Conversation Starter

Karen Gross is carving out an online space where kids can learn to agree to disagree—with civility

Published in 2019 Texas Rising Stars Magazine — April 2019

Some might say Karen Gross’ activism was inspired by an oversized—albeit fake—marijuana joint.

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas in the late 1990s, the future criminal defense attorney was involved with a student organization that held debates and staged conversations around current events.

The 6-foot-long papier-mâché joint was used to advertise a panel discussion on marijuana legalization. The group also sponsored a soapbox series on the West Mall. Students would stop by to borrow the mic and speak their minds.

“That’s when I started appreciating the power of conversation,” she says. “And now here we are, building an organization focused on helping people develop communication skills, while also creating spaces for civil discourse.” 

Gross is talking about Citizen Discourse, an online community (citizendiscourse.org) she has initiated for sharing ideas and improving critical thinking. It offers curricula, podcasts and workshops to schools and organizations and is devoted to establishing a welcoming space—online and in real life—where young people can create connections. A major push, including a seed round of fundraising, started in January.

“It became more evident that there’s a unique opportunity with younger minds to embrace this, even to catch an eighth-grader before they dive deep into existing social media platforms,” says Gross, who envisions this as a public-benefit corporation. Two “angels” have invested so far.

“It’s fine to have Instagram to share photos,” she says, “but we should offer them a space where they can share their ideas, where they can connect around other people’s stories, and build movements and find their voices.”

On a balmy Friday in October, Gross is seated at Bouldin Creek Café, a popular South Austin spot. Although it’s early in the afternoon, it’s already the weekend for many customers, headed to the Austin City Limits festival a couple of miles away in Zilker Park. Sitting on the edge of a shaded outdoor patio, Gross blends in with the festivalgoers. But she’s all business as she finishes a phone call, her open laptop and a fresh latte perched on the table.

Bouldin Creek seems like an appropriate place to find Gross: On the day of President Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the café announced it would donate 100 percent of its profit for that day to organizations that fight for civil rights, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Southern Poverty Law Center and Planned Parenthood.

Change is on Gross’ mind as she works on a curriculum about citizen literacy. The platform’s “kindness contract” requires signees to “be respectful” and “disagree without being disagreeable.”

“It’s an online community where you can practice critiquing the idea, and not the individual,” she says. “You can’t do that on Facebook or Twitter. They have proven to be not the places you go to engage in really meaningful conversation. I think young people deserve a better outlet.” 

Gross’ inspiration for this project has been building, more or less, since she attended UT, where she majored in government and minored in history. Going to law school was always in the back of her mind. “I grew up in a home where we were taught the value of tikkun olam, a Hebrew phrase that means ‘repairing the world,’” says Gross, whose parents raised her and her two siblings in El Paso. “We were encouraged to leave the world better than we found it.” 

Her parents left the world too early. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer that metastasized quickly, and she passed when Gross was in college. She lost her father to a heart attack six years later. 

In 2001, Gross deferred her acceptance to the University of Houston Law Center, taking a post as policy aide to Austin City Council Member Brewster McCracken. She admired how he could get to the heart of constituents’ issues and find solutions. She was instilled with a faith in democracy as citizens showed up for meetings week after week. 

In 2006, she went for the J.D. “Having a law degree empowers you. The trick with being a lawyer is not that you know everything in the books, but that you know where to find the information,” says Gross. Though she graduated during a recession, she landed on her feet, becoming community director for Austin’s Anti-Defamation League. 

That’s where Suki Steinhauser met her. “She was incredibly outgoing and effusive, and I couldn’t resist her energy,” says Steinhauser, now CEO of the Central Texas branch of Communities in Schools (CIS), a national program that supports at-risk students in the public schools. Gross reached out to Steinhauser for mentorship. 

During her time at ADL, Gross spearheaded the Austin/Travis County Hate Crimes Taskforce, an anti-bullying initiative that still exists. She also led law enforcement training on hate-crime laws. “She’s got no place for hate,” says Steinhauser.

In 2012, Gross established a private practice in Austin after watching human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk about injustice. “It helped open my eyes to how massively unjust our criminal justice system is,” says Gross. “I thought the best place to start was boots on the ground, navigating the local courtrooms and learning about plea deals and going into jails and meeting people who were caught up in the system.” 

For three years, Gross defended clients like Derrick Kuykendall, charged with first-degree murder in a case involving a shooting death after an argument. “Yes, he made a really poor and deeply unfortunate choice,” Gross says. But the prosecutor, she says, “out of the gate argued that Derek was a cold-blooded killer acting with malicious intent. … I knew that he was not that person.” Jurors rejected the first-degree charge, convicting on the lesser charge of manslaughter. 

Gross then relocated to Washington, D.C., to spend a year working for Clemency Project 2014, helping to manage the pro bono lawyers donating legal assistance to prisoners requesting clemency. She and her fellow attorneys spent their days crafting the stories of the prisoners seeking clemency petitions. “You’re appealing to the heartstrings of the attorney who’s reviewing the case,” she says. “This is a whole person, and they each have a story to tell.” 

Gross was in Baltimore the day police were acquitted in the death of Freddie Grey, a 25-year-old African-American. Moved to write about the experience, Gross’ essay would become one of Citizen Discourse’s first blog posts. 

These days, Gross spends part of her time handling pardon legal work for a Virginia-based criminal defense firm, a contact she made while working for Clemency 2014. She files applications for people with felonies on their records.

“One of the things I’d like to see change in society is that we infuse more mercy into how we see people who have been convicted,” she says. “A felony should not be a lifelong stain on your permanent record. If I can help remove that stain so my client may advance their life goals, I’d say that’s a pretty rewarding use of a law degree.” 

Gross also consults for Communities in Schools’ Central Texas branch. And much of her energy goes into Citizen Discourse. One of the pilot program’s first partners was CIS. “She partnered with CIS to make sure Citizen Discourse was a platform that would work for kids who didn’t necessarily have privilege and background in writing,” Steinhauser says. 

She has partnered with other organizations on developing workshops and podcasts. After leading a workshop for Leadership Austin to train adults in active-listening techniques, Gross realized the concepts behind Citizen Discourse have the potential to appeal to a variety of age groups and organizations. She is now pitching the workshops to organizations through their HR departments.

“I’m more comfortable in the social justice and advocacy space, but here I am, trying to build a business and an organization that reflects my values,” she says. “I’m a boot-strapping entrepreneur, which is not how I thought this was going to go.” 

Casting Call

Karen Gross is often plugged in to a favorite podcast. Her love of the format inspired her idea for Citizen Discourse: The Podcast, a series to be hosted by artists, activists and educators. Gross’ favorite podcasts:

  • On Being—hosted by Krista Tippett, who interviews scientists, artists and theologians 
  • NPR One—offers general news and information
  • The Daily—The New York Times’ deep-dive into top news stories
  • More Perfect and Constitutional—on civil rights and U.S. history 
  • Code Switch—conversations about race and culture
  • How I Built This—inspiration for building successful companies
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