The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at The University of Texas at Austin is marking 10 years of creating more voters and better citizens through education, engagement and research programs.
Founded in 2000, the institute is named after Annette Greenfield Strauss, who was mayor of Dallas from 1987 to 1991 after spending more than 40 years as a city volunteer and community activist. As mayor, she was said to be one of the few people who had equal access to the city’s diverse communities. Strauss, who earned a bachelor of arts degree from the university in 1944, died in 1998.
“Studies have shown not only deep pockets of unhappiness in the United States, but also strong pockets of civic hope. Our challenge is to blend one of the oldest human instincts — the need for community — with new ways of empowering people to help one another,” said Roderick P. Hart, director of the Annette Strauss Institute and dean of the College of Communication. “The two core goals of the institute have been to conduct cutting-edge research on the ways in which civic participation is undermined or sustained, and to develop new programs to increase democratic understanding among citizens.”
Over the past decade, the Annette Strauss Institute has used education, engagement and research to involve people in the political process, teach them about the nation’s democratic heritage and encourage them to take leadership roles — all in a non-partisan approach.
One of the institute’s most high-profile engagement initiatives is the New Politics Forum. To date, more than 975 students from 44 Texas colleges and universities have attended one of the free semi-annual one-and-a-half-day forums where they can interact with experienced political professionals, members of the press and university researchers to gain insight on the spectrum of careers available in politics. These non-partisan forums have taken place in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.
Other engagement programs include the College Poll Worker Program, a federal program supported by the elections assistance commission that recruits college students to work as poll workers in Travis County. The UT Votes project coordinates registration booths, deputization sessions and campus competitions in an effort to get out the vote. The Theodore H. Strauss Civic Internship Award supplements student internships in public policy, public service, government, or politics for the summer.
The institute produces three key education programs targeting Texas middle and high school students. More than 750 high school students have participated in Speak Up! Speak Out!, a civics education program designed to teach high school students about their communities and discover the many ways they can make a difference. Tex Elects, a statewide contest in which middle and high school students create Get Out the Vote campaigns to encourage their peers and parents to participate in elections, has given a political voice to more than 200 middle and high school students across Texas. The American Trustees Project features an extensive collection of short documentary films teaching lessons about democracy and citizenship using real life examples of civic entrepreneurship. The videos, available online along with a complete curricular guide, are being introduced to high school teachers throughout Texas and the nation.
At the core of a well-functioning democracy is research. The Annette Strauss Institute benefits from the collective expertise of University of Texas at Austin scholars who are nationally renowned for their contributions to the study and development of civic participation. Hart, along with Drs. Sharon Jarvis and Talia Stroud, conducts research on political communication and persuasion, and political participation among young people.
Up-and-coming scholars with an interest in conducting original research in public service, government, community service, civic life, citizenship or politics can apply for the institute’s Patricia Witherspoon Research Award, a $2,000 stipend to cover costs of focus groups, survey instruments and other aspects of their research. The institute also is home to the Office of Survey Research, which produces survey and field research for academic, government, non-profit and business clients.
“Annette’s love for her community — her city, her state and her country — embodied in her tireless efforts to make it a better place for all its citizens, lives on in the work of the Annette Strauss Institute,” said her husband, Ted Strauss. “We are so proud of what the institute has achieved over the past 10 years, and we are looking forward to even greater achievements in the future.”
In its first decade, the Annette Strauss Institute has received more than $7 million from institutional funds and grants to support its programs. Hatton W. Sumners Foundation, the LBJ Library Foundation, Humanities Texas, the McDermott Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Dorot Foundation are among the organizations that have contributed to the institute.