Kerry Mackenzie, The University of Texas at Austin
As a Texas Civic Ambassador, I wanted to focus on promoting civic discourse in my community to promote respectful and impactful student advocacy. During my first year on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin, I witnessed instances where political tension between students escalated past the point of effectiveness, sometimes negatively impacting students’ well being. Almost always, the strained conditions and lack of communication underlying these instances went unidentified and undiscussed.
It has become my mission as a TCA to identify and communicate these concealed escalators, bringing them to our student community’s awareness. When we understand and feel interconnected to each other, we are more effective. I wanted to start this process in a community close to my heart: Student Government Assembly, a Legislative Student Organization charged with advocating for student needs through debating and passing legislation. Assembly meetings could get contentious and this concerned me because I saw it as distracting from our mission to help communicate the student experience to administrators. I conducted surveys and interviews to craft a cohesive report about the effectiveness of Assembly Representative debate. After presenting the report’s findings, I implemented structural changes, such as guided caucuses for discussion and Deliberative Dialogue during new representative training. The initiative will be passed down from Assembly to Assembly.
This project gave me a first hand look at the variety of experiences, especially the pressures, student advocates from across the political spectrum face at this university. Despite hearing from a large variety of outlooks on and approaches to student policy making, I found most representatives shared a fierce desire to help their communities, a willingness to collaborate with others, and investment in the well being of all representatives. According to most representatives, the root of escalated disagreement in the Assembly did not stem from a desire to hurt others but from a fundamental misunderstanding of others intentions as a result of lack of trust or dialogue. These findings instilled within me the importance of modeling frequent, respectful political conversation with a diverse array of people both in Assembly and in Texas. We are often taught to avoid talking about policy or politics, especially with those we do not know well, to avoid political conflict; but this practice is actually what causes such tension. I strongly believe we must normalize respectful political conversations, and I am glad Assembly has become a model of that for students at UT Austin.
Although I had completed the majority of my project before the outbreak of COVID-19, the pandemic slowed the implementation of measures promoting civic discourse in Assembly, such as the Deliberative Dialogue training. These measures will be implemented at the beginning of the coming school year or when it is safe to meet in person again. Despite implementation setbacks, I developed new ways to promote virtual communication, such as Representative reports, informal reports of student’s progress on their initiatives.
In the future, I hope to expand these approaches to other campus organizations and spaces. Although my mission to normalize respectful, diverse political discussion started fittingly in my immediate communities, it should not end there. To that end, my advice of all students working to be community leaders is to be the person that starts the hard conversations in your community and connects groups who might not relate to each other. Meaningful student change begins with changing how we talk about the changes we want to see.