Annette Strauss Would Be Proud: Three Female Faces Promoting Civic Engagement

According to the 2018 Texas Civic Health Index™, a metric developed by the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin for the purposes of determining a community’s civic engagement health, Texas consistently falls below the United States’ voter turnout and voter registration average.

In fact, coming in at 55.4% for voter turnout, 6 points lower than the national average, Texas ranked 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for voter turnout in the 2016 general election. Hawaii, West Virginia, Tennessee, and New Mexico fared worse.

The Texas Civic Health Index™ reveals that although Texas has marginally improved turnout since its 2013 study, where Texas ranked last among all other states and the District of Columbia, Texas and the rest of America have a long way to go in terms of maximizing voter turnout for the November 2018 general election and beyond.

Three women are determined to change that.

Susan Nold, Director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life and Senior Lecturer in the University of Texas’ Department of Communication Studies; Kassie Barroquillo, a graduate research associate and the TX Votes Program Coordinator with the Institute; and Sarah Herzer, the president of TX Votes, all are diligent civic engagement servants for their Texas communities.

Reflecting on reasons why she became involved with civic engagement, Barroquillo explains, “It is my passion to ensure young people both know how important it is to participate [civically], but also understand how to do it.”

Herzer, remarking on the empowerment she felt when she first registered to vote, proclaimed that the impetus for her involvement with TX Votes and its affiliated organization the Civic Engagement Alliance was her desire “to give that feeling of empowerment to [other people].”

However, empowering students and Texans through civic engagement is difficult when state, local, and university resources do not adequately prepare citizens and community members to be engaged and informed, particularly in local matters.

Barroquillo noticed the imperative of increasing civic participation when she first became a local news journalist in Indiana. “I was often the only journalist at town council and school board meetings; I started to realize the role that newspapers played in political participation and voter engagement.”

She continues to point out how the lack of information affects students’ political and civic involvement. “Students often say they do not have time to vote or educate themselves on who to vote for. Additionally, students often don’t know when elections are taking place. Sure, people know about presidential elections, but what about all of the elections in between?”

TX Votes, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to registering eligible voters and increasing civic engagement, seeks to remedy this problem of a lack of information by regularly organizing registrations for students to vote and answer voting-related questions.

With Barraquillo’s help as a Travis County Volunteer Deputy Registrar (VDR) Trainer, TX Votes hosts VDR training sessions multiple times throughout the school year, teaching VDRs how to register students to vote and providing student-specific election information, such as re-registration, district zoning, and polling place information.

TX Votes also passes out nonpartisan voting guides created by the League of Women Voters around the time of each upcoming election. Consistently providing students with election and voting information, TX Votes hopes to increase the awareness of students of all political matters.

“We go to students, instead of having students come to us. This often cuts out the time argument because we are registering them during class. If you are a student organization leader or professor who would like TX Votes to register your class to vote, you can always sign-up using this simple form,” Barroquillo says.

Although, TX Votes attempts to ease the burden of finding time to register one's self to vote and educate one's self on election matters, Barroquillo and Nold say they still run into issues with students not voting. Students have many other reasons for not voting besides a lack of information and a lack of time. Apathy towards politics, and cynicism towards governmental processes and the electoral system are also common reasons for not voting.

Such reasons for not voting are not simply applicable to students. Many Texans, and presumably Americans in general, express similar sentiments.

According to the 2018 Texas Civic Health Index™, one out of five Texans will not vote because they are either too busy to vote, or their work or school schedules conflict with early voting and election day times. 13% of Texans do not vote because they are “not interested” in voting, or they “felt [their] vote wouldn’t make a difference.”

The study also notes, “The most frequent response (28%) was [that Texans] ‘didn’t like the candidates or campaign issues.’ This is a notable departure from the response given in 2012, when only 13% of Texans avoided voting because of dislike of the candidates and issues.”

For individuals who cannot find the time to go vote, Nold told the Texas Tribune, “In Texas, there’s a law that says employees should be given off time--without penalties--to go vote on election day so we need to let employers know that exists.”

For those either apathetic towards political candidates and campaign issues, perhaps students feel like this because they do not see themselves as part of political processes, believing themselves to be observers of politics, rather than participants in the political system.

As a lecturer for the University of Texas, Nold teaches a class about communicating with state and local governments as a professional and a citizen. She notices that students may feel as if they are not participants in governments and she hopes she can convince them otherwise.

“The class I teach about communicating with government is designed to challenge this impression, and it’s very rewarding to help students come to consider that politics and government is just a group of people most often trying to do something positive, and that it works best if it’s participatory and open to all.”

For students cynical about the government and electoral processes, Nold recycles a similar thought Barroquillo expressed: a lack of information can have adverse effects for students.

“If all I knew about politics and government was the information reported on the news, I might [believe that politicians are corrupt and self-interested] as well. I believe a key driver of my own optimism comes from having worked in and around government, even during very divisive, contentious, and challenging times.”

Nold harkens that in order to curb cynicism, participation is key for feeling invested in one’s community and political realm. By investing their time in their communities, students better understand how to utilize governmental and democratic processes to better address their concerns. Students begin to see their communities investing in them, increasing how much students identify with their communities, as well as becoming more informed.

A lack of identification with communities is a problem Herzer identifies in college students her age. She recognizes that students think their university towns are not their permanent homes, so they are less likely to partake in their college communities as a long term investment.

Nold herself is able to see the benefits of civic engagement and political participation through friends and family members directly. Growing up with her father working in the Texas Legislature and US Congress and her mother working as the president of her local school board, Nold has had the fortune of knowing since a young age the dedication public servants and political participants have to their communities, preserving her optimism for and engagement in the democratic process.

“I have seen firsthand that dedicated, honorable, and ethical individuals of integrity can be entrusted with the responsibility to act in the public interest.”

Encouraging students to become more involved so that they may see themselves more reflected in government is consistent with John Dewey’s philosophy of education. Through action, individuals develop their own character, becoming better citizens in their communities and better people individually.

Not only does TX Votes provide students outlets to first get involved in their communities through voting, but other programs in the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life bolster civic engagement, as well.

The New Politics Forum champaigns personal development through civic life by providing students with opportunities year-round to learn about and navigate as a professional in the political realm. Through nonpartisan and bipartisan workshops and conferences, students receive training and advice on how to be public servants, either by working on campaigns, or working for an elected official.

Educational efforts by the Annette Strauss Institute do not just stop at university-level civic engagement. Speak Up! Speak Out! is a program tailored towards middle and high school students specifically to teach teenagers early about their communities and how to be involved in them.

As Nold, Barroquillo, and Herzer all work to expand the reach and effectiveness of these programs, they propagate the single idea that civic engagement matters and any one can help promote this message.

At the end of the day, the support these women from students and other women encourage them to continue spreading their message.

Herzer insists that as a woman, she does not feel disadvantaged in her position as president of TX Votes. “If anything, [being a woman] has been an advantage because of all the female support I get as a woman in a leadership role.”

With much support and guidance from Barroquillo, Herzer has been able to lead TX Votes this year, as the organization registered thousands of students to vote. She, alongside Barroquillo and Nold, even accepted recently the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge for Most Improved Undergraduate Voter Turnout in the country in Washington D.C. on behalf of TX Votes.

Barroquillo has also experienced an uplifting even distribution of men and women participating in civic engagement efforts, so she feels she has many inspirational women she can look up to in both research and facilitation at the university.

The biggest hurdle Barroquillo has had to tackle is “understanding the hierarchical structure both of the University of Texas and also the nuances of voter participation in the state of Texas.” However, with tremendous support from her fiance and Nold, Barroquillo has been able to prosper in her role as Program Coordinator for TX Votes. She also recently accepted in March the Democracy in Action award, presented by the League of Women Voters.

Nold, however, cautions the issues women face in rising to leadership positions, not only in civic engagement, but in all careers and fields of study.

She insists, “Women can be very effective in leadership roles. We have the opportunity to help shape our workplace culture so that other women are able to achieve their own professional goals and attain leadership positions.”

Yet, women must understand that in order to advance into a leadership position, women must become self-advocates of their own work. Nold recognizes that such a requirement is difficult to internalize, since women are prone to experience self-doubt and the imposter syndrome at higher rates than men.

For example, as Richard Fox in “Gender, Political Ambition and the Decision Not to Run for Office” concludes, women are less likely to run for public offices because they do not feel as qualified for elected positions. If society can teach a women that she is a qualified and good candidate, she’ll be more likely to run with the proper candidate support system.

Nold also remarks on the external impediments to women’s leadership advancements. “Gender discrimination and disparity certainly exists in the workplace, stifling advancement. Pregnancy, childbirth, and the unyielding demands of motherhood are often overwhelming. Access to affordable, quality child care is essential and, for so many working mothers, it is in extremely short supply.”

As a mother of two children, Nold appreciates how important child care providers are to helping her maintain a successful career alongside a family life. “Not having access to quality and affordable child care is an absolute deal-breaker for many working women.”

Nold was able to achieve her success throughout her career through understanding bosses willing to work with Nold’s schedule and other professional women encouraging her to pursue her interests and take professional advancement risks, including applying for her current position as director.

“These pivotal points in my life were all influenced by women who supported me at just the right time.”

And perhaps civic engagement embodies exactly just that--the desire to influence our communities and our loved one’s lives at just the right time. However, when the reach of civic engagement is always immediate through its direct impact, whether that be registering an individual to vote or simply encouraging women to run for office, it seems that now is always just the right time to be involved.

The message Nold, Barroquillo, and Herzer spread thus stands. Civic engagement matters and everyone should and can be involved. 

If you would like to support the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life and any of its affiliated programs directed, like TX Votes and the New Politics Forum, please visit this link to donate.