Chances are, if you have walked down the Drag in the past few weeks, you’ve been asked to sign a petition for any number of causes. I personally have been stopped on at least six occasions on my walk to and from class since the start of summer classes. If there’s anything I’ve learned this summer, it’s that when asked to sign a petition, students should be more cautious and aware of what they are signing.
Austin4All, the group behind a recent affordability petition, has very little information listed on its one-page website, and has no handouts or fliers to provide to students as they pass by at the intersection of 24th and Guadalupe streets. However, the group has certainly made its presence felt. During a recent encounter, I asked three different “interns” from the organization why they did not have any materials describing their purpose, mission statement or any other information. The only answer I was able to gather was for cost efficiency. One of the interns later described Austin4All as “a nonprofit organization promoting public awareness of the high costs of living in Austin.” None of the members of the organization were willing to provide their name.
While still speaking with members of the organization, I also asked where to locate their website to gather additional information. (At this point, I hadn’t yet seen their bare-bones Web offering.) Two of them were unable to provide an answer. The last intern had to look at her identification badge hanging from around her neck to provide an answer. If the staff of an organization cannot answer simple questions about their own website, how can they expect students to sign in support of the unknown?
Upon getting get back to my apartment, I checked out their website. I was surprised to find multiple mistakes, including misspelled words, links that don’t work and a few common images of the Austin landscape that could easily be found on Google.
On its website, Austin4All also claims to be “a 501.3c non-profit” organization. This claimed 501.3c category is not an actual category with the IRS under Title 26 of the United States Code. Even if I presume that this was just another mistake on their website, and their intent was to say they are a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization, I was unable to find any record of the organization’s 501(c)(3) status on the IRS’ website.
Wondering if I might be alone in my skepticism, I pulled aside several people on the Drag after they signed the petition and a few who declined. As expected, many explained they simply signed the petition to be polite. Some students were OK with the fact that they knew very little about Austin4All.
One of these students was nutrition senior Mariana Reyes. I asked Reyes if it worried her that Austin4All could potentially be using her signature for anything since she was not provided with any fliers or additional resources about their work. Reyes said, “No it’s fine. It’s something normal here, I guess.”
I also spoke with management information systems junior Ori Ravid, who had chosen not to sign the petition. Ravid informed me that he had been stopped a couple of times but always passed on signing because, he said, “I’m not signing anything without hearing what they have to say, and I don’t have time to stand there and listen. I’m usually going somewhere.”
But Ravid was an outlier among the students I observed, most of whom willingly signed the petition without full recognition of what it was for other than to make “Austin more affordable.”
After speaking with multiple employees of Austin4All, countless people whom I observed sign the petition and reviewing Austin4All’s website, I am still unsure of what exactly Austin4All has done or plans to do to benefit Austinites or UT students.
Students need to research organizations and petitions before signing in support of any group or cause. I would hope most of us would not hand money over to a company set up on the Drag for cable service or any other service without first doing our research. The same should be true for petitions.
Daywalt is a government senior from Copperas Cove. Follow Daywalt on Twitter @JohnDaywalt.