Photo: Sarah Pollock
For a state that prides itself on having a culture of go-getters, Texas has a population of citizens who are remarkably disengaged from the political process. According to the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, voter turnout in Texas has been one of the lowest in the country for presidential and midterm elections alike, dating back to 1972. Turnout only gets lower for more local elections—here in Austin, only 13.3% of eligible voters participated in final round of the most recent mayoral election. In recent months, however, prominent voices on the national and local stage have described a dramatic increase in grassroots organizing and constituent contact with representatives. Groups like Austin EcoNetwork help people go even further, by hosting monthly “Civics 101” happy hours and encouraging them to get directly involved in their local government. Austin EcoNetwork Editor-in-Chief, Amy Stansbury, reminds attendees that at the local level, you only need a few dedicated people to really make a difference. I attended the most recent event to learn more.
According to Ms. Stansbury and her panel of local experts (staff members from the mayor and city council offices, current board members, activists and journalists who cover city hall) there are two broad avenues for direct involvement in local government, short of running for office: boards and commissions, or advocacy and activism. Boards and commissions serve a variety of purposes, from advising city councilmembers on public policy to issuing binding decisions regarding city planning. Citizens are usually appointed, either by the mayor or a councilmember. Citizens can reach out to their councilmember, the Mayor’s office, or apply online to serve on a board or commission. The panel experts noted that desirable candidates may have expertise in the relevant area, connections in their community that can inform decision-making, or clearly articulated goals they intend to advance during their service. They also encouraged interested parties to attend a meeting of a board or commission, not only to become better informed about the board’s work, but to get a feel for the way the board conducts its business. Citizens are also given opportunities to share their concerns or ask questions at meetings, or may become aware of immediate ways to get involved in issues they care about.
There are several important features of board membership. These are typically volunteer positions, which can often increase community trust in the board’s work and inspire higher levels of community participation in the development of board recommendations. Because these are appointed positions, board members serve terms as long as their council member is in office (incoming council members may choose to reappoint members if they so desire). The time commitment required of board members varies from board to board, and even from month to month on a given board. Attending meetings and asking for information from current members is the best way to find out what serving on a particular board looks like.
Advocacy and activism are likely to be more familiar avenues for civic participation to many of us. The activists who spoke at this event emphasized the importance of remembering that there are many ways to get involved, and that all kinds of activism are needed at different times and in different ways. They advised people to find a group or organization working on an issue they care deeply about, to increase the likelihood that they would stay involved over the long haul. Here in Austin, we are fortunate to have a rich and diverse community of activist organizations working on a variety of issues—a quick Google search is all you need to identify someone who is already working on something you care about. From state and local groups like the Central Texas Food Bank or the Refugee Services of Texas to national organizations like Planned Parenthood or the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, there’s no shortage of ways to turn your time into meaningful work that will benefit your community.
Most of us turn our attention to the machinery of government every four years, a few of us every two years and even fewer in-between, when decisions that affect our daily lives are being made by locally-elected officials many of us can’t even name. National, and even state-level politics often seem far too big to do anything about, but for those of us who want to make a meaningful difference in our communities, there are opportunities close at hand that can fit into even the busiest of lives. From serving on a board to volunteering for an hour a week with a local organization, the most important thing is to choose something to do—then get out there and do it.
For information on Austin City Boards and Commissions, visit the city website here.
To learn more about civic engagement in Texas, see the Annette Strauss Institute’s report here.
To see how Austin’s mayoral election voter turnout compares to other cities across the country, visit the Who Votes for Mayor? Project here.