ACC educator’s civic impulses rooted deep in her upbringing
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.”