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The 50 speakers who appeared at the second annual San Antonio CityFest on Friday talked about everything from politics and poverty to mobility and technology. The common thread: Conversation leads to understanding leads to solutions.
“I hope the dialogue continues after today,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg in his opening remarks at the event presented by the Rivard Report. He urged attendees to keep the momentum going. “It is needed now more than ever.”
The urban visioning and public policy festival designed to generate discourse and civic engagement kicked off Wednesday with keynote speaker Robert Hammond, co-founder and executive director of the High Line, followed by a guided tour of San Pedro Creek and the new Frost Tower on Thursday.
An estimated 300 people gathered Friday at historic St. Paul Square for the event. A full day of panels featured experts discussing efforts to increase early education, the relationship between city governments and the state Legislature, how to attack poverty, the science of climate change, and more.
An opening segment gave three scientists the opportunity to talk about how they use models to determine the causes and predict climate change and how their research is being used to mitigate the effects of climate change.
The scientists said they feel an obligation to share their findings with the public, and their ability to share what they know, in an effective way, has improved in recent years through social media and events like CityFest.
Kerry Cook, professor of geological sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, said it’s not about “believing” in climate change even though that is how conversations often go. “It should be ‘understand’ about climate change,” she said.
“But at this point we’re at 70 percent of the population that understands that human activity is changing the climate and slightly less than that [think] it’s a serious issue, so at least the education and realization of at least the public has crossed the threshold and hopefully that can propagate into our political systems.”
Five panelists from San Antonio, Austin, and Charlotte, N.C., took the stage for a session titled “Early Matters in Texas and Beyond.”
“Early learning matters because it’s a place we can make the most cost-effective and best investment in young people to have lasting effects,” said Sarah Baray, CEO of PreK 4 SA. “All education matters all the way along the pipeline. But it matters most in the earliest years and that’s because of brain development. The brain structure that forms in those first five years is the brain structure folks will have for literally the rest of their lives.”
Funding to ensure the financial viability of early learning programs was a central focus of the panel with advocates for such programs talking about working together with community stakeholders, finding ways the business community can provide support, and proving the effectiveness of pre-K to ensure future government funding.
After hearing the presentation, Romanita Matta-Barrera, executive director of SA Works, a program of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, said that though her work is focused on high school and middle school level education, early learning is critical to the talent pipeline.
“We need to have more of [these conversations],” she said. “But I think it’s a great start for San Antonio. [Early learning] is one of the best things San Antonio can do and I’m encouraged to see the spectrum this week alone as city council supported Alamo Promise. Just the fact that our community is coalescing around the importance of education across that talent pipeline, that’s important.”
On another panel examining the tension between the Texas Legislature and the state’s largest cities, three Texas city managers – Erik Walsh of San Antonio, Spencer Cronk of Austin, and T.C. Broadnax of Dallas – spoke about the challenges of their position, but also the rewards of local government leadership.
“This is the one arm of the government that touches everybody, every day,” said Walsh, who grew up in San Antonio and was appointed to the top city job in March.
But while the city managers acknowledged that most citizens are more focused on direct, neighborhood-level issues, recent state legislation that limits the budgets or is critical of local governments is a major concern.
“Do you see any sort of path forward that could help mend this tense relationship that’s developed?” the Rivard Report‘s Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick asked the panelists.
“Tension is not a bad thing. Those are real conversations that need to be happening in a democracy,” Cronk said. “So I don’t think it’s going to go away. What does help is forming relationships. Making sure you aren’t just talking when you disagree on policy issues, but making those relationships active year-round.”
Walsh agreed. “I think it keeps everybody on point.”
After the panel concluded, Jeff Coyle, director of government and public affairs for the City of San Antonio, said it’s important to have such discussions to make the community aware of what’s at stake at the state level.
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“The discussion about state preemption of local authority is basically an attack on local people because it’s our community that elects our city council to pass ordinances to address issues that the community wants to see address,” Coyle said.
“So when you have the state come in and say, ‘You can’t do that,’ it’s taking away the ability of the local community to solve its own problems. And the only way we overcome this issue is by everyday people understanding what’s at stake at the capital and getting engaged.”
But people already have a very cynical view of politics, said State Sen. José Menéndez (D-26) during an afternoon panel on bipartisanship in an age of toxic politics. The recent scandal involving House Speaker Dennis Bonnen’s meeting with the head of Empower Texans, a conservative PAC, may have made it worse.
“Sadly, what concerns me most about that whole episode with my successor is that many people will draw the conclusion that it is politics as usual and it’s not,” said former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus. “It’s bizarre. It was weird. It was not explainable in any rational way. I still can’t figure out what that was about, and I can assure you it’s not politics as usual.”
A session covering poverty and its causes and solutions concluded the day’s panel presentations and included Frances Gonzalez, the San Antonio Area program officer for the Asset Funders Network.
“When we talk poverty, let’s make sure we’re talking about all lanes – education, housing, transportation, health care, all of it – because any one of those inputs are outputs to cause a family to go down deep.”