35th Anniversary: After the Ax: Sarah Short Austin

“[Sarah Short] Austin became a sacrificial lamb on the altar of racial peace within the Roundtable.”

Sarah Short Austin was a highly regarded urban affairs veteran in Cleveland in the 1980s. “I was there during a pretty exciting time, when there were people who were interested in bringing the city together, and we were all sitting at the table,” she says.

That “table” was the Cleveland Roundtable. It included powerful black and white business leaders and politicos who tackled issues concerning education, housing, race relations and economy development. Austin, a black woman, was tapped to organize and lead this group of leaders.

Yet Austin was ousted as executive director in a bully move by table power players, including George Forbes. She didn’t go with the flow, she didn’t play favorites or participate in any deal-cutting. She was a friend of the media, portrayed as fair, but firm. She always sent The Plain Dealer written copies of her speeches.

“I tried not to get seduced into people’s narrowly defined agendas,” Austin says today from her home in Virginia.

After Cleveland, she served in executive positions at St. Louis, Mo.-based General Dynamics Corp., chaired by Stanley Pace — formerly of TRW (a Roundtable chairman), and later moved to the McDonnell Douglas Corp., where she worked as a strategist. She held several National Institutes of Health committees during her time in Cleveland and served for 33 years on the Case board of directors.

Now she’s retired, writing, consulting and speaking. She looks back at the Roundtable as a revolution, and an interesting period in the life of the city. “I’m not bitter,” she says. “Maybe they did me a favor by running me out of town.”
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