2022 at the Annette Strauss Institute

Dr. Natalie J. Stroud

As we embark upon a new year, it’s always a good time for reflection. At the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, the past year has been filled with transition and excitement for the future. 

In terms of transition, much of 2021 was spent orchestrating online programming, as opposed to the Institute’s usual in-person trainings and events. Our signature program for elementary through high school students, Speak Up Speak Out, was conducted fully online. Students from various parts of Texas worked together to identify problems in their communities and propose solutions. Overseen by Heather Vaughn, the program gave students the opportunity to present their ideas online. Seeing the images of young faces in Zoom boxes, flush with enthusiasm after sharing their ideas with community leaders, is something to treasure about the past year. 

Our Texas Civic Ambassadors, college students who spend a year dedicated to community service and learning, found new ways to engage with youth’s characteristic creativity. Guided by Institute staff Bianca Solis and Cole Wilson, the cohort of Texas Civic Ambassadors created virtual programming to help fellow students navigate the college experience during a pandemic, to inform students about the voting process, and to support community relief efforts after the historic winter storm. 

Campaign Bootcamp gave over 50 students the opportunity to learn, virtually, about getting involved in political campaigns. This packed event featured high-profile speakers from Sec. Julian Castro and Regent Cindy Krier to Biden’s South Central Fundraising Director Crystal Kay Perkins, Sen. Cruz’s former Texas Campaign Director Tyler Norris, Texas Democrats CEO Jamarr Brown, and Sen. Rubio’s former Political Director Luke Marchant, giving students an excellent glimpse into life on the campaign trail. 

TX Votes, a campus-wide and student-led program advised by the Institute’s Krista Gehlhausen, had a banner year. They won the Highest Voter Registration and the Highest Voter Turnout Awards among the Big XII schools and their president was featured in an interview on Fox 7 News. The group is now busy figuring out how to help students register amidst another wave of virtual classes as we start the spring semester.

Research at the Institute saw the publication of founding director Roderick Hart’s edited book Fixing American Politics: Solutions for the Media Age. The book includes contributions from many faculty associated with the Institute, including Associate Director of Research Sharon Jarvis and Assistant Director of Research Bethany Albertson. Alongside academic standouts from the field of political communication, I was delighted to author a chapter as well. The book is unique in that it presents short, readable essays that explain a problem facing our democracy and, most importantly, propose a solution. 

Other transitions at the Strauss Institute have been more personal. After six years of incredible dedication, director Susan Nold took a position at the Austin Chamber of Commerce. Over the past several months, I have been honored to serve as the Institute’s interim director. The dean, advisory council, and I are working to ensure smooth transitions for the Institute as a more permanent plan is put into place. The Institute also bid a warm thank you to Melissa Huebsch, long-time beloved administrator who transitioned to a new role in the Dell Medical School. 

Looking to the future, the possibilities are tremendous. 2022 will bring an important mid-term election and we are eager to help by providing non-partisan information and training. As COVID-19 continues to disrupt plans, we are becoming ever nimbler at offering digital and in-person programming. Although this strains our resources, it also is an opportunity to reach more people in new ways, and so we embrace the challenge in service of our mission to educate, inspire, and connect the next generation of Texas civic leaders.

Expanding our programming to reach more people across the state will be a major focus for us in the year ahead. We have a strong presence in central Texas and in several of the major population centers in the state, but we’re eager to work with elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as colleges and universities from all parts of our great state. If you know someone who might be interested in the programs we’ve described above, whether a teacher, student, or administrator, please feel welcome to send them our way. 

As we begin 2022, we look forward to working with all of you. The work of the Annette Strauss Institute can only be done in collaboration with people who participate by sharing our work, by getting involved in our programming, and by supporting the Institute.