Changing the Culture of Civic Life in Austin
Stand Up, Austin! exists to change the culture of civic life in Austin. It’s a bold vision and opportunity developed following six months of design research, development, prototyping, testing, iteration, and more at Austin Center for Design. As you might imagine, Maria, Josh, and I wore several different hats during the process ranging from designer, to entrepreneur, to project manager.
During eight weeks of design research with Austin residents, a common theme we heard was that government is a king’s sport. The implication was that you need to have some unique skills, connections, or money to interact with government and to create social change.
Then we met a man we call Diego. He asked us to sign a petition at a community Thanksgiving dinner. He describes himself as Mexican-American who was raised by his grandparents who never spoke English. He told us that he is an underemployed artist and a leader of his neighborhood.
When he was younger, he was more interested in overthrowing the government than working with it. He was concerned about global issues and would write letters to the government expressing his concerns. He first participated with his neighborhood association after a representative knocked on his door and told him about a construction project planned for the neighborhood and most importantly directly behind Diego’s home. The first time he articulated his point of view to Austin was when he signed a petition to limit construction behind his house.
He saw an immediate benefit: the building was shorter than planned. Diego felt empowered: he was able to protect his property, and he saw how cooperating and collaborating with his neighbors produced a meaningful result. Over time, he became more involved with his neighborhood and soon after government. He came to view government as representative of the human condition. The best and the worst of humanity.
This change in context moved Diego to become a community organizer and activist in East Austin. Today you’ll find Diego at the same table as developers, city hall, and members of the East Austin community working together on affordable housing in East Austin.
His change of context and perception underpins how he thinks, understands, and participates in his community.
Stand Up, Austin!
Stand Up, Austin! brings artists and civic organizations together to engineer new contexts and experiences of civic life. Austin has a thriving art scene and artists make for creative partners.
For a pilot, initially inspired by shows like The Daily Show, we turned to comedy. Comedy is a useful communication tool and a powerful form of art. Austin has one of the most significant comedy scenes in the country.
To provide civic education in an enjoyable way, we brought five of Austin’s funniest comedians together and asked them to include civic life themes within their sets.
To provide a way to take direct action, we partnered with civic-minded organizations like League of Women Voters and also with Jay Jennings, a post-doctoral fellow at UT Austin.
To bring people together, we hosted the show at Spider House Ballroom and set a goal of 75 people attending. Knowing that diversity is essential to the City of Austin, we promoted the event to diverse communities across the city.
The event was an opportunity for people to enjoy community while laughing and learning about civic life.
Opportunities and Next Steps
When Diego’s context was changed with a knock on the door and getting involved with his neighborhood association, it was the start of fruitful civic life. By changing the way he felt about government, it led to a change in his behavior.
That’s what we want to engineer: more and different types of knocks so more people feel like they belong, that their voices matter, and that government is not a king’s sport. This, in turn, leads to behavior change so that people participate in community life, vote, discuss politics, and are even better neighbors.
We are applying for a grant from the city’s cultural arts department to fund further events and testing for this concept. A grant will allow us to produce the shows without charging a ticket fee to residents. Biding in with our message that this concept is open to everyone in Austin.
This grant will allow us to continue testing art forms to create a cultural shift to civic participation in venues around Austin.
Austin is a cultural hub of this country with a thriving arts community that is ranging all demographics. We’ve seen positive signals that comedy can work in shifting civic participation, and we will explore other art forms in which to shape new civic experiences.
And finally, we will offer the program as an open source concept and an invitation for engagement and co-design with artists and organizations to help in developing new civic participation platforms using the methods we’ve developed and tested in Austin.