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Philanthropy Education Series Recap: Civic Engagement as a Tool for Impact

A hybrid learning event offered as part of Impact Austin's commitment to philanthropy education. Watch the video here.

On September 29, 2023, Impact Austin offered a hybrid learning event that considered various aspects of civic engagement: voting, awareness of organizations involved with civic engagement, resources available to the public, and how to personally engage. This session followed up an April 28, 2023 event that reviewed Texas legislation then being considered and how it might impact the Austin-area nonprofit sector. Both events were available to a limited in-person audience at the Austin Area Urban League and also by livestream.


Impact Austin member and Learning Committee Co-Chair Claudia Barlow introduced speakers and facilitated Q&A. Thank you to our moderator and expert panelists, whose biographies are detailed in an earlier blog.

  • Eric L. Byrd - President, Black Professional Alliance

  • Shelly Baker - Texas Organizing Director, NextGen America

  • Yvonne Massey Davis - Sr. Director, Public Engagement, Organizing for Action

  • Amy Stansbury - Editor in Chief, The Austin Common

Opening comments

Eric Byrd - On a trip to Philadelphia City Hall with his father, Eric saw the statue of Octavius Catto, a civil rights activist murdered by a white supremacist after exercising his first opportunity and right to vote in the 1871 election. Eric commented that voting is important enough that some people will try to restrict it as a right. Eric then asked the audience how many present engage civically beyond voting.

Amy Stansbury - The Austin Common is a local news site and civic education organization. She focuses on a younger audience, trying to make local government more accessible and engaging. Younger people tend to be less engaged than other audiences. She actively uses social media, illustrated news, and video. They pursue opportunities and venues to speak.

Yvonne Davis - She is newly retired. "My engagement started with my grandparents." She is actively involved with voter registration, engagement, and involvement and primarily in the African American community. She spoke about making a difference in "the Austin we want to see."

Shelly Baker - Through NextGen America, she works primarily on college campuses to engage and register young voters. This is one of the largest and most diverse audiences in the nation's history, she says. They pursue youth to serve in their leadership.


What trends are we seeing in voting and civic engagement, in terms of participation rates and who is participating?

Yvonne - Pay attention to the precincts in Travis County. Which are participating, and which are not? For example, we don't see enough participation in Precinct 1. We need to get out the vote!

Shelly - She mentioned long lines at the polling place as a barrier to voting. She also mentioned student confusion about mail-in ballots and where to register: near campus or home.

Amy - Smaller elections can get very little attention. Also, up-ballot candidates will get more votes than down-ballot candidates will. This is particularly true among young voters. Another issue pertains to run-off elections. The runoffs have much lower participation, particularly among college students. The largest demographic for voters (especially during runoffs) is among people 65+. An opportunity for engagement/volunteering is during the period between regular election and runoff election.

Shelly - Many organizers don't work in the period between regular election days and runoff election days, so they're not available to stimulate engagement.


If the people decide they want to change the runoff system, what can they do?

Amy - There is some discussion about the possibility of "instant runoff," by way of candidates being ranked by the voters. And the current system DOES allow a number of candidates to run, which is great! But the timing of it and how much engagement drops are the concerns.

Shelly - If runoff elections were discontinued, so much money would be saved.


Are there other barriers to voting?

Yvonne - Organizing happens too late in the process. We need to build relationships far in advance of election day. Also, gentrification in East Austin has disrupted so much of the sense of community, plus the desire to engage and make change. Develop relationships with people who share your values. Candidates should get to know voters well in advance of election day.

Amy - She echoed the need to educate and engage earlier in the process, well in advance of election day. Build up that knowledge and understanding in advance!


Outside of voting, what are other ways that people can engage civically?

Shelly - The average person is not necessarily a great organizer. Leave the organization to the professionals. If you ARE going to volunteer, get involved early and know the community. But, if you don't "match" the community, if you aren't from the community, give money instead. It doesn't mean your heart isn't in the right place. "Listen to the people on the ground. They will tell you what they need."

Yvonne - You don't have to be the face of the organization to help. Support those who ARE the face of the organization.

Amy - There are many ways to engage. If you have only a few minutes each week, simply follow an elected official on social media. If you have a little more time, fill out a city survey every once in a while. City Council uses these surveys to justify many of their decisions. With even more time, attend a Council meeting and take a friend. Get the "vibe." Get more comfortable with the experience. Once you're even more comfortable, volunteer/serve on a city board or commission. "These are the big levers of our government." There is opportunity for new voices! Or, even just show up to these meetings.

Yvonne and Shelly - Re: League of Women Voters - Engage women where they are. Have your League look like the city it is in. Put diverse and young people on your board.


Part of civic engagement is being educated on the issues. How can people stay informed? What resources do you recommend? What are the next steps?

Shelly - There are great resources at NextGen America. She also mentioned the League of Women Voters election guide. Finally, don't ignore small, local organizations working at the local level. You'll meet those "doing the work." Support them! Share the resources and knowledge that you find.

Yvonne - The Austin Justice Coalition takes the League of Women Voters guide and puts a lens on it for people of color. She would like to see the League take on that work. Also, don't overlook the "Divine Nine," a national panhellenic council of primarily-Black sororities and fraternities who are engaged with civic rights. Consider collaborating. "Don't try to go in and say 'I know it all.'"

Amy - She likes being creative. Make civic engagement more social! "Bring your friends!" Make people feel included in these spaces as they get more comfortable engaging. The Austin Common has a series of short videos, 90-second guides, that explain issues and elections.


Audience question: So much local government is VERY local, like MUDs and neighborhood associations. How can you let everyone know about all the issues, all the ways to get involved?

Amy - To engage younger people, you might need to use more social media. At the same time, many people are craving "community." What are the mechanisms for creating that? Simple flyers? Talking to your neighbors? She mentioned the north Austin group We're All Neighbors. "Know your five" [neighbors] to solve problems together.


Yvonne - When faced with a hard decision, or a tough issue, ask: Who needs to be here? Who needs to be at the table? "To build a better Austin, to build a better Texas, we need every voice."


Compilation of resources shared by our presenters:



League of Women Voters

November 2023 election guide https://lwvaustin.org/docs.ashx?id=1231958



Austin Justice Coalition https://austinjustice.org/


The City of Austin

Provide input to surveys and projects: https://publicinput.com/Portal/F1211

Sign up for City of Austin communications: https://www.austintexas.gov/page/austin-notes

 

For their support of philanthropy education initiatives within our organization,

Impact Austin thanks sponsors FVF Law Firm and Polaris Executive Talent Advisors.


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