Annette Strauss Institute

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

Professors and campaign professionals gathered at the Belo Center for New Media on Wednesday to dissect and analyze Tuesday’s election results at an event hosted by the New Politics Forum at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life.

Election Day in Texas saw Republican candidates win all statewide races with large, double-digit margins. At Wednesday’s election debriefing, Regina Lawrence, journalism professor and Strauss Institute director, said voter turnout is what makes the democratic process effective.

“Elections are kind of an imperfect way of measuring the will of the people, and they get less and less perfect, the fewer and fewer people who show up,” Lawrence said. “In a way, elections are all about who shows up.”

Lawrence said the election Tuesday demonstrated the increasing popularity of early voting in Texas.

Actually we saw, in a continued trend, an increase in early voting so that we had about one-third of Texas registered voters actually voting before yesterday,” Lawrence said.

Voter turnout across the state has been low, but Lawrence said Texas had the lowest turnout in the country in 2010.

“I’m here to tell you that the early returns suggest that Texas was not dead last yesterday,” Lawrence said.

Ross Ramsey, executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, said turnout is always an issue when it comes to election time.

“There’s a big emphasis in politics, not just in this campaign, but in a lot of places on voter registration and the importance of voter registration,” Ramsey said. “Voter registration doesn’t matter if you can’t peel them off the couch when its time to vote.”

Lawrence said despite the meager voter turnout, there were more open races on Tuesday than there has been in Texas since 1906.

“So we had a really historic opportunity for voter engagement, but we saw it unmet,” Lawrence said. 

Young voters are commonly the most underrepresented, and, according to Lawrence, this year was no different. Lawrence said her experience in the classroom has given her an idea of why this occurs.

“I can tell you, at least anecdotally, over the years of teaching, that the young people that I teach tell me again and again that one of the biggest reasons that they do not vote consistently is that they don’t feel informed enough,” Lawrence said. 

Lawrence said young voters might also vote less than other age groups because they feel isolated from the major political parties.

“Of course, we know that for many young people, these days particularly, there’s not as much of a strong connection to political parties, to those traditional political identities of democrat and republican,” Lawrence said.

Edward Espinoza, executive director of the Texas Research Institute, said there was little the Democrats could have done to fend off Republican
opponents.

“Had the Latino outreach been better, that would have taken [Democrats] from 39 percent to maybe 43 percent, but there was no stopping that wave,” Espinsoza said.

Unlike most representatives, Joe Straus, Texas Speaker of the House, can bring together green cars and Republican politics.

“Who else do you know that drives a Prius with a Romney sticker?” said Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System.

On Tuesday evening, the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life presented the annual Texas Leadership Award to Straus, R-San Antonio.

According to the institute, the award honors outstanding public servants in the state of Texas. 

First joining the House in February 2005, Straus was elected speaker during the 81st Legislative Session in 2009 and won re-election in 2011 and 2013.
During his acceptance speech, Straus said he was deeply honored to receive an award that bears the Strauss name. He also shared some of his insight on the obstacles of engaging the public in political processes.

“The solution to what ails most of our politics today is for more voters to get involved,” Straus said. “Some voters will always be cynical but we can begin to restore trust in government if we provide a positive vision for where we want to go.”

Roderick Hart, College of Communication dean and director of the Annette Strauss Institute, hosted the tribute and presented a total of eight speakers throughout the night including Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Theodore Strauss, co-chair and husband of the late Annette Strauss.

The Annette Strauss Institute honors the legacy of former Dallas mayor Annette Strauss through the promotion of civic engagement and leadership, according to its mission statement. Institute director Regina Lawrence said the organization is equal parts research and educational programming.

“The skills and attitudes and values and habits that are necessary for real democracy and self governance are things that must be taught,” Lawrence said. “Too often, they are not taught and our mission is to try and fill that gap.”

The institute primarily reaches out to middle school, high school and college students to encourage public service and civic participation.

President William Powers Jr., who officially presented the award to Straus, said he could not think of a more deserving recipient of the award based on the institute’s mission.

“You embody the ideals that Annette Strauss tried to inculcate in what we do and what we try to inculcate in young people today in this country, in this state and in our community,” Powers said.

Students gather at stations to discuss initiatives for change at the White House Young American series Tuesday evening. The forum, hosted by the Annette Strauss institute for Civic Participation, gathers student around the Nation to discuss solutions for social problems affecting today’s youth.

Photo Credit: Zen Ren | Daily Texan Staff

Representatives from the White House connected with young community leaders Tuesday evening to learn about the social issues that are most concerning to today’s youth.

Officials from President Barack Obama’s administration selected UT to be part of the White House Young American Series. Almost 150 students and young members of the community attended the forum that was hosted by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation. Attendees engaged in discussion on issues critical to young Americans in order to work together to propose solutions.

Select students and community members gave short TED Talks-style presentations during which they highlighted models of civic engagement and addressed challenges faced by society. TED Talks presentations are short speeches that focus on important issues of public interest.

“We need an open dialogue to reduce social language barriers between groups and industries to solve community problems,” said architecture senior Chris Ferguson, one of the forum’s student presenters.

Ferguson discussed sustainability and how it can be achieved through a collective effort between architecture and various industries. Ferguson highlighted various student organizations that are already using their skills to help members of the Austin community by creating sustainability campaigns, building innovative solar problems and volunteering abroad.

Matt Glazer, executive director of political activist organization Progress Texas, presented his work with the organization that works to mobilize the 78 percent of Texans he said are not politically involved.

Glazer, 30, said he is on the “other end of the spectrum” of civic engagement because of his age and hopes that college students will take on the challenge of gathering to share ideas.

“You need to build your own army,” he said. “Take my rally call so that next year you’ll be up here pushing the important idea of mobilizing people to mobilize others.”

Other presentations included representatives from various local organizations including the mentorship program Advise TX, undocumented immigrant activist group University Leadership Initiative and the University chapter of Students of the World.

Ronnie Cho, associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, is the president’s liaison to young Americans and created the series of forums on college campuses. Cho said the series was created to support the everyday work of Americans that can serve as catalysts for future change.

“This is not about 2012 but instead about 2112 and what we are going to do to build the next American century,” Cho said. “We want to know how you are taking care of your own and what we can do to help you.”

After presentations, attendees broke up into 25 small groups for open forum periods where they discussed issues dealing with health care, arts and education, immigration policy and poverty, among various other topics.

The White House Young America series launched last month at Arizona State University. The program at UT is the fourth of 17 forums that will be held at universities across the country.

Regina Lawrence, journalism professor and fellow of the Annette Strauss Institute, said UT was an ideal candidate for the forum because of its prominent role in higher education. She also said the University provides a large and diverse audience of college students with varying concerns and ideas.

Lawrence said the institute believes in engaging young individuals to become involved beyond politics and in their communities.

“This generation is known as a slacker generation that has lost all responsibility to others except to themselves,” she said. “But our students are proving to their elders how problems can be resolved in a civil and constructive manner instead of a divisive one.”

Mary Dixon listens to students from Akin High School present a community issue at the Speak Up, Speak Out Civics Fair Thursday evening at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. The event was organized by Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation.

Photo Credit: Batli Joselevitz | Daily Texan Staff

Future Longhorn Joe Ramos said the community service skills he learned through a state-wide competition at UT will be tools he brings onto campus as a freshman at the McCombs School of Business next year.

The Stony Point High School senior was one of 150 students from 11 high schools and middle schools from across the state that participated in the 10th annual Speak Up! Speak Out! competition, hosted by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at UT on Thursday.

She said Speak Up! Speak Out! is a civics fair where teams of students identify an issue they have researched within their communities and present a solution to judges at the fall event.

Ramos presented his team’s plan for reducing the number of teens engaging in at-risk activities such as substance abuse and violence by increasing extracurricular engagement.

“We identified that extracurricular activity decreases the risk of engaging in destructive behaviors,” Ramos said.

He said his team formulated an incentive program that would reward extracurricular organizations that increased outreach to students in the summer and winter breaks.

“Above all we’re trying to create opportunities for students that might not otherwise be able to participate,” he said.

Ramos said he believes the experience will benefit him as he enters the McCombs School of Business next year.

“I think it will definitely help in McCombs because McCombs, and the entire Austin community, has such a strong value of community engagement,” Ramos said.

The teams make three rotations during the competition, spokeswoman for the Annette Strauss Institute Erin Geisler said. The first rotation consists of two speeches, one informative and one persuasive. Judges then question students about the speeches, Geisler said. In the next round students present a tri-fold display in a style similar to a science fair presentation. In the final round judges evaluate students during a session where they are asked to personally reflect on their findings, she said.

The top three teams win a $300, $200 and $100 cash prize to put towards their community issue, Geisler said.

Deborah Wise, program coordinator for the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation, said the entire goal of Speak Up! Speak Out! is to give students the capability to change their communities in the future.

“Our hope really is that students learn skills they can use for the rest of their lives,” Wise said. “The goal of this is to equip them with the basic skills to make a difference in community.”

Pflugerville High School counselor Sarah Mullin said she believes the program is an innovative way to get students involved.

“I think it’s really helpful to have students step out from themselves and think about the community as a whole, and how they can make a positive impact,” Mullin said. “I like seeing students getting involved and thinking of solutions to community issues and not just talking about the problems.”

Printed on Friday, December 2, 2011 as: UT hosts state-wide service skills competition

News Briefly

U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison will receive the Inaugural Annette Strauss Texas Leadership Award on Feb. 22.

The Annette Strauss Texas Leadership Award reflects the standards of civil service established by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation. The group chose to honor Hutchison for her civic contributions, according to the Institute.

“She was a person who knew Mayor Strauss and worked with her in Dallas. And when we started the institution 10 years ago, even though they were of opposite political affiliations, she was gracious enough to endorse us,” said College of Communications Dean Roderick Hart, who chairs the Annette Strauss Institute.

The award ceremony coincides with the 10-year anniversary of the nonpartisan organization.

“This an attempt to dramatize the importance of civic engagement,” Hart said.

The proceeds of the ceremony will go to the organization’s education fund, which promotes scholastic outreach to secondary and collegiate learning.

The selection process for the award is entirely nonpartisan, Hart said.

The fourth-term senator will receive the award upon the premise of her civic commitment to the public and her demonstration of leadership within her community. Hutchison announced in January that she will not seek another term in 2012.

This month, the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation will begin managing Project Vote Smart’s Key Votes program, a free online database that provides citizens with access to congressional and state legislative voting records.

Project Vote Smart, a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization, chose the institute instead of applicants from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University and the University of Southern California. The center will begin compiling data and research in January.

Republican and Democratic national leaders such as Gerald Ford, Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter and Newt Gingrich, founded Project Vote Smart in 1992. The organization, which is funded by foundation grants and individual contributions, researches the voting records, backgrounds, issue positions, campaign contributions, interest group ratings and public statements of more than 40,000 candidates and elected officials.

The institute is seeking 20 to 30 undergraduate students with an interest in government, journalism or political communication to intern 10 or more hours each week researching and compiling the voting records of elected officials.

“In order to be an engaged citizen, one must have access to high-quality information about their government,” said Rod Hart, director of the institute. “Our partnership with Project Vote Smart to manage the Key Votes program dovetails nicely with our mission of creating more voters and better citizens through high-quality, nonpartisan information.”

The project will pick the votes by Congress and state legislators that they believe are important based on five criteria. They will determine whether the vote is helpful in portraying how a member stands on a particular issue, clear for the public to understand, has received media attention, passed or defeated by a close margin, and sometimes, whether a specific bill is consistently inquired about on the project’s Voter’s Research Hotline.

Undergraduate researchers, along with Key Votes staff, will then write descriptions based on information included in the Congressional Record, and in the state house and senate journals. Additional background information will be pulled from newspapers, magazines and other media.

“All of this will come together and allow an individual to be able to pull up on an online database to see how their own representative is voting,” said Chuck Courtney, associate director of the institute. “This will simplify the language of legislation so that voters have a chance to understand the issues.”