The official blog of the Annette Strauss Institute
The Credit Goes to Our Community
November 19, 2020
By Susan T. Nold
This year marks the Annette Strauss Institute’s 20th Anniversary, and we asked local videographer Ben Lee, to commemorate the occasion. He wove together clips to tell a really beautiful story about how far we have come and where we’re headed — I’m sure we will feature it for years to come.
While I love everything about Ben’s piece, it’s the people who stand out to me. The wide range and huge number of faces show how integral people on and off campus are to our work.
There are some well-known folks — people like UT grad and political strategist and analyst Paul Begala, who joined Charlie Cook and Kristin Soltis Anderson to headline the Institute’s 2016 Great Conversations dinner.
There’s also Peter Levine, who delivered a keynote address to an event Strauss hosted in 2013. At the time, Peter was the Director of CIRCLE (Center for Information & Research on Civic Leaning and Engagement); he’s now the Associate Dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. Peter, CIRCLE and Tisch show the power that universities can unleash by prioritizing civic learning and education.
We feature civic leaders from coast-to-coast such as Erica Williams Simon and Eric Liu, plus footage from Henry Timms’ speech in 2016 about how small ideas and connectivity can fuel a vibrant civic life. We also spotlight local luminaries such as Jenifer Sarver and Amber Fogarty, and a bipartisan group of professional political pros like Liz Chadderdon and Matt Glazer. Liz and Matt both participate in our annual Campaign Bootcamp weekend, teaching students the basics of political campaigns.
And, of course, there are the students. The video includes Giovanni Escobedo, Brooke Lopez, Julia O’Hanlon, Cody Johnson and other former Texas Civic Ambassadors — college and university students from across Texas partner with us for one year to learn, participate in events, and lead civic project on their campus, with our support. It also features UT Austin students Kassie Phebillo, Sanika Nayek, and Katya Ehresman, who all supported the Institute through research and work assignments — especially the TX Votes student organization, Speak Up Speak Out and New Politics Forum programs. Speaking of Speak Up Speak Out, the video shows UT professor David Springer and Texans for the Arts Executive Director Ann Graham serving as judges, and Anna Barrett, a North Texas teacher who's been a great champion for the program.
While they are with us, these students truly become our family. It’s inspiring to consider all of the additional time they spend helping their communities and our world. Our hope with them, as with our faculty and staff, is that the Strauss Institute will help propel a lifelong commitment to civil discourse, bipartisanship, and community engagement.
Finally, there is the video’s setting, our setting — the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. The Moody College is the academic home of the Institute’s Founder, Dr. Roderick P. Hart. Being here reinforces our focus on the communication dynamics that shape contemporary politics and on using communications to foster civic engagement and a healthier democracy.
From this place, we reach across campus, Texas, the nation, and the world to build connections and drive collaborations. Our roots, planted firmly in the communications discipline, help set us apart and drive the ambitious, aspirational motivation for the breadth and reach of our branches.
This video caught only the minutes when the cameras were rolling, but our work — building up bipartisanship, civil discourse, and engagement — has been going on every day for 20 impactful years. It will continue to make our state and our country a better place.
We do that work as a community. And we hope it will grow bigger, appear brighter, and dig deeper for another 20 years, and then some.
November 5, 2020
By Susan T. Nold
We have an online event next week that I want you to know about. It will ask each of us to reflect on this week’s election. We have invited some great folks from UT to help us process what is happening and how we’re feeling.
One take-away for me is that we’re even more deeply divided than perhaps some of us thought or than pre-election indicators like polls suggested.
Seeing downtown businesses around the country boarding-up windows and Americans argue over whether all votes should be counted, I am reminded that what we do at the Annette Strauss Institute really matters. The values we study, teach, and practice — our efforts to help create a healthier democracy with active, engaged citizens — have never been more important.
I think of the Institute’s work as being at the intersection of political engagement, civil discourse, and bipartisanship. Thinking visually, that looks something like this (see image above).
Many days, this space feels lonely and daunting. At times, the overlapping area between engagement, bipartisanship, and civil discourse can feel indiscernible.
In those moments, I remind myself that no matter what reality we’re living in, we exist to make that space bigger. We can always do more — with better results — to make that concentric space larger and more appealing, welcoming, relevant, and visible. We aren’t here to talk anyone out of their beliefs or political affiliations. We are here to help them engage constructively, particularly with each other.
At the Institute, we are pleased by the sheer number of new voters who engaged in the process this year. In Texas, more than 11 million people cast ballots in 2020; the previous record was less than 9 million. Expanding the circle of engagement can foster inclusive, substantive approaches to politics by bringing more people into the process.
But engagement isn’t the end of the line for a healthy democracy — the nature and tenor of our engagement matters too. Democracy is healthier when committed, passionate people listen to each other. These conversations can elicit new understanding, surface new policy solutions, and make good ideas better. The quality of engagement drives the quality of the outcomes.
That requires all of us to be receptive to people with very different views, and to demand that they be just as receptive to us. It means leading with humanity and empathy, and seeing others — and presenting ourselves — as fellow citizens and not political adversaries.
This election, like every presidential election, offers the country a reset as 2020 turns to 2021. Every day is a new chance to work harder at creating common purpose on common ground. The Annette Strauss Institute will never stop striving for that, and I continue to have faith that we will succeed.
The Institute hosts a monthly online event series called Civic Saturday, where expert speakers and creative artists convene by Zoom to discuss current issues. Next week, we’re hosting a special Civic Saturday — on a Tuesday, no less — to unpack the election, the law behind results and confirmations, and how everyone is digesting it.
The session will feature top UT faculty members — author and political psychologist Bethany Albertson, and cognitive science expert Art Markman, and wide-ranging legal authority Steve Vladeck — as well as student leaders and members of Cometry, a local nonprofit that uses poetry, comedy and creative expression to explore mental health and civic concepts.
We hope to see you on Tuesday November 10 at 7 pm.
This Election Day, Don’t Forget the Judges
November 2, 2020
By Arrian Ebrahimi
Of our three branches of government, the judiciary often seems the most difficult for young voters to civically engage with. However, at times, judges may have a greater immediate impact on our lives than any other government officials. We are far more likely to step into a courtroom to litigate a car accident or argue the terms of a divorce than we are to meet a senator or governor.
Across Texas, numerous judicial spots are on the ballot in this week's general election. They're low on the ballot, but they're vitally important for millions of Texans.
Last month, with the support of UT's Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, I moderated a panel to help bridge this disconnect. Focusing on Texas’ system of judicial selection, it featured Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Bert Richardson (R), Rep. Ina Minjarez (D), and the Texas Tribune’s Emma Platoff. More than 180 people attended the Zoom panel, highlighting just how eager young Texans are to educate themselves about the state’s judicial branch and the leaders in it.
After Ms. Platoff reviewed how Texas currently selects judges through partisan elections, Judge Richardson and Rep. Minjarez discussed the unique challenges judges face while campaigning. They contrasted how Richardson is bound by a more stringent ethics code than Minjarez, who is free to share her stances on political issues.
People who are active in local Republican or Democratic clubs may be familiar with judicial candidates and campaigns, but the vast majority of Texans aren’t. Judicial forums often involve pointed questions about a candidate’s stance on contentious issues like guns or abortion. While legislative candidates can openly discuss their opinions on these issues, judicial candidates must explain why they are not ethically allowed to give their stance — many voters find this response frustrating.
We then discussed potential changes being considered by the new Texas Commission on Judicial Selection. As a Democratic co-sponsor on the bill that chartered the Commission, Rep. Minjarez summarized initiatives that the committee is reviewing for how Texas should select judges. However, Ms. Platoff pointed out that any reforms will be very easy to kill in the legislature. Rep. Minjarez agreed, adding that the looming fights over the state’s COVID response and redistricting will almost certainly leave judicial reform as a low priority.
But both Rep. Minjarez and Judge Richardson suggested there may be some general consensus around more modest proposals, such as increasing qualifications to run for a judgeship or creating smaller judicial districts, especially in urban counties. Under current law, anyone who has practiced law for four years can run for a judgeship, and the sheer size of some of the judicial districts makes it difficult for candidates to meet the community.
The panelists agreed on one central point: citizens must be engaged and informed about their judicial officers. For all the division straining our public discourse nationally, the forum offered a breath of fresh nonpartisan air. As Texans cast their final votes this week, they should remember those down-ballot judicial races that may make all the difference when stepping into a courtroom for judgment.
Arrian Ebrahimi, a Political Science & Economics and Pre-Law senior at St. Edward's University, was a member of the Strauss Institute's Texas Civic Ambassador program in 2019. Connect with him on Twitter (@arrian_ebrahimi), Instagram (@arrian_e2000) and Facebook (facebook.com/arrian.ebrahimi).
We Can Help You Make a Plan to Vote
October 27, 2020
By Susan T. Nold
We are in the home stretch now — Texas’ three-week early voting period wraps up on Friday, and Election Day is next Tuesday, Nov. 3.
First off, the great news: in an election already marked by record high turnout nationwide, Texas is leading the way. Roughly 7 million Texans have already cast ballots. That’s 80% of Texas’ total turnout from 2016 — and there are still early voting days and Election Day to come. The avalanche of interest in this election has been nothing short of inspiring. It speaks to Texans’ overwhelming desire to be active, engaged citizens.
You’ve also heard a lot this cycle about having a plan to vote. TX Votes, a student-run organization sponsored by the Annette Strauss Institute, has put together some fantastic resources (there’s even an app!) to help students and others navigate the process. Some of these things may seem intuitive for those of us who never miss an opportunity to cast a ballot. But for folks who are new to voting, and even some who aren’t, there’s a lot that goes into it:
Being registered and having proper ID.
Deciding whether to vote by mail, and determining whether you qualify.
Learning where to cast an in-person ballot and knowing what to take with you (such as a driver’s license or another particular form of photo ID).
And, of course, knowing what is on the ballot (even for the most habitual voters, there’s always some amount of study time needed for city council races, school board candidates, local ballot propositions ... it can be a lot).
Answering all of these questions — well in advance of Election Day or another key ballot deadline — is what people mean when they talk about having a plan to vote. Fortunately, there are groups like TX Votes that offer comprehensive calendars with key dates and rules, along with resources to get questions answered before it’s time to go to the polls.
This year, all of this information can live in the palm of your hand through BeVote, an app that offers students — or really any Austinite — the full spectrum of resources they’ll need to cast a vote this week or on Tuesday. We worked with TX Votes and UT Austin’s Simulation and Games Applications Lab to create the app. In addition to key dates, it offers polling locations, personalized voter guides, a voting checklist, answers to frequently asked questions, and even ways to engage friends on social media.
It’s a fun, fantastic resource, even for those who’ve already voted, and I hope you’ll download it.
More than that, I hope you vote, encourage others to vote, and help them make a plan to do so. Simply saying “go vote” may not acknowledge the challenges that keep people from the voting booth. But by helping your friends, neighbors and family members figure out what they need to do — and then helping them to do it — you can help them become engaged citizens for life and bolster the health of our democracy.
October 21, 2020
By Susan T. Nold
The Annette Strauss Institute is built on civic engagement. We help people — especially young people — become more engaged citizens. And it’s no coincidence that our base is UT’s Moody College of Communication; there is simply no way to educate future leaders and citizens without understanding the communication dynamics that shape contemporary politics.
So Freedom of Speech is fundamental to who we are and what we do, and we’re happy to be joining with UT Austin and the Moody College in observing National Free Speech week. If you haven’t already jumped in, I hope you will consider attending some of the events taking place online this week. You might start with short video observations by faculty and students in Moody College on that webpage. I especially recommend the one from Dr. Roderick Hart, Founding Director of the Annette Strauss Institute, whose career has been powerfully inspired by the act of writing letters to the editor.
Other highlights from this week include:
The announcement of a transformational $20 Million grant from The Arthur M. Blank Foundation to expand the wonderful work of Dr. Courtney Byrd and establish the Arthur M. Blank Center for Stuttering Education and Research.
UT President Jay Hartzell’s articulation of this issue’s importance: as he notes, “There is no higher education without free speech.”
A webinar hosted by The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy featuring former Dallas Mayor and former United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk aptly titled, “The Power of the Vote,” which will focus on racial equity and the upcoming election.
And, of course, there’s the election, for which early voting is very much underway. In fact, Texas leads the nation in early voting, with nearly 5 million people already casting their ballots.
Please go vote — there’s no better way to use your voice.
The act of voting is fundamental to civic life and participation. So is freedom of speech. It’s interesting to think about these twin pillars of American democracy and the central role they play in how citizens shape America.
The First Amendment rightly offers wide latitude for what people can say. It allows us, as a society and a democracy, to exchange and give voice to ideas. It helps us learn the truth.
Not everything qualifies, of course. Private actors have more latitude to restrict speech than government actors and the law provides remedies when speech leads to harm, such as protection for someone who is libeled, and appropriate prohibitions against sexual harassment in the workplace.
Given the Institute’s focus on civic life, we often spend less time thinking about what people can say to stay within the law, and more time on what they can say to help create a healthier democracy.
The words we say to each other matter. They can heal our nation’s wounds or exacerbate them. The First Amendment is a wonderful and essential creation in that it spells out our rights as Americans. But our responsibilities go further.
This week appropriately calls attention to free speech and the essential protections it offers in American life. The week after next, there will be an election, which will draw a whole lot of speech from a great many people.
My hope is that much of it serves to bring us together.
From voters-in-waiting to voters in line: We’re Ready
October 20, 2020
By Susan T. Nold
Voting in Texas is underway. Reports are rolling in from across Texas about lines of voters at the polls. The excitement and engagement will be on display until Nov. 3 — Election Day, now less than three weeks away
Dr. Roderick Hart, Founding Director of the Annette Strauss Institute, and I were recently interviewed by the Moody College of Communication about our thoughts on voting this year. You can read the whole thing here; below are the highlights of what you need to know as you prepare to vote:
If you’re voting by mail, make sure you meet the requirements, apply for a ballot before the deadline, and get it in the mail as soon as possible.
If you’re voting in-person, make a plan: find polling locations in your county (they may be different because of COVID-19), schedule a time to vote, and plan to vote early if you can. Voters should bring a photo ID and avoid the most crowded places if possible. The last day of early voting is Oct. 30.
By the way, the easiest way to find a polling place is to go through the county clerk in county where you’re registered to vote. Most Texans should find that information online — for instance, here is information for Texas’ biggest counties:
If you live in these and other counties, you also can get information from the Texas Secretary of State: https://teamrv-mvp.sos.texas.gov/MVP/mvp.do
Wear a Mask (Even If You Don’t Have To):
Always good advice, on Election Day and every other day. Masks may not be required at a polling site, but it’s courteous and prudent everywhere — especially when you’re standing in line with your fellow citizens.
Do Your Homework, and Be Prepared:
There’s a lot on the ballot besides the Presidential election, and Texas no longer allows straight-ticket voting. So do your research about the people and initiatives on the ballot — it’s not uncommon for down-ballot races to be decided by a very few votes, so getting all the way through the ballot is important. I research my ballot at vote411.org.
Also, given the large number of items, voting may take longer than it has in years past. Also, feel free to bring paper notes with you to vote, but you cannot use your phone once you’re in the voting booth.
Embrace Election Day with Patience and Unity:
Election Day is a moment to celebrate what’s best about America. As divisive as this election has been, I really hope that Election Day helps to unify us.
As I said in the piece, while much of the attention around the election is partisan, elections – the way they are run, and the casting of votes – shouldn’t be. I hope all voters will come together to celebrate the civic act of voting.
I also hope we’ll all support the good people at the local government level who are working very hard to make sure our elections run smoothly. Let’s support them, even simply by being patient and waiting — in line or for the outcome of the election.
We’re all in this together. I hope to see you out there.
Election Day can bring us together, if we let it.
October 14, 2020
By Susan T. Nold
For information on where and how to vote, please go to TX Votes or vote411.org.
Election Day is less than three weeks away, and voting has started. Across the state, Texans are turning out early in record numbers to flex their civic muscles and create a healthier democracy.
It needs to be easier to vote, and hours-long lines are deeply problematic. At the same time, this outpouring of engagement is inspiring and motivating for all of us at the Annette Strauss Institute. We say often that active, engaged citizens are made, not born — the number who are being created this year is remarkable.
As divisive as this campaign has been, the actual election — the very act of voting — has the potential to bring the country together. I wrote an op-ed that appeared today in the Houston Chronicle discussing how election can help mend the nation's rifts. Here's an excerpt:
Pew Research Center ... researchers found that nationwide, 93 percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats agree it is very or somewhat important to improve the level of confidence Americans have in the federal government. Further, 93 percent of Democrats and 92 percent of Republicans agree it’s important to boost the confidence Americans have in one another.
It’s extraordinary to think that nearly 19 of 20 Democrats and Republicans could agree on anything in this environment. It’s really extraordinary that so many people on both sides share a thirst to come together and fix our government and democracy.
That change can start with us.
We should focus on solutions at least as much as problems. Research has shown that Americans’ trust in elections actually increases when government officials, influencers and media figures highlight solutions to electoral challenges and difficulties, such as stories of voters overcoming barriers to the ballot box.
We also need to practice empathy for other perspectives and experience, as the film “One Vote” does so well. All of us want to have a say and to be represented. Our stories are much more interesting and powerful than the data points and partisan labels we’re often reduced to.
And we must face, but not succumb to, the perverse incentives that often drive conflict-ridden speech and divisive social media posts. The market for our attention seems to reward those who inflame partisan differences despite what most Americans may believe or want.
A healthy democracy is about much, much more than a single vote. But your vote is where it starts. Make a plan to do your part — early voting ends on Oct. 30.
— Susan T. Nold, Director, Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life
October 8, 2020
By Susan T. Nold
Great Conversations, the biggest night on the Annette Strauss Institute’s calendar has finally come and gone. This annual event was an important one this year given that it marked the Institute’s 20th anniversary. We knew this year’s Great Conversations had to be memorable. I’m not sure we imagined that the 2020 version would be this memorable, but it was gratifying and inspiring to see our staff pull it off in a way we’ve never done before.
Instead of crowding into a ballroom (remember those days), roughly 200 attendees huddled around screens in their homes to hear from top state and national leaders and pundits — and, most importantly, to talk with and listen to each other.
You can watch the much of the event – welcome, awards, and panel -- here. Really, it’s worth your time.
As I said, what mattered wasn’t how we gathered — it was that we gathered.
Great Conversations is unique in that it’s specifically designed around dialogue. It encourages people to put aside partisanship, truly listen to each other and focus on the values that knit us together as a community and a nation. Over in-person tabletops (or, this year, virtual breakout rooms), small groups of guests discuss civic engagement, the state of democracy and people’s role in it. Those small-scale discussions are always a highlight.
This year’s event also featured a discussion with three renowned political experts — veteran political aide and analyst Matthew Dowd, Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty, and University of Houston political scientist Dr. Brandon Rottinghaus — on a panel aptly titled “Fixing American Politics.” They were interviewed by two UT Austin students, offering an overview of the political landscape that was sober, clear-eyed and ultimately uplifting.
We also honored two great leaders — Admiral Bobby Inman and former state Senator (and current Founding Dean of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston) Kirk Watson. And our fearless leaders — UT Austin President Jay Hartzell and Moody College of Communications Dean Jay Bernhardt — set a positive, productive tone for the evening.
Great Conversations is a vitally important event for the Annette Strauss Institute. The money it raises through sponsorships and ticket sales fuels our efforts year-round to create a healthier civic life, help students become active voters and leaders, and bring more people into the process.
It’s a wonderful, connecting event — one that’s especially timely right now. I hope to see you next year … hopefully in-person.
— Susan T. Nold, Director, Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life
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 (link below). 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.
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.
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.
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;
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). (https://www.texasmonthly.com/news/what-i-learned-black-speaker-liberal-w...)
— 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. (https://alcalde.texasexes.org/2020/07/from-a-distance-how-ut-responded-t...)
— 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. (https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/05/28/coronavirus-no-joke-wh...)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
I look forward to hearing from you, listening to you, and learning from you.