ACC ed­u­ca­tor’s civic im­pulses rooted deep in her up­bring­ing

Austin American-Statesman - - LIFE & ARTS - mbarnes@states­man.com

On the first Con­sti­tu­tion De­bate Day, 150 Austin Com­mu­nity Col­lege stu­dents showed up. The next year, it was 330. Then 550. This year’s de­bate, slated for Sept. 22, is ex­pected to draw 700. Guided by ex­perts, stu­dents split into groups of 15 to dis­cuss is­sues and come to a res­o­lu­tion.

“They come for the ex­tra credit and food,” says Carla L. Jack­son, the as­so­ci­ate di­rec­tor of ACC’s School of Pub­lic Pol­icy and Pol­i­tics. “But they leave with a deeper knowl­edge of the Con­sti­tu­tion and their be­liefs. They re­ally think deeply.”

The cen­ter, founded in 2007 by po­lit­i­cal cam­paign strate­gist Peck Young, is one of the only such pro­grams — if not the only one — at an Amer­i­can com­mu­nity col­lege. You can be sure one rea­son the event and the school has grown is Jack­son, 43, a dy­namo who stum­bled onto the tal­ent for man­ag­ing projects mid­way through her ed­u­ca­tion at Ford­ham Uni­ver­sity and Yale Uni­ver­sity, when: “I re­al­ized I was bring­ing peo­ple to­gether to do things.”

Much of the civic sen­si­bil­ity of this Queens, N.Y., na­tive can be traced to her up­bring­ing. Her mother, Lois, came to New York from Lan­caster, S.C., and taught spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion. Jack­son says: “She spent 40 years get­ting peo­ple to be­lieve in them­selves.”

Her fa­ther, Cur­tis, orig­i­nally from New Jersey, man­aged a so­cial ser­vice agency. Her fra­ter­nal twin, Carí Jack­son Lewis, helped Jack­son take con­trol of her life. “When she tells me to do some­thing, I do it. She’s al­ways right,” Jack­son says. “It’s very com­fort­ing to know there’s some­body you can tell any­thing to. And that per­son will at least give you the ben­e­fit of the doubt.”

Look­ing back on this fam­ily, she says: “Of course I am what I am, a per­son who likes work­ing with peo­ple. With a mom and dad like mine, who de­voted their life to so­cial ser­vice, I had no choice.”

She grew up an artis­tic child in the “lower-to-mid­dle mid­dle class” district of Lau­rel­ton, Queens. She could eat at a neigh­bor’s, walk home from the bus stop, play in back yards. Im­pul­sive, she once tried to con­vert the fam­ily garage into a horse sta­ble with hay and run­ning wa­ter.

Raised in an open-minded Lutheran church, her real re­li­gion be­came “truly be­ing good to your neigh­bor. There’s no higher honor than to take care of your­self and the per­son next to you.”

Af­ter PS 37 in Queens, she headed to Sa­van­nah, Ga., to stay with an aunt, Jackie

Byers, a math­e­ma­ti­cian, dur­ing her rest­less teens. Byers helped dial back her aca­dem­i­cally driven in­ten­sity and gen­eral un­hap­pi­ness. “She also got me to love sym­bolic logic,” says Jack­son, who grad­u­ated from Spring­field Gar­dens High School in Queens.

Di­ag­nos­ing her early prob­lems in ret­ro­spect, she says, “I never be­lieved in do­ing

things un­til I knew why I needed to do it.” Col­lege con­sumed her all-cu­ri­ous per­son­al­ity. She learned ev­ery skill in the theater, be­cause, as a would-be pro­ducer, she might have to ask some­one to do it. Or do it her­self. “I like to un­der­stand how things work,” she says. “It gives you a greater re­spect for what peo­ple do and teaches you how to give them room to do it.”

While in­tern­ing at HBO Doc­u­men­taries in 1998, she met Kelvin Z. Phillips at a Man­hat­tan party. She left early, but they ex­changed num­bers.

“I called him later and said, ‘You might as well leave the party, be­cause you’re not go­ing to meet any­one bet­ter.’ ” He agreed and left.

Friend­ship turned into courtship. Phillips worked in graph­ics for fi­nan­cial firms at night, wrote screen­plays by day. She moved to Philadel­phia to work at the Wilma The­atre, but then Phillips asked her to move into his Brook­lyn apart­ment. “I kept wait­ing for it to get un­com­fort­able, since we hadn’t dated that long be­fore I moved in,” Jack­son says. “It never did.”

Phillips has two sons she is now help­ing to raise: Kelvin Jr., 19, a dreamer, “comic ge­nius,” and a writer, at­tend­ing ACC, but ap­ply­ing for the U.S. Air Force; and Jus­tice, 13, a stu­dent at Ful­more Mag­net School Pro­gram, a charis­matic, gen­er­ous spirit. Stage name: Free­dom.

The fam­ily was liv­ing in Tarzana, Calif., while Phillips pur­sued his screen­writ­ing dream when his pri­mary em­ployer, Di­men­sional Fund Ad­vi­sors, moved him to Austin.

Once here, while Jack­son tried to pro­duce her own shows — she’d like to get back to that full-time — she helped out groups like Cat­a­lyst 8, Church of the Friendly Ghost, LeapAustin and Lights. Cam­era. Help.

At ACC, her aim is to “get stu­dents to un­der­stand that pol­icy and pol­i­tics af­fect your life, so why not learn how to af­fect it back,” she says. “If there’s some­thing you wake up look­ing for­ward to, you have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to fight for it.”

She sums up her de­vo­tion to pub­lic ser­vice: “If you haven’t done some­thing to make lives eas­ier, en­ter­tained or en­light­ened, I don’t know why you are here.”

Those in­ter­ests con­verge on arts and pub­lic pol­icy. Jack­son is some­times mys­ti­fied by DIY Austin ways. “You can raise 1,000 peo­ple to clean a park, but not $1,000,” she says. “What does it say about a city that you are the Live Mu­sic Cap­i­tal of the World, but mu­si­cians can’t eat?” she says. “We can and have to fix that. Austin can do any­thing.”

MICHAEL BARNES

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