Equal parts cause for celebration and sobering reality is how I would characterize the first classroom day for the 2015 Essential Class. The presentations confirmed quantitatively what we all know via our own experience of this city we call home: Austin is the Best City Ever! But this success has a flip side. As explained by the panel of experts (demographer Ryan Robinson, regional planning consultant John Karras, and COA Economic Development Department leads Kevin Johns and Rodney Gonzales) Austin faces real challenges stemming from our success: growing transportation problems, disappearing affordability, a disengaged citizenry, urban flight. As leaders and emerging leaders, it’s our responsibility to address the problems that we can to ensure that Austin remains awesome.
The coolest graph award has to go to John Karras for his animated national map showing employment gains and losses in metropolitan areas over the past 15 years or so—we all issued a collective gasp as the worst recession since the great depression spread a bloodbath over the screen (with Austin’s wounds healing far faster than the rest of the country).
But the biggest take-away for me was this: Despite the fact that Austin touts itself as such a progressive and educated city, our voter participation in city elections is an appalling 10.6%.
Ashley Phillips, Program Manager, challenged me to think about the “what now.” Now armed with a fact that is troublesome, I can reflect on and find out more about the underlying causes, and then determine what’s next. Basically, what am I going to DO about it?
To determine where I’m headed, it helps to remember where I started. The story of my personal advance along the spectrum from emerging citizen to fully engaged citizen (nod to Regina Lawrence, Annette Strauss Institute) is this: I was a frazzled working parent with two young children when I completely lost confidence in the 2004 elections. I lost sleep over it; I was distraught, frustrated, angry and incredulous. But it finally dawned on me that while national level impact was beyond my reach, making a difference in my own community certainly wasn’t. I was elected to my homeowner’s association board, became more involved in the activities my children were a part of, and moved into a leadership position in a professional organization I belonged to.
Yes, these things are all small potatoes on a relative scale—but they directly impacted my family and my career, and thus, were profoundly important. And the more involved I became in things close to home, the more I got pulled into broader activities and organizations.
What I learned is you have to start small and you have to start from where you are!
So, here’s something I can DO, starting small and from where I am: I can continue to engage and encourage involvement in my immediate circle. I already am the geek who watches all the local debates on TV—I clear my calendar, bring my dinner plate to the coffee table, and make my kids pipe down so I can catch every word. I can and I WILL make an event of it. I can invite my friends, make it fun, have a discussion afterward, stealthily winning their engagement and following up with reminders about getting to the polls on election day. I can do that.
If you missed the mayoral candidate debate last Wednesday, you can watch it here.