Civic Corner

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Civic Corner

The official blog of the Annette Strauss Institute

Join us in celebrating National Voter Registration Day! 

September 22, 2020

By Susan T. Nold  

Last Christmas, my daughter received a National Day Calendar. Turns out, each day of the year is a National Day of … something. For the past year in my house, we have had some thing to celebrate every day this year. National Strawberry Shortcake Day stands out as a highlight, because it inspired my daughter to make my grandmother’s strawberry shortcake recipe.  

As luck would have it, the calendar highlights an important National Day this week. September 22 is National Voter Registration Day. If the proper way to celebrate it isn’t already obvious, just go here or here. It’s free and only takes a few clicks. In Texas, you’ll also need a pen to sign the form, a mailbox, and possibly a stamp to mail it in. Be sure to start this process with time for all of those steps. 

Despite having its own National Day, voter registration is celebrated every day at the Annette Strauss Institute. It reflects, and manifests, a lot of what we stand for here. The themes that run through our work — sustaining a healthy democracy, helping engaged citizens and communities, and fostering substantive leadership and inclusive politics and policymaking — are founded, in part, on that important moment when a person becomes a registered voter. 

And when it comes to actually celebrating voter registration, no one does it better than the students of TX Votes, a well-respected and much-emulated student organization on UT’s campus. TX Votes supports nonpartisan voter registration and education activities by students and for students. They also throw pizza parties, petting zoos, a civic prom, t-shirt tie-dying events, and something called Politics and Plants. Having to move everything online hasn’t slowed them down: they still host zoom trivia nights and Zoom family dinners. 

If you want to take part in the TX Votes National Voter Registration Day Scavenger Hunt, follow @TXVotes on Twitter or @txvotes_cea on Instagram. 

Becoming registered to voter is only one step involved in active citizenship, but it’s a big one — big enough to be something to celebrate. 

The deadline to register in Texas is Oct. 5. Register or double-check your registration, and invite someone to register. And if you celebrate, send @TX Votes a picture. They’ll be ready to celebrate with you. 

Susan T. Nold is director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.

Great Conversations Is Back Again

September 14, 2020
By Susan T. Nold 

After postponing the event for six long months, I’m glad to say that Great Conversations 2020 is finally upon us. I hope you will buy a ticket and mark your calendar to join us on Oct. 1. 

I don’t know about you, but I really need this. 

Great Conversations is the Strauss Institute’s largest annual event. We gather friends, supporters, and students to hear from great speakers and engage with civic leaders from across the state and the university. We also provide a thought-provoking, uplifting program, and we reserve time to talk and listen to each other. 

The conversations ask each of us to set-aside partisanship and raise the bar for political discussion. The goal is to reflect on our shared civic values, such as the importance of fostering civic engagement and an inclusive approach to politics, and the dangers of incivility, gridlock, and distrust. A designated conversation leader works with small groups to set the tone and ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard. 

Plus, you never know what doors — or ideas — this event might open for you.  Great Conversations 2014 is how I first came to know the Annette Strauss Institute. I still remember the people I sat with and what we discussed. I would never have predicted that just about one year later, I would apply for the job of directing the Institute.  

This year’s online event will be even more accessible than usual. We’ve got a panel of great speakers — veteran political aide and analyst Matthew Dowd, Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty, and University of Houston political scientist Dr. Brandon Rottinghaus — taking on an extraordinarily important topic: Fixing American Politics.  

And through Zoom, we will preserve the small group dialogue that makes the event so important. After the speakers and panel, participants will be split into online breakout rooms, where a civic leader from politics, media, the nonprofit world, or academia will lead the sort of conversation that makes the event great. 

Of course, the timing — so close to the 2020 presidential election — also sets this year’s event apart. Every day, I talk with people who are desperate for a more civil tone in our politics. That feeling may be even more heightened on Oct. 1, just two days after the first presidential debate.  

We’re all hungry for human connection right now. We hope this event — even in the age of social distancing — that provides just that. 

In addition to all of these things, Great Conversations is the Annette Strauss Institute’s sole fundraiser every year. As tough as 2020 has been, our work has never been more important. We simply can’t do what we do without this event and your support. 

So please help us out — buy tickets here, and become a sponsor here. And plan to tune in on Oct. 1.  

I hope you will join me for a Great Conversation.  

Susan T. Nold is director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.

Research Spotlight: When Discussing Election Threats, Every Word Matters


September 3, 2020
By Dr. Sharon Jarvis 

How do you feel when you hear about potential threats in the upcoming election? Headline after headline and sound bite after sound bite about foreign interference, fraud, voter suppression, and hours-long lines at the polls … Exhausting, right?  

You aren’t alone. While each of these issues represents a potential or theoretical threat to the electoral system, the truth is that even the way these issues are discussed and covered can undermine trust and potentially depress voter turnout. 

In 2018, some of my colleagues and I at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life tested how news and messages about electoral threats shape feelings about voting. Our research found that voters’ trust in elections — and their enthusiasm about them — dips when conversations in the media or among elected officials focuses solely on threats.  

Fortunately, the flip side is also true: by talking about solutions — ways voters can take action to overcome barriers to electoral participation — politicians, influencers and the media can actually increase both trust in elections and the chances that voters will tune in and turn out for them. 

Our research, in part, took news stories on election threats, altered those stories to include information detailing efforts to safeguard elections (we call this “solutions journalism”), and explored prospective voters’ reactions to each piece. People who read the altered version — the one with the solutions-oriented language — were more likely to express enthusiasm about the election and less likely to express anxiety, sadness, anger or disgust.  

One article, for instance, focused on the problems with aging voting machines. An altered version that stressed corrective actions that could fix or replace the machines. The altered version left voters feeling more enthusiastic and optimistic. 

This isn’t just about the language that journalists use. Election administrators, campaign officials, voting advocates and other likely interviewees would be wise to highlight solutions when providing quotes or soundbites. By framing voting impediments and challenges as potential threats with clear solutions, as opposed to only threats, influencers could increase enthusiasm about voting. 

Our research found that solutions-oriented language outside the news media also shores up public trust in election conversations. Take, for example, Twitter.  

In October 2018, we showed a group of voters more than two dozen tweets posted by nonprofit groups, elected officials and other Twitter users. Some simply mentioned potential voter suppression efforts, and others included actions people could take to combat suppression, such as requesting a provisional ballot. We found that tweets highlighting voter suppression without offering solutions depressed trust in elections, while those offering a solution did not. 

In other words, bemoaning or beating up on the media isn’t enough. We can all make a difference simply by talking about solutions more than just problems. 

Dr. Sharon Jarvis is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Associate Director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin. This research was supported by the Democracy Fund.

Even in a Pandemic, Strauss Institute Is Buzzing This Semester 

August 26, 2020
By Susan T. Nold  

Happy First Day of School!  

This beginning of the fall semester is not like what any of us imagined. But for every student across the country and on this campus (physically or virtually), this is still an awfully important year in your lives.  

At the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, we believe that active, engaged citizens are made, not born. Engagement is something you learn, practice, and work at over the course of your life.  

Civic engagement is a thread that stretches all the way back to my early childhood, when my father campaigned for elected office in East Texas. Yet every single day, I learn something new about what it means to be an active, engaged American.  

I’m proud that the Strauss Institute offers so many inclusive, substantive opportunities for people within and beyond the UT community — especially students — to dive deeper into the processes of politics and public policy. I’m also honored to work with so many smart, dedicated people who work so hard to create these opportunities and ensure they’re welcoming and meaningful.  

Here’s a handful of programs and partnerships that the Strauss Institute operates or supports, through which you can become a more active and effective participant in our political system:  

The New Politics Forum organizes bipartisan and non-partisan youth-focused and student-led events across the state to enhance students’ understanding of democratic principles, help them develop their civic identities, and instill civic values. This program also helps students build a civic network of peers and civic leaders across Texas.  

Speak Up Speak Out is a civic education program for elementary, middle, and high school students. Teachers and civic leaders offer guidance and mentorship as students explore, research and present solutions to problems in their school and community. In the process of this civic learning, students discover how knowledge and teamwork expands their potential to make positive change in the world around them.  

TX Votes is a UT student organization sponsored and supported by the Strauss Institute where UT Austin students come together to launch nonpartisan voter registration, education, and mobilization activities, such as registration booths and campus competitions, for students across Texas.  

RU Ready Texas is an undergraduate course offered through the Communication and Leadership major at UT each spring (interested students should register for it this fall). In this class, UT Austin students explore civic education research and theory, and they prepare civics lessons and workshops for local high school students. 

Civic Saturdays are virtual events scheduled one Saturday each month through the fall semester. They invite students in high school and college to come together to explore a timely civic topic.  
There are many more events similar to these taking place all year long — please go to our homepage or our programs page to learn more about them.  

One way or another, it’s going to be a big year. And whether it’s virtually or in-person, I’m looking forward to seeing you and working together to supporting student civic learning and engagement. 


Susan T. Nold is Director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.  

Cyber Civics: Reflections on Experiential Learning during a Pandemic

August 24, 2020
By Heather Vaughn

Can people find a sense of community and connectedness in the midst of a pandemic that separates us from each other? My experience last spring with a great group of UT students shows how we can.

In January 2020, my students convened at the Moody College of Communication to embark on a new path. The Communicating for Civic Engagement course that brought us together was still brand new (it’s offered through the college’s Communication and Leadership Degree program, led by Dr. Minette Drumwright). And the RUReady Texas group that the students were joining — an expansion of the RUReady high school mentoring program at the Center for Youth Political Participation at Rutgers University, led by Dr. Elizabeth Matto — had never existed in Austin.

So we were all newcomers, and we spent the first day learning about students’ civic identities as we explored the results of the most recent Texas Civic Health Index. At that first meeting, the class defined civics based on their personal experiences and ideas (see figure 1.1).

Over the next eight weeks, we dove into the demographics of Austin and their impact on the city, pondered how education helps people become good citizens, and struggled with the question of whether civic education is a right. My students also supported the Speak Up Speak Out State Civics Fair, a competition that allows 3–12 graders to present their solutions to community issues for a panel of judges at the Texas State Capitol.

As Spring Break approached, COVID-19 began to shut down the state. I, along with other faculty and staff, were asked to quickly move all courses online before students returned (virtually) from the extended break.

Simultaneously, staff at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders were retooling classes for middle and high school students. Sharon Roy and Jill Dicuffa at the Ann Richards School enthusiastically joined and advocated for RUReady Texas to serve their students. We worked out a plan through which our students could mentor Ann Richards School students on civic engagement without disrupting their new, mostly voluntary schedule.

Civic engagement typically relies on in-person interaction, but COVID-19 forced us to creatively engage in live Zoom calls (see figure 1.2) and with flipped lessons created by my students.

Over the disrupted semester, the university students and the Ann Richards School students all showed a strong preference to be and learn in a space together. Both sets of students expressed a need for more “facetime” together, both in the civic mentorship and with their own classmates and instructor.

The experience also showed that consistent and regular meetings build relationships. My university students craved our discussion-based classes, whether they were online or on campus. They wanted more time to work with the high school students, even as scheduling became our biggest hurdle. Ann Richards School students wanted more opportunities to explore ideas, present, and gather feedback from their UT mentors.

Project-based learning online requires adaptability and creativity. My university students pivoted from their original classroom visit plans to create asynchronous video and digital lessons on issues in the community, self-care strategies, and civic health in our state. Using both asynchronous lessons and live project discussion classes, Ann Richards School students then created action plans that addressed specific community issues, and they learned ways to become more informed and involved citizens. Every student navigated new platforms and strengthened skills, beginning mentorships online and practicing learning from home.

At the end of the semester, my students and I reconvened on how, after this experience, they now defined civics (see figure 1.3). Many words remained the same, but the emphasis clearly shifted — from voting and government to community, engagement, and empathy.

Such shifts in perspective can drive positive action. Having seen it in my students, I am hopeful that a greater focus on community will carry us through a global pandemic and beyond.

Heather Vaughn leads Educational Outreach at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, and is a lecturer in the Moody College of Communication.

Let’s Talk Voting … on Aug 26 

August 19, 2020
By Susan T. Nold 

Aug. 26 marks the first day of the fall semester — an unprecedented start to an unprecedented autumn that will culminate in an election unlike any we’ve ever seen. 

There’s obviously lots going on and plenty to talk about. Why not kick things off with a conversation about one of the most important things you’ll do this year anyway? 

Next week, the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life will cosponsor — with the LBJ School of Public Affairs — a session on voting and why it matters. Our distinguished speaker will be Erin Geiger Smith, a UT Austin Law School graduate and author of the book Thank You for Voting: The Maddening, Enlightening, Inspiring Truth about Voting in America.  She will join us along with Claudia Sandoval, a second-year graduate student at the LBJ School, and recent Moody College graduate and Strauss Institute student Alexis Tatum. 

It’s a great book, looking at how we got where we are in terms of voting — and at where we’re going. It raises important points and questions about access to the ballot box and why the nation’s turnout numbers continue to be so low. And it offers ideas for getting more people engaged in the process. 

Such engagement, of course, is our reason for being at the Strauss Institute, which was built on the idea that active citizens are made, not born. We’re excited to be sponsoring this event, and we’re ecstatic to do so with the LBJ School as part of its 50th anniversary In the Arena series. These kinds of collaborations demonstrate the difference people can make — both in terms of participation in democracy and the outcomes that produces — when they leverage the academic resources across the UT campus. 

Click here to learn more about and sign up for the event. We’re looking forward to seeing you! 

Susan T. Nold is Director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life. 

Texas Voting Summit Starts Friday — Virtually, This Year 

August 12, 2020

By Kassie Phebillo and Maya Patel 

This year’s Texas Voting Summit — a convening of Texas college and university student leaders and administrators — is Friday and Saturday. It should be a great, informative couple of days — even if, like everything else in 2020, it’s not going to take place in person. 

Changes forced by the pandemic mean unprecedented challenges, to be sure — the event has to move online. But this also presents a new opportunity, especially by giving more people access to the ideas and expertise that the Voting Summit showcases. 

This year’s Summit will include sessions and panels on: 

Voter registration and the election process; 
Best practices for voter education; 
Media literacy; 
Creating student voting organizations on different campuses; 
Voter registration tools and networks — such as the National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE), the Strengthening American Democracy action plan template, the Voter Friendly Campus Designation, and the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge; and 
Funding for nonpartisan civic engagement activities for college campuses to use in Fall 2020. 

The Summit is hosted by TX Votes in partnership with the Annette Strauss Institute, Campus Vote Project, and Campus Compact. It’s emblematic of how these organizations work to educate student leaders, foster civic engagement and be a resource for voters — helping people at all levels become more effective participants in our political system.

Five months and a different world ago, our plan had been to bring together students, scholars, activists and experts from across the state and the country to the Texas Capitol and the Moody College of Communication for talks about spurring student voting, building coalitions, encouraging equity and inclusion, and helping people become more active voters and citizens. Instead, we hosted the Texas Voting Summit’s Virtual Pre-Conference in April with the hopes of meeting in-person in August. 

Now, those conversations will take place over Zoom. The shift to a digital event dramatically expands access to the ideas and expertise that the Summit offers. The in-person event capped the invitation-only attendance at 75 students — this year, we’re already looking at about 170 attendees, with more people RSVPing every day.  

One challenge has been networking opportunities for students, administrators and organizations — a huge benefit from the last event for experienced leaders and people new to the process. We’re working to recreate that as well as we can in an online-only format: scheduling breakout sessions, promoting the Texas Voting Network Facebook group focused on these issues, and using tools like Slack that can deepen connections across the state and around the country. 

The goals remain the same: to create and extend a general understanding of how to navigate the voting process; surface ideas and insights that lead to a higher student voter turnout; and remind everyone of the laws and legal pitfalls inherent in this work.  

We all believe that by encouraging greater participation in and understanding of systems and politics, we can enrich our democracy and create better policy outcomes. The Voting Summit is an important demonstration of how we can do that, even — or, perhaps, especially — in these days of COVID and Zoom. 

It should be a great couple of days. We hope to see you there! 

Kassie Phebillo is the Curriculum & Research Coordinator for Campus Vote Project and a Communication Studies PhD Candidate at the University of Texas Austin, where she studies the intersection of political communication and higher education with the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life in the Moody College of Communication. 

Maya Patel is the Texas State Coordinator for Campus Vote Project. While at UT Austin, she majored in chemistry while also serving as the President of TX Votes and working to increase civic engagement on her campus and across the state.

Wearing a Mask Shouldn’t Be a Debate. Better Listening Would Help.

August 4, 2020
By Keri K. Stephens, PhD

This piece originally appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

In Houston and other cities across Texas, COVID-19 is flaring into another crisis. Public health experts say that wearing a mask is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Cities and counties across the state are requiring businesses to mandate masks.

Yet many people continue to be reluctant, or even refuse, to wear one.

For many of us (myself included), the instinct is to talk — or maybe shout — at them. We want to tell them what the experts say, or lecture about the risks they’re creating for others.

But the research says that’s not likely to work. Indeed, a one-way talking-to will probably just harden their decision to not do what the evidence says they should.

Instead, it’s better to listen.

Research shows the importance of getting early buy-in from people presented with new ideas or changes in their lives. That means learning the concerns people bring with them when facing something new.

Cultivating that understanding takes time. So does seeking out real input. And so does transparently showing people what’s happening and making sure they understand it and can respond. If you aim to persuade someone to do something differently — especially something they aren’t inclined to do — you’re far more likely to convince them if you understand their perspective.  That’s the first step before using what we know from research to tailor messages.

The truth is that there are varied reasons people don’t like wearing masks. Masks aren’t comfortable for most people. For some, masks can make breathing more awkward and difficult. They can exacerbate skin irritations or hot flashes. And they can prompt others to act inappropriately.

At the same time, make no mistake, masks save lives. They keep people out of hospitals and help ensure there are beds and ventilators for people who need them. It’s vitally important that people wear them to help control this epidemic.

That urgency means we don’t have the luxury of just lecturing or ridiculing the people we need to persuade.

Rather, we must listen to those holding out. We need to hear why they won’t wear masks and find alternatives and solutions to address those misgivings.

The Texas Department of Transportation is an example of an agency committed to listening. Last year, I worked with the agency's Public Involvement Group to develop training focused on internal strategic planning.  They have a difficult job trying to find the best solution to transportation issues in our rapidly growing state. My team created new mechanisms and systems for transportation professionals to hear public input early in a project’s design, and to incorporate that feedback to better shape the final decisions.

Similarly, if health authorities had a better sense of why some people refuse to wear masks — through in-depth interviews, surveys, focus groups, social media monitoring and other mechanisms — they could tailor messages and devise solutions that create a better response.

Yes, more consistent messages from political leaders would help, but even that isn’t enough. Pointing fingers won’t convince more people to wear masks — it might convince them not to.

Instead, let’s treat this like the health issue it is. Rather than drawing lines in the sand, let’s hear each other out and find solutions that persuade more people to protect public health.

The goal is not to be right or win the argument. It’s to address real and misunderstood concerns.

That’s a tough task on the best day. We can make it a lot easier by making sure people feel heard.

Truly, there is no substitute for listening.

Keri K. Stephens, PhD, is an affiliated Strauss Institute faculty member and associate professor and distinguished teaching professor in the Moody College of Communication.

Civic Ambassadors Training for Critical Role — at a Critical Time

July 24, 2020
By Susan T. Nold, Director

Already, 2020 has brought us a pandemic that has challenged every facet of society, widespread protests for social justice and equity, and a deluge of news about political turmoil across the nation and around the world. And we still have a Presidential election to go.

As society navigates these unprecedented historical currents, civically active people have never been more important. At the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, we believe engaged citizens are made, not born — and it is our honor, and our responsibility, to help make them.

In this, Texas Civic Ambassadors is one of our most impactful programs. Every year, the Institute accepts about two or three dozen university students from across Texas to take part in a full year of nonpartisan, civic learning and leadership opportunities.

The program’s high point is an intensive three-day civic leadership summit, built on a robust research-based curriculum and training in creating deliberative dialogue around policy issues.  The summit kicks off the year-long ambassadorships tailored to promote reflective and strategic civic action.

Our goal is to foster and practice an inclusive, substantive approach to politics. We work to bring more people into the political process, and that challenges them to drop preconceptions about partisan labels and build relationships with students across the state and across the political spectrum.

By creating greater understanding of politics and systems of government — and of each other — we believe programs like the Civic Ambassadors enrich democracy and ultimately create better policy outcomes.

This summer, our great 2019-20 ambassadors are wrapping up their time in the program. Many were kind enough to share reflections about the program, which are posted here. Here are some highlights:

“Civic engagement means investing in your community and its needs; it means educating yourself and others so that we all can advocate for ourselves and others with understanding and consideration.”

— Alexis Tatum, The University of Texas at Austin

“Meeting so many like-minded and talented civic activists was not only intimidating but inspiring. I say intimidating to highlight that the members of my TCA cohort have admirable power and influence, but also to emphasize that the program turned my initial feelings of inadequacy into confidence.”

— Daphne Flores, Rice University

“First, joining a group of young, dedicated, leaders from across Texas to share ideas on how to make civics fun and engaging for all is what made this opportunity appealing in the beginning. Texas, demographically speaking, is a young, majority-minority state. This group reflects what our state actually looks like and helped put into perspective how we think we can help create change.”

— Zach Magallanez, The University of Texas at San Antonio

“As a Texas Civic Ambassador, I wanted to focus on promoting civic discourse in my community to promote respectful and impactful student advocacy. … When we understand and feel interconnected to each other, we are more effective.”

— Kerry Mackenzie, The University of Texas at Austin

There’s a lot more there, and it’s all inspiring. I encourage you to take a look at the students’ reflections and read about the program in their own words.

It all speaks to the Institute’s work helping grow young voters and support emerging leaders as they look to become effective participants in our political system. Today’s Texas Civic Ambassadors are not only tomorrow’s citizens — they may even be tomorrow’s representatives, commissioners, senators, mayors, and governors. If 2020 teaches us anything, it is that our democracy depends on compassionate, capable, and courageous leadership. Knowing that, the Texas Civic Ambassadors program has never been more important.

Two Days, One Hundred Students, and Four Zoom Links – How ASI Moved Campaign Bootcamp Online

July 22, 2020
By Bianca Solis and Cole Wilson

Campaign Bootcamp captures the mission and spirit of the Annette Strauss Institute about as well as anything we do. This signature program, co-sponsored and supported by the Center for Women in Politics & Public Policy at Texas Woman’s University, is an immersive three-day crash course on political campaigns. It’s designed to train future civic leaders on the ins and outs of the political process. 

It’s also a ton of work and whole lot of fun: dozens of college students from around the state converge on campus, check into dorm rooms, and spend three days learning from a bipartisan panel of national campaign leaders.

So when we learned, about two months before camp started, that we would need to move our program online due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we knew it would be tough. But we also know our program is associated with high-quality, seamless events — this one would be no different. So we set out to create an online experience with the same energy, engagement, and excitement that our participants have grown to expect from our programing.  

Our starting point was to identify the elements of the program that make it unique. At its core, Campaign Bootcamp is educational, interactive, dynamic, and youth-focused. With these key components serving as guides, we sprinted to integrate a range of digital platforms for the bootcamp — from Zoom to Slack to Qualtrics to Google Docs, we transposed our programing online, section-by-section. 

No matter the platform, we were confident in the talent and dedication of our speakers. Their continued support, knowledge, and willingness to try something new was critical to our success. 

Despite the inherent challenges, the shift online made the bootcamp far easier to access. We dropped our normal registration fee and stressed that students could get behind-the-scenes perspective on political campaigns from their living room. The class is typically capped at fewer than 75 students. This year, with the registration fee waived, well over 100 joined us throughout the weekend.

The students were enthusiastic and indefatigable. They pushed through hours of presentations and discussions, and they only seemed to want more. Speakers found thoughtful and introspective questions in the chat. Both students and presenters stayed well past the end of session times to discuss questions and dive deeper into areas of expertise. Even after presenters called it a day, students explored our layered curriculum to learn more about particular subjects. 

In the end, the biggest challenge for the remote bootcamp was one that’s familiar to nearly everyone wrestling with the pandemic: how do organizers virtually create and cultivate the interpersonal relationships that enrich our everyday lives and experiences?

No matter what tools we have at our disposal, interpersonal communication is different online. Nonverbal cues are frequently hidden by the borders of a camera lens. Unscheduled and serendipitous conversations are rare, as most interaction demands a video chat link, and conversations can’t occur simultaneously over video chat (at least not without an onslaught of “no you first”).

Going forward, we’ll be more intentional about building in time and creating opportunities for students to engage more informally and work together screen-to-screen. We still have a lot to learn, like how to provoke unexpected conversations, and how to smoothly transition from tangential topics that create genuine connections back to core subjects without the stilted feel of breakout rooms. 

It’s a good lesson for the Strauss Institute overall, because these kinds of human interactions are as critical for civic life, just as they are for successful events. The Institute espouses that better citizens are made, not born. This generation of students has the opportunity — and challenge — of becoming better citizens while navigating the inherent trials of communicating online. 

Our goal at the Institute is to bring more people into the process; that’s harder when everyone in the process is physically distancing. But we are certain that we will all come out the other side with more tools and strategies to lean on when we engage in tough political conversations. Maybe Zoom will teach us all to listen a little better; maybe Google Docs will show us all how to collaborate a little better. 

Best practices for online events like Campaign Bootcamp are being born from hard questions and innovative answers. Today’s challenges mean more experimentation and risks — trying new things on tight timelines when you’re unsure how they’ll turn out. Success requires learning new skills and embracing new platforms and tools, even when you’re uncertain of the outcome. 

Making better citizens through innovative events means putting in the work and being comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s a good way to be during a pandemic.

Solis is Outreach Program Coordinator for the New Politics Forum at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, and Wilson is Events Program Assistant for the New Politics Forum. Both earned Bachelor's degrees from the University of Texas at Austin

Welcome to Civic Corner

July 20, 2020
By Susan T. Nold, Director

Welcome to Civic Corner — a place to connect with each other and discuss ideas and trends shaping democracy and society, as well as research and activities at the Annette Strauss Institute and our work to renew and sustain a vibrant civic life.

Over the last several months — amid the historic coronavirus pandemic — civic life has taken on new meaning and relevance. We are reminded of our interconnectedness at every turn. It is abundantly apparent that the actions of some dramatically impact the well-being, or the plight, of others. Civic responsibility during the pandemic has meant social distancing, scaled-back interactions, mask-wearing and more handwashing. While so many of us remain at home, distanced from work and one another, our lives bear little resemblance to the way we were living just a few month ago. Yet much of what we do know about civic life continues, clamoring for our attention and inviting our engagement. That is clear from recent news of campaign events, elections and lines to vote — and especially of protestors across the country taking to the streets and igniting a renewed public conversation about systemic racism, criminal justice, and police reform.

While we have much to talk about, my hope for Civic Corner is that it is primarily a place for listening. Entries will be authored by a wide range of people: longtime friends and some who are new to the Institute; students, staff and faculty; and civic partners from across UT and elsewhere. We’ll do our best to showcase research, give you an inside look at our programs promoting civic engagement, and share ideas and curate articles from the community that catch our interest.

In these ways, this blog will advance the Institute’s mission to build community as we educate future leaders, foster civic engagement, practice civil dialogue, and study the forces shaping contemporary politics and civic life. I hope it also becomes a catalyst for ideas and a place to share articles that spotlight the people and the work of the institute, or that speaks to the importance of a vibrant, inclusive civic life. To get us started, here are a few recent articles of interest from and amount members of our community:

— In this piece for Texas Monthly, recent Moody College graduate Jade Fabello (B.J. '20, B.S. in communication and leadership '20) describes his experience as a frequent public speaker on the subjects of race and racism, and his experience with mostly white audiences. It’s a powerful piece that confounds assumptions and prompts each of us as readers to examine our own assumptions. If you attended the Annette Strauss Institute Great Conversations Dinner in 2018, you may remember Jade from his interview of our guest of honor that evening: Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation (B.S. in speech communication '82, B.A. in government '82, J.D. '86). (

— The Alcalde took a look back at how UT faculty, students and administrators responded to the coronavirus outbreak and the university’s shift to online learning. The Student experience in this pandemic is far from normal, and the article begins with a vignette from the class of Dr. Roderick Hart, Former Dean of the Moody College of Communication and the Strauss Institute’s Founding Director, who foresaw the end in-person instruction during his final in-person Spring 2020 class with his students. (

— Institute Advisory Council Member, Cappy McGarr (B.A. ’73 in government, B.J. ’75 in public relations, MBA ’77) recently penned an opinion piece to remind us that while coronavirus is no laughing matter, comedy remains important. (

I cannot predict what we will discuss in the future, but I know there will always be more to say than time to say it. I am eager to be in conversation with you, here and on our social media channels. Please send me thoughts and ideas at

I look forward to hearing from you, listening to you, and learning from you.

— Susan