Let’s look at some numbers that describe our region.
9.0%. That was the expansion of Austin’s overall economic activity in the last 12 months, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank. That extraordinary growth rate beats 4.2% in Fort Worth and 6.6% in Dallas.
Six. That is how many top leaders of major institutions will change in the immediate future. In the next year, we will see a new chancellor at the University of Texas System; a new president at UT Austin; a new president of Huston-Tillotson, a new Travis County judge (the first in 16 years); a new mayor of Austin; and a new superintendent at the Austin Independent School District.
78. That is how many candidates stepped forward to lead the City of Austin in the first single-member district election in November.
46. That is how many states in 2012 had better voter turnout than Texas. Or you could go with Texas as 42nd in voter registration, 44th in discussing politics or 49th in contacting public officials, according to the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life’s 2010 Texas Civic Health Index. Locally, we think of ourselves as an active community, but voting for mayor of Austin has dropped from 56.8 percent of registered voters in 1971 to somewhere around 10 percent today.
A booming economy, unprecedented change in leadership at the top, an ample pool of political leaders, but a moribund civic life — what gives? How do we make sense of this numerical description of the Greater Austin area? What can we do about it?
What’s behind the lack of engagement? Could it be that we are incredibly busy taking advantage of this booming economy to make a living and we are letting others lead? Do we feel the wheels are already in motion and our participation does not count? Maybe we don’t know where to start.
The starting point for engagement is nearly always something you care about. A lot of leaders never intended to become leaders. They started their efforts to change things when a voice in their head said, “I just can’t let this go.” The moment may have come when they saw an injustice done to a friend, a coworker, their children’s teacher or even a stranger. It may have come when a great idea was dismissed with a “we tried that once.” It may have come when something important – an historic building, a community gathering spot, or the tranquility of a neighborhood street — was lost to growth.
At that moment, there is a choice: either cynicism prevails and the moment is lost or personal engagement kicks in and authentic, grassroots leadership is born. People begin to make a difference.
We are blessed to live in a region with a strong economy. Are we going to use this momentum to build a more connected community? Will the 10-1 Austin City Council inspire broader civic participation? Will the communities seeing the most change in their demographics add their unique voices to the chorus of Austin community life? Will the solutions to our water, traffic, affordability and educational problems be forced upon us or driven by our active engagement?
The real number that describes Austin is one – one person and one moment. Our future depends on what each of us decides to do in that moment – lean in or walk away. I encourage you to get prepared – your moment is here.
CEO, Leadership Austin