Access News: Chuck Courtney and Civic Engagement

Access News: Chuck Courtney and Civic Engagement


Privileges and obligations
of citizens is civics. That’s the definition. The study of the rights and
responsibilities of citizenship, that’s what ACCESS
News is all about. Don’t know much about
Congress or the Bill of Rights, you’re not alone. We, the people, struggle everyday
with the balance of power. We, the people,
have the power to say what role our government
should play in our lives. We live in a representative
democracy known as a republic, meaning we elect the people to represent our
interest in government. Should we leave this
to someone else? How can we make informed
decisions on the big issues; issues like who do we want
to represent us in government, immigration, the Mid East,
and even back end parking. Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration
of Independence said, “I know of no
safe depository of the ultimate
powers of the society but the people
themselves; and if we think them
not enlightened enough to exercise their control
with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to
take it away from them but to inform
their discretion.” Now, that means the power
of society rests with us, even if we,
the people, don’t understand the
power entrusted to us, the answer is
to educate us so that we can make more
informed and better decisions. When we talk about our
obligations and privileges as citizens and our
civil responsibilities, what do we mean? What does it take to
be a better citizen? What is
civic engagement? Stay with us and
get ready to engage. [Music] ACCESS News
encourages us to become more knowledgeable
about our government. This is
civic engagement. Today our guest,
Chuck Courtney, Associate Director of the
Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at
the University of Texas, will discuss with us what it
means to be civic-minded. Welcome to ACCESS News! Well, thank you, Tamara. It’s my honor
and great pleasure to be here
today with you. Annette Strauss
was known as a humanitarian and
a philanthropist and a politician, as well
as the Mayor of Dallas. Can you tell us what does it
mean to become civic-minded? It means to become engaged
and involved in your community, to look for those issues that
you can make a difference about, and to find solutions and
then to take action on those. Speaking of taking action, I know that there
are people out there that will vote in
the national election, but not get
involved locally. So what’s the
difference between national and local
civic engagement? I think nationally
the focus is more… a broader
appeal to individuals and people tend
to overlook their local communities,
which they should not, and just focus mainly on what is on the news media
for that day and for that month and for that
whole election cycle. I can imagine a lot of
people choose not to vote on the local level probably
because they feel overwhelmed or maybe they don’t
have a good understanding of the major issues. What would you
say to those people? I believe that
they should look more around in
their local communities to identify those issues and problems that
are important to them. You mentioned that people
vote in the national elections and not the local
elections, but really… and we focus a lot of the
Institute on young people, and the statistics tell us
that among 18-29 year olds, about a quarter voted in
the national elections, in the last general election, and here in Texas the
number was even less, it’s 18%. Can you explain why there
may be a difference for Texas? Why would Texas
have a lower percentage? I think… I am not quite sure what
the answer might be to that. I think it’s maybe the instruction we receive
in our public school system is we are not
as focused on service to the community
like we maybe should be. Okay. Going back to the point
you made about the statistics, about a quarter of young
people you mentioned voted. Is that number improving
or is the statistics stable, or what you would say? It’s pretty stable over
the last several decades, but we saw a spike
of course during the Presidential Election in 2008. For Obama, right, yeah, very
popular among the young people. Got very much involved
in the election process. Do you think that social
media has a role in that, because I know that Obama
really utilized the Internet for his campaign, like Twitter and Facebook, do you think that, that
really makes a difference? I think it does. I think the social media, when
you look at young people today, they’re focused
more on the social media for their newsgathering. Know very few people in fact that get their
information from newspapers. And they get their
information from Twitter and social
media and Facebook. In fact, I have two young
sons that, one reads… not young,
actually 22 and 27, but the 27-year-old
gets his information from The Statesman but
from the online version and not from
the hard copy. And the youngest basically
from Facebook, his friends, and other social media. I know that I rely a
lot on those websites for information I’ll admit, but any of your current
projects that you’re working on today relate to
social media in any way? Many do. We have… the Strauss
Institute is an organized research unit of the
University of Texas in Austin, we are under the
College of Communication, and so we look at
how people communicate, and particularly about political
and civic engagement issues. And so we have… also we encourage graduate
research students to investigate through scholarships
and through contest, and we’ve done
several research projects around the
impact of social media at the Texas
Legislature, for example, or in other
venues, political venues. Okay.
Now, let’s go back. Let’s talk a little
bit about the history and our founding fathers. Our founding fathers
really believed that republic was fragile and it depended a lot on
our citizens to be engaged. So on that topic,
what makes us good citizens, what makes us
more engaged, or what motivates us
to get more engaged? I think that the
motivation is that as Americans we are
compassionate people and we do recognize
when individuals do need help in
various different forms. Also, if you look back at
the founding of our country, Alexis de Tocqueville,
in fact the great writer, when he explored the
American frontier in the 1830s, I believe it was, and noticed that
Americans came together in associations or societies
and in groups to raise barns, to build churches,
to build schools. And so I think it’s always
been a part of our heritage to become involved in
the local community and to help one another. Okay. And speaking of
working in the community, you have a film under the
American Trustees Project. Can you tell us a little
bit more about that film? I will be glad to. The film is
about Barbara Brown, a young lady
from Victoria, Texas, that took… that noticed
that her father actually and other farmers
in the rural areas were actually
disposing their used oil just on the ground and
affecting the watershed. And so she and two
other young ladies came together
with a solution. And so the film actually
shows what the solution is and how they took action
to implement that solution. Yeah, let’s
watch it a little bit. Great! I think being a
good citizen means taking care of the things
that have been given to you. Making life better
for not only yourself but all of those
people around you. I am 18-years-old, from a family of six in
rural Victoria County. ‘Don’t Be Crude’
started out as a 4-H Project for myself and two friends, Kate Klinkerman
and Lacy Jones. Before we
started this program, farmers would just take
their used motor fluids and hydraulic fluids and dump them on fence
posts or alongside a barn to kill bugs
or to kill weeds, and so they were just using it
as a herbicide or insecticide. It was something that we
had seen our fathers do, we had all seen
our father dump oil. It was something that
they told us they did because their
fathers did it. I think the part that
worried Kate and Lacey and I the most was when we
were told that by dumping oil that it can affect
your ground water. Dumping used motor fluid or
hydraulic fluid on the ground contaminates your
water resources. A gallon of dumped oil can pollute over
250,000 gallons of water, which is enough water
to supply a small city for one day. We live in a
predominantly agricultural area, we drink
the water under our own land as well as water our
plants with that water and feed and water animals
with that same water source. When we first started
talking to people about ‘Don’t Be Crude’
and about the prospect of recycling used oil
the first response was, they’re kids,
what do they know?’ I remember when they
came to Commissioners Court and presented this to us, like I said, we were
very skeptical at first, we thought that this could be
dumpsites for other things, other than what they
wanted it to be used for. When you walk into
Commissioners Court, you walk in through these
huge, heavy, wooden doors. We were anxious, we were
nervous, we were scared. They sit up at
the front behind, you know, their big desks, all of these people in
charge of everything. It was a struggle
to convince people who are older that we knew
what we were talking about and that we had
researched this and this was something
that really meant a lot to us. We started with five sites
here in Victoria County. Now we are in seven
counties with 19 sites. We recycle on a yearly
basis about 50,000 gallons of used motor fluid
and hydraulic fluid. We are now
collecting used oil filters and we protect over
500 miles of coastline and over 680 square
acres of ground water. Wow! That’s a really good
example of civic involvement. Thank you, Tamara. It is an excellent example, because it illustrates a young
person recognizing a problem in the local community, developing a solution, and then
taking action by taking it to… to the Commissioners
Court for implementation. I am curious how
you met Barbara. Where did you find her? Actually, our Educational
Development Outreach Person heard about her story and took the trip to
South Texas to interview her. Well, I’m curious
about your other projects. Can you tell us a little
bit more about the Tex Elects and maybe the Speak Up!
Speak Out! Project as well? It would be my pleasure. First off, The American
Trustees actually has 12 videos and each one has a lesson and a curriculum
tied to it for teachers. We use these in the
public education system, and so there’s a
curriculum for the teachers. Speak Up!
Speak Out! is exactly the same. We encourage high school
students in this instance to actually identify…
they’re divided into teams and teachers work with
an established curriculum and are supported
by college mentors. They go to the
actual classrooms and they
divide into teams. Then they identify problems
in the local communities. They develop solutions and then they develop
what we call solution stations and have an oral argument
before a panel of judges in a competition, which
is much like a science fair, but we call it Civics Fair. Oh, that sounds
like a lot of fun! Yeah, you also
mentioned Tex Elects, and Tex Elects is a program
that is aimed at middle school and also high school, and it happens every four years
during the General Election, in which students
are encouraged all across the State of Texas to
develop educational posters, essays, PSAs
and website, to encourage their
parents to register, and voters to get
out there and vote. It sounds like a really great
opportunity for young people to get involved in civics
and become more aware. Now, there are three areas
that your Institute focuses; research,
education, and engagement. What kind of work have you
done so far related to research? Well, since the
Institute is part of the University
of Texas in Austin we have Faculty Fellows
that are part of the Institute and that research is done on exactly why
people do get engaged, the communication of… their political experience, different ways in which engagement is
expressed in the media, so there is that
whole research aspect. There is also the educational
outreach which we talked about, the different programs, and also the engagement, where we actually encourage
young people to get involved. One program which we
have for undergraduates is called the New
Politics Forum, where we bring in
experts on campaigns, for example, at elections and the students
learn from those experts. Campaign boot
camp is a very popular New Politics Forum event in which they actually divide
up into teams once again and run their own campaigns after listening to
how money is raised, how message is crafted, how supporters and
grassroots are lined up. So those young students really
benefit from those programs. Now, also I understand
that one of your slogans is Creating More Voters
and Better Citizens. What does it mean
to be a better citizen and what does it mean
to make more voters? Is that a good thing
or is that a bad thing? Oh, it’s an
excellent thing to do! More Voters, we also have
a program called UT Votes, which is aimed
at the UT Campus, which is get out to vote. It registers
students to vote and encourages
them through seminars and through other activities to actually participate
in the political process. Better Citizens I think is all
of our educational programs in which we encourage people to
become aware of their community, to get involved,
to become engaged, to identify those issues
that are important to them, and as Barbara Brown, come up with solutions and
actually take action on them by going to governments and to the
government to actually do final implementation. Can you tell me about
some of the projects that your students
have been involved in? Well, from the New
Politics Forum our students and alumni have gone out and
worked in campaigns, became Chief of Staffs
for first aid office holders and actually even
federal office holders, like Senators and
State Representatives, and several are very
well-known consultants in social media
and have gone on and done wonderful
things involved in politics. Oh, that’s amazing! Obviously the programs
are really working then. We are very
proud of our programs and how they are
getting the students engaged in the political process. As Americas
we’d like to know how we can
become better citizens. Obviously we
need to understand how the government works,
but why is that important? It’s important because government is in
your day-to-day life. Everything we do is
either regulated, inspected. It provides public safety. It provides social services. And so the more we
know about government and the political process, the more we’ll be involved, and the more we’ll be
active in the future. Now, here on ACCESS News I’ve already said that
the more people know the better decisions that
we can make and it’s really… I really strongly believe that. Do you believe in that as well? Oh Tamara, very definitely so! Do you have any
more upcoming projects that you’d like to discuss? We just started a project
called Turning Points and it’s a series of 12 videos. Again, you think we
make a lot of videos. Well, we believe in
narrative learning and learning
visually through videos. And once again, we have
a series called Turning Points, which identifies those 12 key
points in the US Constitution that our whole nation was
founded on and we argued about and made significant crossroads
within our country’s history. And our pilot project has
included Search and Seizure, for example, and
we hire student actors, student screenplay. We’re very fortunate because we are in the
College of Communication, we have radio, television,
film, RTF, as part of that. And so we use the
students as much as possible to do the script and then we also use the… for example,
Young Lawyers of Texas in order to check facts, to make
sure our case law is accurate. But again,
curriculum will be tightened and possibly students will be
exposed to the Constitution after a video or
learning process. If people in the Austin area
would like to get involved, what’s the best way for
them to get involved with some of those projects? Again, the projects are aimed at
public education teachers in the curriculum
in high school. I would encourage them to
support the social studies for one thing in
public education, because too often we
neglect that subject area. But also the Institute, I think the more we
spread our message, the more the public
will respond, and so our goal is that. Do you have
any final thoughts or words that you’d like to add? Well, Tamara, I’m so glad that you offered the
opportunity for us to be here today, because this is
a very important message to be civically engaged in your
community, to become involved, whether it’s serving
your church that you go to, your local social
neighborhood organization, identifying those
problems and getting involved. That’s what our goal is, the involvement of
the American citizenry in our government. Thank you Chuck for
being with us on ACCESS News. You may learn more about
the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at their
website and at our website, accessnews.us, where you may
ask questions and share your
comments and opinions. Like us on Facebook,
follow us on Twitter. One beautiful
thing about America is that we, the
people, have power. The more we know,
the better decisions we make. For ACCESS News,
I’m Tamara, and that’s Austin. [Music] What is the Supreme Law
of the land here in the US? Do not litter. I’m telling you, the Native American would have
been very disappointed in us. Make money, don’t steal, and as long as you
stay with everybody else, you should be all right. That’s what I
am talking about. The Congress, I don’t know. Freedom. Maybe like giving
back to your community and making sure that you
leave everything as beautiful as you find it and
making good use of everything. Treat people as you’d
want to be treated I guess. It’s the Constitution. Very good! [Music] What is the
Supreme Law of the Land? The Constitution. [Music] Executive Producers:
Dvorah Ben-Moshe, Ken Hurley. With Funding from The John S.
and James L. Knight Foundation, through the Knight Community
Information Challenge. Supported by the Austin
Community Foundation, fostering philanthropy
in Austin for 35 years, the Austin Community Foundation
for now and forever. Created and Written By
Dvorah Ben-Moshe, Ken Hurley. Hosted By Tamara
Suiter-Ocuto. Interpreter for Tamara
Suiter-Ocuto, Jennifer Stoker. Segment Host for “A More
Perfect Union” Don Miller. Voicing for Don Miller,
Ken Hurley. Crew: Producer – Linda Litowsky, Director ÷ Editor –
Orlando Lopez, 3D Animation – Doug Gray, Technical Director –
Karla Saldaña, Director of Photography –
Brian Blake, Assistant to the Producer –
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Ross Wilsey, Production Sound Mixer –
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Subtitle Services. Special Thanks To: Susan Mernit, Lisa Williams, MariBen Ramsey, Monica Williams, Janice Klekar, Paula Lange,
Jeff Garvey, Claire Bugen, Bobbie Guerra, Russell Harvard, Cynthia Foss, Bill Stotesbery, Katelyn Mack, Yitzhak Ben-Moshe, Bobbie Nord, Kenneth Gladish. [Music] Hi! I’m Tamara,
host of ACCESS News. Join me as I talk with
renowned scientists, community advocates, powerful business leaders, and politicians from
both sides of the aisle. Chuck Courtney,
Speak Up! Speak Out! for civic engagement. Join me each Sunday at
1 p.m. on KLRU Austin for ACCESS News, Hands on News!

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