Students should advocate in local government

Rachel Freeman

While walking to and from class each day across the 40 Acres, it is easy to forget our campus’ unique position in the middle of the fastest growing American city. Longhorns need to recognize themselves as a part of a larger Austin community and take a more active role in deciding the future of our city.

The average UT student graduates in four years, and they’re spending that time driving on Austin roads, enjoying Austin parks and fueling the Austin economy. Yet, we seldom think about how local government affects our lives.

Recent and upcoming city legislation could affect the entire Austin community. For example, by March 22, the Austin City Council will have to renegotiate a new contract with the Austin Police Department, APD.

Though UT Police Department patrols campus, APD has jurisdiction in many Austin locations frequented by students, including West Campus. Whether you support or oppose the proposed contract, voicing an opinion could have a real impact on the resolution of the controversial issue by the March 22 deadline. A previously suggested contract was rejected after more than 250 people gave testimony at a city council meeting.

The student body represents about 5 percent of the total Austin population and a large portion of District 9 (which includes all of zip-code 78705, representing west and north campus). By attending the upcoming city council meetings through February and March students can wield our considerable power and make a visible difference in our community.

The APD contract is just one issue Longhorns need to take an active role in. Paid sick leave has also been a hot-button Austin issue that has not received enough student attention. The vote on a proposed ordinance to provide all full-time Austin employees with at least eight paid sick days on Feb. 15 would affect all students, those with or without full-time jobs.

Even students without jobs would be indirectly affected as Austinites attain and begin to use their paid sick leave. This could have positive effects, as fewer people go to work sick and spread germs. Or it could have negative effects, as some jobs would be left vacant while people take their leave and businesses are forced to provide costly benefits. Whether you are in favor or against, there will be noticeable changes in the entire Austin community should the ordinance pass.

Student groups are involved in national and statewide advocacy but the larger the scale, the harder it is for a limited number of students to actually push for statewide or national change.  Conversely, Student Government is a great way for students to make visible change in our on-campus community but is also very limited in what it can do.

Local government offers something in between these two options, and if Longhorns voice their opinions — in voting, attending council meetings, lobbying the city, etc. — we could change our communities. Just as many UT students are passionate and vocal about national, state and campus politics, we should try to responsibly advocate for ourselves within the local Austin context too.

Longhorns need to view themselves as both visiting students and fully-fledged members of the Austin community. What starts on the 40 Acres may change the world, but what starts in Austin’s city hall changes the 40 Acres.

Freeman is a international relations and global studies junior from Cedar Park. Follow her on Twitter @rachel_frmn.