be when you grow up? And what do you think that means?”

I have a good friend of mine who is a teacher, and she said she was surprised by how many kids that she taught that she asked them, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” as seniors in high school, and they would say, “No one’s ever asked me that before.”

Those things need to be asked of all ages, giving kids this desire to learn more about themselves, to ask “What would I like to do when I grow up? What would make me happy? And what do I need to do get there?” And that would just create this desire for learning.

Deen: I think that really starts with the teachers, in many ways. My entire life, I’ve had amazing teachers.

Gaebler: You don’t forget that.

Deen: No you don’t.

Gaebler: I think that’s huge, as well. We need to take care of our teachers because they get burned out, too.

Deen: Absolutely. They have these kids eight hours a day plus, sometimes. So what advice would you offer to parents who want to get more involved with their kids’ school, and also, what advice would you offer to those who don’t have kids but want to get involved in improving education?

Gaebler: I think, if you have kids in school, you should try to stay active in your child’s day-to-day education. Try to ask questions of your child, of your principal, and if you’re experiencing barriers or they’re not being communicative with you and working with you, that’s a problem. There are some different education models where educators think they know best. At the end of the day, I understand they know education best, but I know my child best. I know how my child learns. I know how my child works.

Deen: Yes.

Gaebler: So you need to be working together to make sure that happens, and if either side is out of balance, it’s not what’s best for the child. So I always tell parents, “You should be very active in your child’s education. It’s so important to be forceful, not rude, but make sure that you are part of that process and that they are listening to you and you are in tune with what’s going on. So many times, it’s too late by the time they get involved.

I gave one of my teachers a book, once, called The Trouble with Boys. She was a new teacher, and I could tell that she was kind of coming at her teaching style trying to force everybody into this same sort of round hole, but boys on the whole tend to be much more energetic and active, and they can’t sit for a long period of time and continue to learn. The worst way you can punish them is tell them they can’t go to recess, because then they’re going to be ten times as energetic. It’s a two way street. Parents and teachers need to work together.

If you care about the future, which is what our children are, you should be volunteering in your schools in any way that you think is best. That could be sports–having role models in sports is essential because, well, the more I go to games, I notice that the parents are acting like children, the refs are acting like children, the coaches are acting like children, so what kind of role models are we being for our children? So the need for good role models at sporting events is something that kids can see as a positive thing in their lives. Also, go to your library. Volunteer at your library. Read to children. There’s all sorts of ways you can get involved.

Deen: How can our disparate community members be part of the conversation and still get something done?

Gaebler: Even just downtown, to try to get everyone under the same umbrella. . . .

Deen: It’s difficult.

Gaebler: Yes. When I ran for election, I talked a lot about common ground. This is a non-partisan role, so I try. I’m a Republican, but I won by getting mostly D’s and U’s because I’m socially very open-minded. When I won that night, I looked around the room, and I had this amazing group of people who would not talk to each other under normal circumstances. When I spoke, I said, “I want you to go meet each other because, in this room, you have common ground, even if it’s just in me. You have common ground.”

We need people like that to bring all these groups together because somewhere, in a Venn diagram, there is a common ground. Even if it’s just caring about our community and loving Colorado Springs, that could be the center. But where you do that and how you do that is anybody’s guess. I think we just keep working, talking, etc. I’m not quite sure.

Deen: But it sounds like you hit on the main issue there.

Gaebler: That’s just rhetoric. It sounds good.

Deen: So we just have to figure out how to implement it.

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As the interview ended, we discussed compromise. In particular, Gaebler said that women often compromise throughout their lives. They may compromise their careers for family or marriage, taking time off to raise a family or care for an ill loved one. However, she cautions young women to avoid “being their own worst enemies” through their sacrifices. She often feels she must work harder for the same amount of respect men are granted in City Council, but she reminds us all that we should never apologize for who we are. Women, men, and others can all create their own power through self-awareness. Still, we all need to learn to compromise to actually get any real work done.