SXSW 2021 is all about the future and how we, as American people, can change it for the better. UT alumna and New York Times bestselling author of "Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose and the Fight for a Fair America" Stacey Abrams is tackling that goal in the form of representation and free civic engagement.
Voting rights activist and politician Stacey Abrams' and science fiction author N.K. Jemisin took the SXSW virtual stage on Tuesday. Abrams' keynote had a surprise beginning from musician and queer icon Janelle Monáe, who performed her song "Turntables" with a heartfelt message to Abrams, who Monáe said made her proud to be a Georgia voter.
Abrams and Jemisin declared themselves big fans of each other's work—Jemisin said she was internally "fangirling." Abrams said that Jeminin's "street cred among the Abrams clan is high."
Though the session was cut short by technical issues, Abrams, who served as a Georgia state representative for 11 years and seven as minority leader, said her mastery of storytelling intertwines with politics because she is able to give people a reason to engage.
"It's all about telling a story, but you have to center the voter, center the citizen, center of the person in that narrative. If it's about someone else, and they can't see themselves either benefiting from or being victimized by, then you give them a reason not to pay attention," Abrams said. "I've always tried to make my work about centering the communities that need to be heard, especially those who are never part of the narrative, unless they are seen as the villain or as an impediment to other success. By centering mentally those communities, essentially those narratives, create space for other people to tell better stories by going to the polls by being involved by being civically engaged."
Growing up "a daughter of the South," watching her neighbors fly confederate flags signifying the war to enslave her ancestors, Abrams said her responsibility is to fight for her right to be heard. Fair Fight, the organization Abrams started in 2018 to fight voter suppression, empowers others to do the same.
Abrams and Fair Fight engaged more communities of color to vote in 2020 than ever before in Georgia's history. During the election cycle, Abrams proudly said they elected the first Jewish Senator and first Black Senator from Georgia and were promptly hit with more than 50 bills trying to undo equal voting rights access.
"We did it by telling them a story about their power, that if they wanted relief from COVID, if they wanted access to voting rights, if they want criminal justice reform that is real, if they want policing reform, these are the things they need to do," Abrams said. "They need to show up to vote, they need to make a plan to bring their families—they listened."
When Abrams lost her run for governor in 2018, she learned that she needed to do better, be faster, get stronger, but when there has only been two Black woman senators and no Black woman governors, she found herself getting a question that she feels white men don't get asked:
"Are you qualified?"
Abrams said she knows that Black people occupying space in 2021 requires audacity and giving up allows the false narrative that she is somehow lesser continue.
"There is absolutely a discomfiture with the audacity of black minds, the audacity of people of color, thinking we belong in spaces, declaring we deserve to have access," Abrams said. "I was chastised for refusing to demur and pretend that I didn't have the capacity to do the job because I don't have the title and the positions that the people were used to seeing have."
Using a narrative she teaches to fifth graders, Abrams explained the hurt that voter suppression causes to close out her session: A law bans peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at school but that is Tommy's favorite food. Tommy brings a PB&J sandwich to school and gets caught, so now there is a law that says his parents must go to jail. Who has the right to decide whether or not PB&J sandwiches are allowed?
"We have to follow the bill, we have to understand that there are going to be the cashew farmers who want to take down big peanut, because there are peanut farmers who understand that losing peanuts will mean that the butters become more expensive," Abrams said. "We have a governor who has to decide if she will sign that bill or not. It is the right of voters to decide whether peanuts will rise again or if cashews will become the nut for the future."
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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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