SXSW EDU Takes on Gun Violence, Queer Inclusion, and Youth Activism

The state of education

l-r: Beatrice Thomas as Black Benatar, Lil Miss Hot Mess, and Jonathan Hamilt as Ona Louise for SXSW EDU’s Drag Story Hour (courtesy of SXSW EDU)

From school shootings to book bans and continued problems with inclusion and representation, 2022 was heavy. South by South­west EDU, an education innovation component connected to the broader SXSW Festival, will face those issues head-on in conversations with experts covering pronoun usage in classrooms, Gen Z activism, and how we can reach more representation at schools. The focus of this year's Conference is teaching truth, youth activism, and classroom inclusion of students, teachers, and parents. A SXSW EDU badge will get you into panels covering all those topics and more.

Last year's SXSW EDU centered on student mental health in a global pandemic. Student mental health is still a huge concern and is woven throughout this year's Conference. Nearly one-third of students in the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Youth Risk Behavior Survey said they have poor mental health, and 22% seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021. The bottom line: Students are not okay with the status quo, and many of them are still trying to fix what they believe is broken.

One issue is making schools more inclusive, which involves a lot of moving parts and goals. Elliot Schneider, education coordinator and 15-­year­-old Youth Voice representative for the It Gets Better Project, will discuss how teachers can use gender-neutral language to create safety in their classrooms and what LGBTQ+ youth are doing to spearhead gender diversity with pronouns and neopronouns (March 7, 1:30pm). When it comes to a potential uphill battle of inclusion in Texas classrooms, It Gets Bet­ter's Rae Sweet-Sandoval told the Chronicle that teachers don't have to decorate with ally stickers on their walls to show students that they're an ally. "The very first thing that you need to do when working in limited situations is acknowledge to your students that you're there for them, that you believe them and that you support them as they are and as they bring themselves to the classroom," they said. "A lot of [students] have already gotten past this whole idea of coming out ... Now they're at a place where they want to thrive, they want to be understood and validated."

This year's Drag Story Hour, which celebrates reading through the glamorous lens of drag, will take on similar themes. Beatrice Thomas as Black Benatar, Lil Miss Hot Mess, and Jonathan Hamilt as Ona Louise will discuss queer history in education (March 8, 4pm).

Another session to watch with a SXSW EDU badge is Changing Activism: How Gen Z Is Taking Action, which has student speakers from the Junior State of America giving their own front-line accounts of advocacy and innovation (March 9, 11:30am). A panel of legal and advocacy experts will discuss how educators can support youth activism, even when it seems like that support may jeopardize their careers. Other panels will touch on Black parents' views on K-12 curriculums, how school systems can create more welcoming environments for Latino families, and the race to have 1 million teachers of color, as many public schools across the nation still lack a single teacher of color on campus.

Nearly one-third of students in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey said they have poor mental health, and 22% of students seriously considered attempting suicide in 2021.

The main South by Southwest Conference addresses student issues as well. Related to student mental health struggles is the number of school shootings Texans have become accustomed to. It's month three of 2023 and there have already been 93 mass shootings in the U.S., according to the Gun Violence Archive; the nonprofit research group counted 647 of them last year. Fire­arms are a leading cause of death for Ameri­can youth, and gun violence is now considered a global human rights issue. Jazmin Cazares lost her 9-year-old sister Jackie in the shooting at Robb Ele­men­tary School in Uvalde last summer. She'll join Peabody Award-winning documentary director and activist Kim A. Snyder, Parkland school shooting survivor Samantha Fuentes, activist Erica Ford, and the first Gen Z congressman, Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Flor­i­da, to discuss justice in a time of legislative inaction toward firearm hate crimes and youth trauma in the aftermath of these tragedies (March 11, 10am).

SXSW will also unpack the first U.S. federal investigation into the history of Native American boarding schools, which ran from 1869 into the 1960s. IllumiNative's Crystal Echo Hawk will join Deborah Parker of the National Native American Boarding Schools Healing Coalition, Bryan Newland from the Department of the Interior, and Decolonizing Wealth Project's Edgar Villanueva to tell the story of how thousands of Native American children were forcibly sent to schools to be cleansed of their cultures, and how this traumatic history still affects generations of Indigenous peoples (March 15, 2:30pm).

A panel on book bans will showcase on the main SXSW stage. Today's educators have to navigate 1,648 national book bans, most of which are LGBTQ-themed or have prominent characters of color. Sumi Cho of the African American Policy Forum, Brandi Halls of Lush Cosmetics, Cierra Kaler-Jones of Rethinking Schools, and Nelva Williamson of the Young Women's College Preparatory Academy will discuss the dangers that arise when the state prevents students and educators from acknowledging white supremacy and its effects in American history. They'll also highlight stories of courageous educators who fight for truth.

SXSW EDU runs Mon.-Thu., March 6-9, with most events at the Austin Convention Center. You can register online at SXSW itself begins on Friday, March 10.

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