SXSW 2021 Focuses on Social Equity, Inclusion in a Post-COVID World

Following a pandemic-forced cancellation in 2020, the annual South by Southwest conference returned this year, albeit completely virtual.

Multiple panels and presentations traversed topics of institutional inclusion, healthcare equity, homelessness and climate change, with input from several Texan experts.

The panel “Inspiring Faith to Climate Action” delved into how climate scientists, ministers and young evangelicals try to appeal to faith-based audiences in their efforts to convince governments to reduce actions that are causing climate change.

Katharine Hayhoe, co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University, recalled changing her collegiate studies from astrophysics to climate science. She was moved by how climate change impacts “the poorest, most vulnerable, marginalized and disadvantaged people the most, and that just isn’t fair.”

Hayhoe said one problem is that many people, spiritual or not, who doubt or reject climate change believe in fate and that fate conflicts with science.

Hayhoe said one key toward convincing some skeptics is to keep demonstrating that climate change negatively impacts everyone now, as well as our national security, economy and public health.

“Science can also tell us what the impact of our choices will be. If we continue to burn coal, gas and oil, if transition quickly to cleaner sources of energy, if we’re more efficient and less wasteful with our resources, science can tell us the outcome of what our different choices will be,” she added.

The panel “The Climate Crisis & American Cities” covered how coastal cities are tackling the effects of climate change.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in order for communities to help curb climate change in meaningful ways requires partnerships of all kinds.

Turner said it is important for government leaders, of all levels, to recognize climate change plays a part in increasingly severe weather and the frequency of such major weather events, such as Hurricane Harvey, which brought historic flooding to the Houston region, and the February deep freeze that left millions of Texans without power or water for days. 

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner discusses a cities vs. climate change panel  at SXSW.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner discusses a cities vs. climate change panel at SXSW.

Turner also said it’s crucial to recognize that climate change disproportionately affects low-income, Black and brown communities. Along those lines, Houston officials have been focusing on the needs of such long-underserved neighborhoods within the city.

“You marry all of these strategies together in order to move the city forward,” he added.

The panel “Taking it to the Streets: Homelessness in Cities” looked at what cities and homelessness advocates are doing to prepare for what they see as a looming housing crisis - millions of Americans possibly being evicted because of inability to pay back rent caused by COVID-19’s effect on the economy.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the pandemic’s economic impact compounded an already tough challenge of addressing homelessness.

“The solution to homelessness is getting people homes and there’s really no other answer than that,” Adler said. “There are short-term solutions and prevention, but at the end of the day, that’s what you have to do.”

Adler said homelessness, regardless of location, ties into mental health, institutional racism, poverty and other longstanding issues that require more holistic approaches.

Consultant Matthew Doherty said a “housing first” approach must anchor a comprehensive approach to homelessness involving support services for newly sheltered individuals, including job search assistance, and mental and behavioral health care.

Adler agreed, and acknowledged he and fellow Austin officials can and must do better to care for the homeless.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler (upper left) addresses homelessness in a SXSW panel.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler (upper left) addresses homelessness in a SXSW panel.

Some critics in Austin and other detractors at the state government level, chiefly Gov. Greg Abbott, accused the city’s leaders of having a lax policy regarding homeless individuals, many of whom have erected public camps.

Austin voters are headed to the polls May 1 to determine the fate of an initiative that would impose a more aggressive anti-panhandling law, and a permanent ban on public homeless camps.

“We know we need to house people, but what we’ve also failed to do was to properly manage shared public spaces,” Adler said. “I think that’s what many in the community are reacting to - wanting us to do something.”

Numerous panels explored COVID-19’s influence on the delivery of healthcare. Health advocacy groups have mobilized to remotely provide support and resources to help patients who’ve had to resort to virtual health service, physical and mental.

According to many experts, healthcare providers have turned to remotely engaging patients, especially chronically ill people and those in low-income areas and within marginalized populations.

One panel placed importance of involving diverse patient voices in conversations surrounding clinical trials, drug development and advances in specific disease areas.

Another panel prioritized the significance of increasing funding of public health programs and campaigns, and having mental healthcare play a bigger role in public health.

The panel “Reimagine, Reboot, Retool: Healthcare Post-COVID” cited a need for innovation, resilience and collaboration among healthcare providers, nonprofits, businesses, spiritual leaders and local government agencies to aid people at the community level.

New York-based Center for Equity of Care at Northwell Health was proactive early in the pandemic, quickly establishing COVID testing stations in communities they serve, even in houses of worship.

According to Jennifer Mieres, the center’s senior vice president, there was initially little to no trust that socioeconomic disadvantaged communities had about authorities’ efforts to curb the virus’ spread.

“That trust was established when we started this coalition,” Mieres said.

Mieres also explained the pandemic shows fragmentation in healthcare, and that most providers focus on acute care and getting patients in and out of their facilities and services as fast as possible. Mieres said much of what determines one’s healthcare outcome lies outside of a person’s direct interaction with their provider.

“This is a call for us to look at healthcare universally and holistically,” she added.

Dell Technologies had session, “Progress Starts with Us: Access and Inclusion for All,” covering how a post-pandemic society could make progress in terms of ensuring everyone has technological and educational equity.

The panelists agreed COVID has brought further scrutiny on the digital, educational and economic divides that specifically impact Black and Latino communities.

They also agreed on a need for reinvestment in school systems so that schools have trained personnel and the equipment to better address root causes of the digital gap and other social inequities.

Emmanuel Acho, a former University of Texas football standout and a current Fox Sports analyst, said many educational and technological policymakers in state and local governments don’t fully understand the community members for whom they make policy.

“That’s just as important if not more than the policies themselves. Otherwise, we’ll end up creating a thing where we have good intentions, but bad actions,” he said. 

Emmanuel Acho addresses digital and educational equity in a SXSW panel.
Emmanuel Acho addresses digital and educational equity in a SXSW panel.

Acho suggested that, to help close the digital gap in schools and communities, leaders from the public and private sector should frequently demonstrate how such technology can benefit everyone in various ways.

See more SXSW coverage from this year and past years here.