Cole Wilson is the Events Program Assistant at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life. The Institute’s mission is to “educate, inspire, and connect the next generation of Texas civic leaders.” I reached out to the Institute to have a necessary conversation about how we, as students, can impact the communities around us. Wilson and I talked about civic engagement in young people, the importance of election research, and 2022 predictions. This interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
AK: So, could you tell me more about what you do at the Annette Strauss Institute?
CW: Yeah, absolutely. I am one-half of our college outreach team. We have work in civic education in the K-12 world, and then we delineate that from our higher ed outreach. I help put on our Texas Civic Ambassadors program, which is a year-long program. Statewide, we have about 30 students from Houston to El Paso working within their communities to increase the civic health of that chosen community. I also help put on events and help oversee TX Votes, the voter registration, engagement, and education organization on campus. We do research, grant hunting, community relations — that sort of thing.
AK: What has been your favorite part or project during your time at the Institute?
CW: I am going to say broadly — because I can’t pick one — but watching students do cool things. We have the opportunity to fund their projects, help drive their projects, connect them with the right people, and get them the playbook we use to put on our major events. A good example: a gentleman from St. Edward’s in 2020 had a state representative, a statewide journalist from the Texas Tribune, a Texas Supreme Court Justice, and one of the biggest lobbyists in the state sit together at a panel and had over 200 people show up to this Zoom call. Another woman running for Attorney General and who was a Supreme Court Justice was there, all of these lobbyists and huge names were there, like a thousand lawyers, students from across the state — this is how you do it. He was talking about something so miniscule — it was judicial elections, which is not a hot topic. No one is like, “Aw, judicial elections! I gotta show up!” He just killed it, and it was an informative talk.
AK: How long have you been interested in politics and civic life?
CW: That’s a good question. I was the youngest delegate to a state party convention when I was 18 and a couple days old. So, I would say that’s the first on-the-record “Cole Wilson is in the space” moment. I also worked at the Annette Strauss Institute as a sophomore at UT in 2014. So, I don’t know — as long as I can remember. I am going to say since I was 12 or 13 years old, when I could start figuring this stuff out.
AK: Could you tell me more about the Campaign Mapping Project at the Institute?
CW: I can, but I wish I could tell you more. That project was coming to a close as I joined about three years ago. Dr. Rod Hart, who was the Dean of the Moody School of Communications from 2004 to 2015, created this as one of his babies, as was the case with the Annette Strauss Institute. It was one of the most holistic looks at rhetoric and messaging used by political campaigns in America. It was one of the best. From that, he has written three or four books. A number of PhDs have used that data to write their dissertations, and tenured faculty dip into it. It’s just a really beautiful, holistic, bipartisan data set that is just bizarrely not kept by campaigns themselves.
AK: Why do you think research is important when we discuss elections?
CW: I am going to quote Senator Paul Bettencourt of Texas: “If you can’t count it, you can’t fix it.” If we don’t understand the state we are in now, and understand it quantitatively, we can’t better our communities. I think that goes for any field. Data is important. If we don’t understand our volunteering numbers, we can’t understand why they’d be falling or peaking. If we don’t understand how folks are interacting with each other in a close community, we can’t make that better if we have to. If we don’t understand how people relied on each other during the Texas winter storm, then we don’t know how to better bolster those relationships for the next natural disaster.
AK: What is “civic health”? Do you think we are “civically healthy” in 2022?
CW: Civic health is the strength and ties within a community. That’s the quickest way to define it. The ability to and the frequency of community engagement, reliance on and within a community, and the ability for a community to thrive within itself. You can pull the definition from the Texas Civic Health Index.
[“We think of ‘civic health’ as the way that communities are organized to define and address public problems. Communities with strong indicators of civic health have higher employment rates, stronger schools, better physical health, and more responsive governments.”]
Are we civically healthy? Our 2018 Texas Civic Health Index would lead one to believe that we are not. It made a big splash arguing that Texas specifically was not neighborly — we didn’t volunteer, we didn’t donate funds, we didn’t show up for one another, we didn’t talk to each other in the grocery store checkout line, that sort of thing. I updated some of those numbers on my own in 2020, and I would answer your question by saying we are better, I think. The Hobby School out of Houston did some really good research on how the winter storm impacted Texas. They had two data sets that I love, one of which was that a large percentage of Texans who sought shelter did so with a friend or family member. The other one was that Texans believe that our government should work for the people and that people should make the government better. Our mindset is in the right place, and when it came to brass tacks, we did really help each other out. We are volunteering more right now than we were in 2018, and there’s data to support that. We don’t have that hyper-quantitative data to completely match our 2018 numbers — some of those questions weren’t asked, but we are on the upswing.
AK: The Institute’s Texas Media and Society Survey “reveals the attitudes of Texans and Americans on media and politics, measures habits of news consumption, and offers insight into how people become informed in the digital age.” What shifts, trends, and new information do you think are important every time there is a new survey?
CW: So much. This last one was crazy. I think technology moves so rapidly. A question that we routinely ask our students and our speakers is, “How does technology impact civic engagement?” We kind of stopped asking that so much as a conversation starter because it is sort of like, “Duh!” It is absurd how quickly the world moves in 2022. Our 2020-21 survey is out of date. There is not a TikTok question because TikTok wasn’t around at the beginning of the pandemic! If you have a modern campaign trying to reach young voters and you don’t have a TikTok channel that’s good, then get out of town. It is so important to know how we are interacting with those people — who is using TikTok, how they are using TikTok, who is on Instagram, who is getting their news from Facebook. Is anybody on Twitter right now, or is it just political insiders? Does anyone even care about local news? They do, but there are not as many as those who care about news from Facebook, which is interesting.
It is so important to understand how folks receive information, who is the carrier of that information, who is the guardian of that information — it goes on and on. Media is sort of the gatekeeper of the world around us, the things that are outside of our perspective. To understand how we are engaging with that and receiving that regularly, whether that be keeping up with friends or with happenings on the geopolitical, local, or hyperlocal scale, understanding how those relationships play out is paramount for understanding how our society plans to move and how it moves in this world now. There is also data to suggest that certain types of media are typically more beneficial for a user. Anecdotally speaking, we all know Facebook news is not the best place to receive news as opposed to hyperlocal news stations like the Austin-American Statesman that are dying to let you read what they are saying and are trying their best to be absolutely factual. The Austin Monitor, the Austin Common, the Austin Bulldog — all these super local media organizations might have some more impactful news for your life.
AK: From what I have seen, civic engagement has been an essential part of studying elections in the past few election cycles. Do you have any predictions for the 2022 election?
CW: Sure, I can give you one. I’ll be hyperlocal on this — I believe that the University of Texas at Austin’s student population will turn out at higher rates than they did in 2018. The trends have been nothing but up for UT Austin, and I don’t think that’s going to stop now. I think this interview is a good example of why. We weren’t getting as many of these in 2020. Folks are just really excited about this stuff, especially young folks. The data suggests that too. At Tufts, they have a research organization called CIRCLE — their data says that young people are the future, so watch out. Millennial voters are either the largest or second largest voting bloc in Austin. They’re becoming, if they aren’t already, the biggest voting bloc in Austin. It’s so awesome.
AK: And that leads almost perfectly to the last question I have for you: part of the purpose of the Annette Strauss Institute is that they “believe our civic institutions – our schools, churches, governments and universities – are only as strong as the people who show up, take part and contribute.” Why do you think it’s important for college students, such as the ones that take part in the Texas Orator, to stay civically engaged?
CW: The data shows that a more civically engaged community is a healthier community. I might argue that correlation does not exactly mean causation here, but it is true that a community that volunteers more, votes more, and has more membership is also healthier, has a higher rate of education attainment, and has a lower rate of crime. Civic engagement is important because it is part of being the best versions of ourselves as we can be. Our Civic Health Index argues that civic engagement leads to all of these things. It is one of the ingredients in the secret sauce to have the best community. The more engaged we are, the stronger, healthier, and happier we are, and the more we get to dictate what those things mean. Those things can be completely subjective, but when we get together and engage and talk about an agreed upon definition of those and we all work together towards it — well, that’s what we are here to do. That’s the dream.
AK: Is there any other wisdom you’d like to bestow?
CW: I will say if your readers or anyone working on this is like, “how do I get involved?” or, “what’s the next step?” or, “yeah, I’ll vote” — know that civic engagement is not just voting. If you can’t vote for whatever reason or if you have impediments to getting involved, there is always a way to stay engaged. The first step to being civically engaged is to just show up. Find that club and just show up. Find that organization and just show up. It’s tough, like anything good, but just being there, being part of the conversation, being in the room at the right time, being around others, and being in the community are all so important and so impactful. That’s the first step to changing all of the things that make you mad at night and keep you up while you watch cable news.
[The upcoming 2022 midterm election will be an important one for Texas on the local, state, and federal levels. Besides research, we can stay civically engaged and participate in our community by getting involved and voting. Register to vote at VoteTexas.gov and learn more about the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life here.]