White House Young America Town Hall

A Capitol Connection

After speaking at the Strauss Institute's New Politics Forum in November, Ronnie Cho – associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and the president's liaison to young Americans – said he was impressed by University of Texas at Austin students.

"I was struck by the high level of activism and commitment to civic engagement and public service from the students I met in Austin," Cho said. "My experience then helped inspire this effort to provide a platform for young Americans to articulate a vision for our country where everyone does their fair share, everyone gets a fair shake and hard work and responsibility are rewarded."

Cho selected The University of Texas at Austin as the fourth stop on a list of 17 U.S. universities that would host a White House Youth Town Hall. The Strauss Institute began accepting applications for event participants and audience members in early March. Applicants who wished to present were asked to highlight issues or problems that they wanted to address.

Through the Town Halls, Cho said he hopes to assemble the brightest young minds to discuss important issues and create solutions to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

"President Obama knows that we have to invest in our young people and give them the skills they need to succeed now and in the decades to come," Cho said. "…But perhaps most importantly, President Obama believes that the answers to our toughest challenges lie within the American people. No one embodies this better than the young Americans like the ones here in Austin that are working every day to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build our competition."

Working to Create More Informed, Engaged, and Effective Citizens

As with other Strauss Institute events and outreach programs, the White House Youth Town Hall worked to create more informed, engaged and effective citizens, said Regina Lawrence, Faculty Fellow of the Strauss Institute and the Jesse H. Jones Centennial Chair in Communication at the School of Journalism.

"The Institute's goal was to convene an event in which young people can discuss the issues facing their communities in a nonpartisan and respectful way," Lawrence said. "This event was an eye-opening experience of young participants meeting, learning from and being inspired by one another as they became more deeply engaged in solving problems."

The Institute's mission is strictly nonpartisan, working within communities to engage people in the political process, teaching them about the nation's democratic heritage and encouraging them to take leadership roles.

Demonstrating the power of social media, the Strauss Institute projected a Twitter livestream behind the stage. Two onstage volunteers Tweeted via the @whitehouseUT handle and responded to comments that referenced #whsummit. By 5:15 p.m., Trendsmap had reported #whsummit as a trending Twitter topic in Austin.

The Strauss Institute also livestreamed the event through its website, which reached individual viewers, as well watch parties hosted by six high schools and seven universities across Texas.

Open Space Process

After the seven presentations, Cho invited audience members on stage to pitch issues that were important to them. Twenty-five people pitched issues, each forming discussion groups that would convene across the hall in KLRU Studio 6B.

Audience members pitched discussion topics, such as:

  • The importance of entrepreneurship to the future of the U.S. and world
  • The national debt
  • Drug policy reform
  • Food security and access
  • The ONE campaign, which fights poverty and preventable disease
  • Funding for arts programs

For an hour and a half, groups discussed their respective issues while "knowledge capture agents" recorded the conversations on poster boards. Cho then will sift through the information, bringing proposed solutions to the White House.

"...The most powerful solutions so far have come from participants that have forged new relationships and synergies with people outside of their immediate network," Cho said. "School teachers and social entrepreneurs coming together to find creative ways to help improve education for kids… Agriculture studies majors and political science students developing strategies on how to start a sustainability initiative on campus... Young business owners and community leaders working on ways to strengthen business development in underserved areas... These grassroots approaches to the issues impacting our communities are the real drivers of change and the White House wants to promote, support and empower their work."