Civic Corner

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Civic Corner

The official blog of the Annette Strauss Institute

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 susan.nold@austin.utexas.edu.

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

— Susan