Austin, TX –

“How many of you have no opinion if the new campus carry law is a good or bad change?”

A single person in a room of at least one hundred raises his hand.

With a simple question, Moderator and Journalist David Brown gets to the core of a thought that has been with me all day and this entire election year:

“Well then, we’re probably not going to change anyone’s mind.”

We’re in the last hour of panels on the Saturday of the 6th annual Texas Tribune Festival, a three-day event that brings together policy-makers, journalists and public figures to discuss the most pressing issues facing the state and nation. Emotions are running high on the heels of the local Cocks Not Glocks protest, which made Austin, Texas a target of national and international attention. We’re talking everything from The Daily Show to The Guardian.

There’s power in the mantra “stand for something or fall for anything” but I appreciate the lone hand-raiser’s openness. After a full day of hearing opinions shouted, whispered and tweeted, a lack of one is refreshing.

For a journalist, winning tickets to attend Tribune Fest through a KUT Austin social media giveaway is equally as exciting as securing a free pass to Austin City Limits music festival. Replace Gary Clark Jr. with Ted Cruz and I’m there! (Kidding. I’d take Gary any day of the week).

But I did watch Texas Tribune CEO and Co-Founder Evan Smith interview Senator Ted Cruz one-on-one, and it might as well have been a Comedy Central Roast. Cruz spoke about the virtues of forgiveness to justify his recent endorsement of Donald Trump while most students in the audience tried to put Snapchat filters on his face. In hindsight, I would’ve benefited more from the panel on mental health happening at the same hour.

Here are some of the promisingly-named panels I did attend, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to hear what everyone else – students, teachers, community leaders, mayors, people of all professions and perspectives – was thinking about these important issues.

Race and Law Enforcement.
Is Texas Good for Women?
The State of Black America.
Campus Carry is the Law. Now What?

Panel on Race and Law Enforcement at the 6th Annual Texas Tribune Fest on September 24, 2016. From left to right: Moderator and Texas Tribune Reporter Johnathan Silver, Director of the Center for Effective Justice and Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation Marc Levin, Policy Director for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition Shakira Pumphrey, State Representative R-Woodville James White, Chief of the Austin Police Department Art Acevedo, and State Senator D-Dallas Royce West (Photo by Larisa Manescu)

Having high expectations for a talking-head format of listening and learning is where I went wrong. Logistically, there’s no way to delve into such complex topics with four to five panelists, the occasional shouting match between a moderator and a panelist, and still try to fit in time for a healthy Q&A portion.

I left each panel disillusioned. What’s the point if we were all just there to grab sound bites, be entertained, bicker and walk away gripping our egos just as tightly as when we walked in? How do we fight for what’s right without yelling at one another? How did we get here?

To be clear, I’m glad I went. Maybe the most valuable lesson learned was how much un-learning I need to do to truly be open to other viewpoints while standing for what I believe in. Walking into the campus carry panel, I had a certain perspective of what a campus carry advocate looks like and talks like – that’s the very definition of profiling.

It’s frustrating when concealed carry supporters use the self-defense argument because from my own experiences, they’re usually men who have little knowledge of the realities of sexual assault trying to convince women that weapons are their most valuable assets in protecting themselves.

And yet here was Panelist Antonia Okafor, the Texas State Director for Students for Concealed Carry, speaking her personal truth:

“Yes, I feel safer,” Antonia said, when prompted if her license made her feel more protected walking around campus.

She stressed that her cause was centered around empowering an individual, not advocating for bystanders to intervene in a mass shooting. During Q&A, a UT Austin student politely brought up the complexity of personal safety in the context of group concern over allowing guns in a learning environment where stress is high and mental health is taxed. Her question wasn’t really answered, and then moderator had to skip to the next person in line for sake of time.

So coming out of the Fest, here’s my two-cent epiphany on how to find peace in a bleak election year:

Tune out the talking heads. Distance yourself from the barrage of 24/7 coverage.  Understand that genuine understanding doesn’t come neatly packaged and presented from experts, and it’s seldom reached through a 140-character exchange on Twitter. In an environment short on time, our minds are so packed with retorts to defend our own stances that genuine listening is a rarity. Coming to the table with what we’ve identified as the “others” –the tough work– has to happen on a grassroots level, within families, among friends and co-workers, in small discussion groups, at community meetings.

You don’t have to listen to me,
but we could all stand to listen to one another a little more.


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