On May 1, a familiar surname will appear on the ballot in the District 3 race for San Antonio City Council. Phyllis Viagran is running for the open seat now held by her younger sister, four-term councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, who’s reached the end of her term limit.
Still glowing from a morning spin class, Phyllis Viagran, who turns 48 on January 15, greets me through my computer screen. The resemblance to her sibling on council is striking.
As we get into the interview, Viagran seems confident she can edge out her four other opponents. She holds that she has the skills, qualifications and connections to lead her community through the pandemic.
“The Viagrans, we’re all just workers,” she says with a smile. “We just work. There’s hardly any days off for us. That’s why I think my sister was able to do so well. I am super proud of her.”
Early in her own career, Viagran was a teacher at a Catholic elementary school. She loved the experience, which taught her the importance of being patient.
“The thing about teachers — and I tell this to them all the time — [is that] you can do anything,” she says. “You want a corporate job? You want a nonprofit job? Wherever you want to go, you can do it, because you’re doing that all in the classroom.” She pauses for a moment. “I think everyone should [teach] for a year or two.”
While she left the elementary school classroom behind, education still figures into her career: she’s works for Senior Planet, a company that helps older adults navigate the Internet.
Thanks to a first-row seat to her sister’s eight years on council, Viagran says she’s been able to observe the behind-the-scenes realities of the job — such as the fact that the gig is nonstop. She also noticed that communicating with constituents isn’t always easy.
“You have people who want to complain but don’t bring solutions, [and] there’s tons of misinformation out there,” she explains.
Apathy is also a major hurdle, Viagran adds.
“Managing the people who are like ‘So what?’ That’s what’s hard, that ‘so what?’ attitude,” she says with a fading smile.
Viagran’s first approach to overcoming that mindset is to find common ground, but she admits that too can be a challenge.
“Some people are like, ‘Unless it happened to me, it didn’t happen,’” she says. “Well, just because this didn’t happen to you doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening to somebody else.”
I ask her how that pushback makes her feel.
“It just makes me want to get out there more and advocate more for the truth and give people all the tools they need to go and seek the truth,” she replies. “I think if there are more voices that say, ‘We can’t accept that anymore,’ then those ‘so what?’ people will start to listen and start to see that changes can be made for the better.”
She adds a crucial caveat: “But, I think perspective is so important. If we don’t understand the perspective of the groups that we’re talking to it makes it very difficult to get to an understanding and healthy communication.”
For several years, Viagran has been involved with Southside community work, and a four-year stint at Visit San Antonio plugged her into the business sector. Before that, she worked for the city of San Antonio’s crisis response team, helping people affected by domestic violence.
“We need a strong voice and strong leadership to get us through this crisis and this pandemic,” she says. “I looked around and saw who was interested and who wasn’t. I finally decided, ‘I will regret it if I don’t run.’ That’s where I feel that my strength is, in getting people and community through crisis. I’m a resident of District 3. I want to serve my community.”
Viagran will likely benefit from name recognition. If she wins, she adds, she’ll also benefit from her sister’s counsel.
I ask if she could describe the key to successful collaboration.
“The key to collaboration is to eliminate that us-them mentality,” she says. “We need to have people talking to each other. We need to see people where they’re at to get this collaboration started. The other thing is we kind of need to let go of some of these old hurts and these old grudges. You’re from the South Side, so you know how South Siders can hold grudges. We need to get past those or put them on the back burner so we can get things done.”
From there, our conversation turns to the differences between her and her sister.
“My sister’s more like a tend-and-befriend [person] like my mom, and I’m more of a ‘let’s roll’ type of person like my dad,” she says. “Like my thing is, ‘OK, this is your criticism, how are we going to fix this? Let’s roll and let’s fix this.’ That’s the biggest difference between the two of us.”
I ask why she chose to wear a mask in her official campaign photo.
“Because that is going to be our new normal for a while,” she says with a heavy sigh. “Even with the vaccine, even as we recover, masks are going to be our new normal. I wanted people to know that I was comfortable with [wearing a mask] and I wanted them to be comfortable with [wearing a mask].”
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