Setting the stage

Texas Tribune co-founder talks 6 must-attend events for 2021 virtual festival

Texas Tribune co-founder talks must-attend events at 2021 virtual fest

Austin Texas State Capitol aerial
From local issues to Texas concerns and national politics, Trib Fest covers it all. dszc/Getty Images

Talking politics can be exhausting, and many Texans turn to The Texas Tribune for nuanced information made simple. It’s time to bring those voices off the page for frank live talks.

The Tribune will host its annual Texas Tribune Festival starting September 20. It includes six days of digital talks, featuring panels, one-on-ones, and attendee networking. Even if you’re not confident you can impress others with your political awareness, there will probably be someone else to talk to who’s on your level.

“We have a very diverse audience of people who read The Tribune every day,” says Tribune CEO and co-founder Evan Smith. “If we simply created an organization for [insider] benefit, you’re not really expanding the circle of people who are involved and understanding everything that’s going on.”

There’s a common refrain among the more politically aware: “Everything is political.” While some may be frustrated to hear, say, that a child’s experience of school sports rides on that child’s position in relation to political structures, many find it a relief to start mapping those influences. The festival covers topics as diverse as the weather, college football, and El Paso as a whole.

With the average reader in mind at every step, this festival offers an opportunity for speakers to connect to the audience without pretense. Adapting to a diverse panel and abandoning advanced political jargon, they are able to settle into more organic conversations.

“The kinds of people who self-select to attend an event like this are probably wonkier than not, or at least can handle complexity,” says Smith of the panelists.

CultureMap asked Smith to highlight one event each day, including what’s he excited for, and why it matters.

Day 1, September 20: Is this the Austin we want?”
It seems that a near-universal experience for Austinites this side of the pandemic has been driving up on the new Music Lane development on South Congress Avenue and stopping to question how it got there so quickly. 

“I had a vague idea that something was happening, but I felt like one day it wasn’t there and then the next day it was there,” Smith reflects on the experience of seeing the development for the first time. “It reminded me, really, of Santa Monica more than it did Austin. As I was driving past I got: This is what Austin is now, not a qualitative judgment, like this is bad or this is good. It was more of a, ‘This is what we’ve become.’”

That moment of confrontation sent Smith calling Austin Mayor Steve Adler to create a panel to answer one of the city’s most-asked questions: How does Austin deal with the consequences of growth and change? The mayor joins Austin Justice Coalition’s Chas Moore and former city council member Ellen Troxclair for a conversation moderated by The Tribune’s Alana Rocha.

Day 2, September 21: A whole new ball game
Athletes, regardless of whether they want to use it, have social currency beyond what most of us can even comprehend, not to mention actual currency. With all eyes on them, some protest and some stay silent. Some retire to live quietly and some maintain celebrity status for the rest of their lives. NBA Hall of Famer Chris Bosh will talk with former world No. 1 tennis player Andy Roddick about social responsibility as athletes and what each has done to live up to their legendary status off the court. It’s a special-interest talk that goes far beyond entertainment, and will be moderated by The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis.

“[Bosh’s new] book is essentially the passing of the torch from the old generation to the new and talking about how the world is,” Smith says. “Roddick has been one of the best, if not the best, retired athletes to pop back up in the world of doing good. The Roddick Foundation is not just a vanity play. It’s going to be a much more serious conversation than some people, maybe, think.”

Day 3, September 22: Taking heat
Living in Texas, very often, involves just talking about the weather. We already live in an extreme environment, and the climate crisis probably isn’t helping. Moderated by environment reporter Erin Douglas of The Tribune, this discussion brings together three formidable scientists and academics to talk facts. Robert Bullard of Texas Southern University and Michael Webber of the University of Texas at Austin join Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. These are some of Smith’s all-time favorite speakers to return to the festival, and are given the hard job of discussing a less-than-hopeful topic.

“There are people working on the issue intentionally, now, at the federal level,” Smith says. “But we’re still Texas, and this is a state that has been resistant to much of the national conversation around climate. [It’s] one of many issues — guns is another, healthcare is another — where mayors and cities have had to take the lead because states and governors and state governments have been more reluctant to do that.”

Day 4, September 23:  Both sides
This event isn’t about partisan divide, as the title might suggest (but that’s as relevant as ever). It’s about both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Conversations tend to get stuck between hard lines: cracking down with only U.S. interests in mind versus building policies around personal ethics. This conversation will be focused on harmonious solutions, not advocating for one side over the other. Moderated by CNN’s Bianna Golodryga, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar and Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, will discuss both sides.

“Those two sides were always presented as mutually exclusive or as a binary — either/or — when, in fact, it may be more likely a ‘both/and.’ So we have two people in this discussion who have thought about the issue talking about not whether it’s possible to have compassion and to be concerned about security, but assuming that those things are compatible,” Smith says.

Day 5, September 24: What we did on the grid
The fest is tackling one of Texas’ most public recent catastrophes: the grid failure during February’s winter storm. There are fingers pointing in endless directions, and Smith saw an opportunity to have an organized conversation. It’ll move past qualitative debates on whether officials have done enough, and make it very clear what exactly has been done. This to-do and have-done list will be compiled by ​​Beth Garza from R Street, Texas Rep. Chris Paddie, and Pat Wood of Hunt Energy Network, and facilitated by The Tribune’s Mitchell Ferman.

“What, in fact, did we do on the electric grid?” Smith asks. “Did we deal with the challenges that were identified by the deep freeze and the [blackout] those five or six days? Have we held the right people accountable? And have we put measures in place that will prevent it happening again, or did we just mostly whistle past the graveyard?”

Day 6, September 25: 2022 and 2024
There is little certainty in politics, except that the past will always be relevant. Election anxiety is always present, so it’s worth taking some time to address some of the issues we’re sure will come up again in the 2022 midterm elections and 2024 presidential election. Smith predicts the conversation will include who will control Congress, details of statewide elections in Texas, and what might happen with the potential expansion of the state’s Republican majority. Two former White House staffers, Robert Gibbs and Karl Rove, will discuss the possibilities with Smith himself in one of the final panels of the event.

“Past is prologue, in politics and in everything else,” Smith says. “The results in 2020 produced the Legislature that we’ve had this go-around and produced the Congress that we have this go-around and produced the president. ... The 2022 election cycle is likely to be very contentious and it will play out with the 2020 election as a backdrop, just as the 2020 election played out with 2018 is a backdrop. And 2024, the next presidential election cycle, will be a real dogfight.”

The Texas Tribune Festival will be held virtually September 20-25. Register here.