With the 2018 midterm elections freshly behind us, I imagine all civic educators in the nation are wondering the same thing. Did we do enough for our students? Did we appropriately prepare them to make critical decisions regarding their political leadership, so that they could complete their civic duties in good faith to not only their nation, but to themselves? In observing the refreshing up kick in youth voter turnout in the state of Texas, I am beyond overjoyed to see that students in the Lone Star State are answering the call of engagement and exercising their civic voices, but a part of me remains cautious. With this wealth of new voters arriving to the political scene for the first time in their lives, what can we do as educators to assure that they make wise and informed choices that benefit their individual civic values and unique needs? What can we do to confidently say post-election that we did the absolute best in preparing our students for authentic and personal advocacy of values that reflect independent thought?
With these questions in mind at the beginning of the fall 2018 semester, I set out to create a pre-election programming schedule that focused less on direct voter education, and more on the power of critical thinking in regards to civic dialogue. I carefully selected a series of events designed to supplement the process of civic learning, and encourage deep analytical thinking. The “Jaguar Civil Discourse Series” kicked off in early September, with the premiere of innovative new programming designed to encourage civil debate. Adapted from “What’s Next? programming previously hosted in Alabama, Kentucky and West Virginia, our “What’s Next, Texas?” public dialogue program was designed to challenge groups of diverse individuals from shared communities to come together to solve common problems in ways that do not force participants to agree completely, but rather build connecting bridges to different policies and ideas.
The topic of our inaugural “What’s Next?” run was focused on how to engage Latinx youth in order to encourage civic participation and voter turnout. With our campus being designated a Hispanic serving institution, our team found it crucial that community members on our campus thoroughly understood the weight of their potential contributions, while brainstorming methods that could be utilized to cultivate civic minded culture. Participants from the campus, community, and student body came together for three hours every Wednesday over the course of three weeks to share their perspectives, thoughts on major issues, and hear what others had to say about situations they may have previously been unaware about.
In the time concurrent to our “What’s Next?” programming, nonpartisan voter education and registration group MOVE TEXAS, the League of Women Voters, and the university Political Science Department all hosted various voter education events in partnership with the Mays Center for Experiential Learning and Community Engagement. Participants in the Jaguar Civil Discourse Series were encouraged to attend and learn more, so that they could use the wealth of information gained to further expand their mental reach and ability to participate in effective dialogue.
Along with the “What’s Next?” program, the Civil Discourse Series also consisted of standalone events focused on different aspects of critical civic thinking. The ACLU Texas Legal Observer team was invited to campus to instruct participating students in how to legally observe protests and rallies from third-party neutral viewpoints that objectively work to protect those exercising their civic voice from legal harm in the event of disturbance. A partnership with the Texas A&M University-San Antonio Library was made to create a program focused on how to identify “fake” news and test the validity of media prior to sharing information via social networks. A “Why I Vote” photo booth was also hosted by our team to encourage students to look within themselves and definitively answer what aspects of their civic life were important enough to them to take action in the political sphere.
While I still cannot fully answer the nagging internal question I have posed to myself regarding the sufficiency of the civic education I provided to my students this semester, I can say that through the inclusion of programming that promoted civil dialogue and critical thought, I do feel that my team and I made a difference in the quality of our student’s ability to process voter education materials that come their way. I plan on working with my campus to guide the expansion of the Jaguar Civil Discourse series as we move forward, in hopes that facilitation of discourse opportunities will lead to the development of enhanced independent thought and deepened ability to learn and grow in their civic abilities.
Christina Guerra, Civic Engagement Coordinator, The Mays Center for Experiential Learning and Community Engagement, Texas A&M University-San Antonio