October 1, 2014 Engage Recap

October 1, 2014 Engage Recap

The 2014-2015 Engage breakfast series opened with the theme of Carpe Diem, and addressed the significantly changing leadership landscape of Austin. Panelists included Dr. Regina Lawrence, Director of The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life; Geronimo Rodriguez, Chair of Leadership Austin; and Mark Strama, Head of Google Fiber in Austin and former Texas State Representative, 50th District. The discussion was moderator by Robert Hadlock of KXAN, and questions from the audience were fielded by Amanda Brandeis, also from KXAN.

Christopher Kennedy, CEO of Leadership Austin, opened the event by emphasizing this unique and monumental time in Austin history. “We have this window of opportunity to recalibrate what we want to do in our community around civic participation. We are asking you to take a big picture look at the entire leadership landscape that’s changing.”

Panelists discussed the numerous civic changes and how citizens can embrace them. Some takeaways from the morning:

#1 Austin is experiencing unbelievable growth along with a huge decline in civic engagement through voting.
Lawrence explained that this mismatch is at the core of the city’s challenges. “It always shocks me to go back and look at the numbers: In 1971 we had 57% turnout in eligible voters in Austin in that year’s mayoral election. By 2012 it was 10%.”

Lawrence agrees we are at a moment of change and promise, but cautions that change can’t happen overnight. “This election represents a moment to reboot civic engagement in Austin…but research suggests that it doesn’t happen automatically.” The key is to not only reboot the system, but reboot the voters and citizens as well.

#2 We can’t ignore that growth may be part of the problem.
As Strama said, “We are victims of our own success.” All the growth in Austin is actually part of the reason for the inverse relationship between growth and civic engagement. Lawrence said, “So many people are transplants, so many people are mobile these days…it’s just harder to feel connected to a community you just recently joined rather than a community you grew up in.”

#3 Our fastest growing groups are the ones that should be invited in and engaged.
“Austin is very diverse but it’s not as inclusive as we think it is,” says Rodriquez. He says one of the most important questions we should be asking is, “How do we engage individuals who are working two or three jobs to make a living to get to the American dream for their families?”

#4 Change takes time and ongoing work.
The new 10-1 city council system will likely boost voter turnout in the short-term. The trick will be building engagement for the long term. Lawrence suggested approaching civic engagement as “civic health” and finding ways to be engaged a little every day. Not everyone needs to run a marathon, but we all need to exercise and take care of ourselves daily.

As Rodriquez said, “10-1 is one attempt to rebuild, reboot, reweave the community to build trust, which gives you access, which gives us the power to make changes that we think we need to make in our community. So there’s a pathway there, but we’ve got to take it.”

#5 Encouraging civic engagement starts early.
To encourage civic engagement, model it with your kids. Strama and Rodriquez both suggest taking them with you to vote. Lawrence said that in our information-saturated world, we should teach kids and young adults to separate fact from fiction.

We also need to meet that generation where they are online because they are immersed in social networks and media. Strama notes that technology can have a democratizing effect on civic engagement. “I hope that our evolution toward 10-1 is complemented by continuing evolution of the empowering effect of the Internet.”

#6 Connection should be the community’s goal.
Everyone agreed that the primary goal of the 10-1 city council election is to foster connection with city officials. Data shows that less than 9% of Texans said they had contacted an elected official in the last year. Panelists hope stronger relationships will grow from the new districts.

#7 Calls to action: Small, impactful ways to become more civic engaged.
Regina Lawrence: “The antidote to cynicism is personal engagement and personal involvement. It almost doesn’t matter what issue you choose…just choose something you care about. Learn more about that issue, figure out how you can step up in one way.”

Geronimo Rodriquez: “Three things: Listen with both your head and your heart. Find somebody who thinks differently than you do…and go to lunch and learn about them. Go on Google and search the U.S. Citizenship Exam and take it.”

Mark Strama: Model the behavior you wish you saw in the political system. It’s increasingly the case that we just don’t engage the discussion with the people we disagree with. If we don’t give the people we disagree with the respect of understanding their argument we will never know for sure that we’re right and we’ll never have the grounds on which to persuade them.”

Full Audio From the Event

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