Making Their Mark: Eight Innovative Austinites Who Defined Our Year
These creatives and community leaders are elevating Austin’s cultural landscape
“The One You’re With” offers a satirical spin on quarantine, Austin-style
By Laurel Miller
Photos by Brittany Dawn Short
“A movie about the pandemic was made possible by the pandemic.” The events of the past 21 months have been such a blur, Chad Werner needs to take a moment and say these words aloud, mid-interview. “Disaster films always show everyone running and hiding in crevices, but I think most people would just be happy they don’t have to go to work.”
Werner is one-third of the team behind the new absurdist satire, “The One You’re With,” which began streaming on Apple TV and Amazon in September, followed by premiers at Fort Worth’s Lone Star Film Festival and the Austin Film Festival. Werner’s cohorts, Jon Michael Simpson and Jeff McQuitty, produced “TOYW,” while Werner wrote, directed and starred in the film, which follows 34 days in the life of two virtual strangers stuck together during quarantine due to a mysterious new virus.
Obviously, this was inspired by recent events,” says Werner. “But it’s not autobiographical, other than the fact that my wife and I got married in December 2019, and relocated back to Austin from Los Angeles in March 2020, before our home was finished. Because of the lockdown, we ended up couch hopping for months. It was a stressful time.”
Werner wrote the screenplay “as a coping mechanism” in April 2020. “It’s about a girl running from her past who moves to Austin and has a one-night stand with a lovelorn guy,” he says. “The next morning, the nation goes into lockdown, and these two complete opposites are forced to come together.” Werner, Simpson and McQuitty met in the fall of 2011, while enrolled in film school at UT. Friendships cultivated while working on a documentary project quickly evolved into a “hive mind mentality” that led to the formation of their sketch group, “The Cuddle Squad,” says Werner. Over the years, the three men have collaborated on six feature films, several documentaries that have premiered on Chip and Joanna Gaines’ Magnolia Network and various television shows.
Werner eventually moved to L.A. but returned to Austin frequently for work.
“We’ve always believed in the city’s film scene,” says McQuitty. “It’s enabled to us to continue working in the industry, and we’ve had fun making cool stuff together. There’s not a lot of ego here, and tax incentives from City Council and the Austin Film Commission have made it much easier to make movies and television here. There are also a lot of skilled technicians.”
“We love the community here,” adds Simpson. “When we made our first film, ‘A Perfect Host,’ we had no budget, and businesses like coffee houses would allow us to film for free, as long as our crew bought beverages. People made meals for us. Austin is the perfect city for that kind of support.”
Filming for “TOYW” commenced in July, with six crew members (including Simpson on camera and McQuitty handling sound) and a small cast including leads Koko Marshall and Werner. “Once Chad gets an idea, it comes together quickly and competently,” says McQuitty. “It’s a testament to his skills and ability.”
“There’s a purity to this kind of stripped-down filmmaking,” says Simpson. “It’s like we’re going back 10 years.”
Prior to the 17-day shoot, the principals talked to other productions, the city and the Centers for Disease Control about protocol, but COVID-19 safety measures came down to “complete trust in the cast and crew,” says Werner. As for the collaboration, “It was really fun,” he says. “We have this shorthand when we work together — there are very few questions, and we all kind of had the same brain and hands on this one. I couldn’t have done it without Jon and Jeff.”
The community stepped up to assist with filming. Local businesses, including Central Standard restaurant and Tillery Street Plant Company, offered their locations for scenes, and “people opened up their homes to us and loaned us gear,” says Simpson.
McQuitty describes the shoot as, “cathartic for everyone involved. It gave us all something to look forward to and brought levity to an otherwise scary global situation. Shooting when we did, we really needed to be able to laugh.”
While the film is at times biting (the scenes depicting a paint thinner-as-curative endorsing President comes to mind), Werner says, “I wrote the ending before the current reality was even in place. I think the film shows that people are generally kind and caring, but that’s easy to forget when looking at the media. On a macro level, the film is a reminder that relationships we have are important and worth nurturing.”
Leading Emancipet for more than a decade, the organization’s CEO is paving the way for affordable veterinary care for all
By Sam Lauron
Photos by Brittany Dawn Short
Photo shoot at Emancipet
What began in 1999 as a single mobile-only clinic that served families with pets in Austin, Emancipet has grown its network to include seven walk-in clinics across Central Texas, Houston and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mills, who joined the non-profit as CEO in 2006, is largely responsible for taking the organization to new heights by expanding its reach to a national level. But the immense growth the non-profit has experienced in recent years certainly didn’t cultivate overnight — and neither did Mills’ unmatched non-profit expertise.
Mills, who just celebrated her 15th anniversary with Emancipet, has committed her entire career to the world of non-profits.
“I’ve never worked at a for-profit company,” she admits. “My whole career has been [working in] non-profits. I’ve just always wanted to be a community servant.”
Before joining Emancipet, Mills worked with non-profits that focused on helping youth and families. As an animal lover, however, she spent her weekends volunteering at the Austin Humane Society. It was through these overlapping experiences that she noticed the intersection between families and animals and was naturally drawn to Emancipet’s mission.
“There are over 50 million dogs and cats in the United States that live with families who cannot afford veterinary care at a traditional for-profit clinic,” says Mills. “When I think about my own [pets] and the role they’ve played in my life, I don’t know who I would be without my animals. And so, when I think about the many millions of animals who are loved just as much and who play that same role for all of those millions of families, and those families don’t have the ability to take care of them if something goes wrong, it’s a gripping mission for me.”
Though Emancipet is not a full-service veterinary clinic, the organization offers crucial preventative care for animals including vaccines, microchips, check-ups and spay and neuter services. Services like these are integral to the longtime health of a pet, yet Mills emphasizes that many families aren’t able to afford these essential services, which is what drives Emancipet to make veterinary care accessible to underserved communities.
“This is an equity issue. We have to make sure that pet ownership isn’t just for wealthy people. It matters a lot that everybody, no matter how much money they have, is able to create the kind of love [with a pet] that I know firsthand has been really life changing for me.”
With affordability and access at the forefront of the organization’s values, Emancipet never turns anyone away from a clinic. Instead, they rely on donations to operate their vet services; a $1 donation can be used toward $5 of vet services. And after the pandemic, the demand for Emancipet’s affordable pet care is greater than ever. In 2020 alone, Emancipet cared for more than 200,000 pets at their clinics.
Since 2013, the non-profit has expanded at a rate of one clinic per year, but with the significant increase in demand they experienced last year, Mills knows they’ll need to expand faster — and soon.
“Pre-pandemic, we set this bold goal that by the year 2028, everyone in the United States would have access to veterinary care they can afford,” she says.
And, thanks to Mills’ 15-year dedication to the organization, the tireless work of her staff — which has grown from 15 to 200 under Mills’ lead — and a long-term partnership, that bold goal may not be too far out of reach. Emancipet recently received a grant from longtime supporter PetSmart Charities, the largest non-profit organization dedicated to animal welfare. The monumental funding will help Emancipet build a team that’s solely dedicated to opening new clinics, allowing them to increase their rate of clinic openings and grow their national presence. Additionally, PetSmart Inc. (it’s important to note that these are separate entities) plans to donate veterinary clinic spaces inside a couple PetSmart stores for Emancipet to operate starting next year.
Achieving this incredible feat has only fueled Mills’ fire. She describes her work as “addictive” and credits the non-profit’s growth as a reason she remains motivated to continue.
“A new clinic is this incredibly beautiful thing in a community,” she says. “We go into neighborhoods where there has never been a veterinary clinic before, and on day one, the people who show up are just so excited because they’ve never been able to have access to veterinary care before. The difference that you know you’re making in their life is just so incredibly fulfilling. And I can’t wait for the next clinic. I want to keep going and going.”
Bringing decades of experience to Crystal Dynamics’ new studio
By Bryan C. Parker
Photos by Brittany Dawn Short
Photo shoot at Cidercade
Boasting an impressive resume with his work on “Star Wars Galaxies” and “Star Wars: The Old Republic” as well as the launch of his own gaming company, Dallas Dickinson was recently tapped by Crystal Dynamics to head the gaming company’s new studio in Austin, which launched in June.
“The opportunity to work on arguably the best cinematic storytelling games in the world was the thing that got me excited and got me here,” he says, citing Crystal Dynamics’ long track record of success.
Dickinson grew up in North Texas, but it wasn’t until Sony Online Entertainment offered him a job in Austin in the early 2000s that the producer returned to the state. After leaving Texas to attend Princeton back in 1992, he was surprised to return to a booming Austin, “where the cutting edge stuff is going on.” Dickinson, who studied literature and theatre in college and began his career working on location for Disney productions, has always been drawn to narrative storytelling. He says his new role at Crystal Dynamics allows him to work on both “high quality interactive gameplay as well as the cinematic character-driven elements of game play.”
One focal point for Dickinson and Crystal Dynamics is the wildly popular “Marvel’s Avengers,” a game which has seen four story expansions, including the most recent, “War for Wakanda,” released in August. The studio will also work on a reboot of the beloved first-person shooter game “Perfect Dark,” which currently has no set release date. Additionally, Dickinson himself serves as the executive producer for the Tomb Raider franchise, a role that includes overseeing any video game development and managing relationships with MGM, who is working on a motion picture, and Netflix, who is developing an animated series.
“I’m pretty good at context switching,” says Dickinson, who may find himself jumping from a press interview to a design conversation to a budgetary conversation within the span of a few hours. That versatile skill set and quick thinking makes him a crucial part of Crystal Dynamics’ expansion.
The quality of life Austin affords has helped Dickinson stay sharp in his new role. An avid runner, he usually logs six miles around Town Lake each morning.
“I have an hour when I’m either alone with my thoughts or have music on in the background,” he says. “It really clears my head space and makes me feel truly prepared for the challenges of the day and the 1,001 hats I need to swap through.” From his home in East Austin, he loves stopping by neighborhood haunts like Quickie Pickie on East 11th, which he says has great cold brew and migas tacos. The spacious patio at farm-fresh restaurant Contigo is a favorite dinner spot for Dickinson, who calls himself “an Austin foodie guy.” He adds, “The kind of games we make have always come from a place that culturally vibes with Austin.”
Such lifestyle perks also help Crystal Dynamics hire top talent in Austin.
“We are looking to have better quality of life for our developers, and Austin is a city that offers that,” Dickinson says. Improved technology and the pandemic have given companies opportunities to rethink approaches to their structure and location. According to Dickinson, distributed development — in other words, working across multiple sites and locations — is just part of the industry culture now. To staff their new studio, Crystal Dynamics has both hired new personnel as well as relocated employees from their offices in the Bay Area and Seattle.
While Austin’s cost of living has risen, it remains more affordable than those West Coast cities that are among the nation’s most cost-prohibitive.
“Many other studios over time have been putting nexus here in Austin, and I think that attracts people and keeps people here in Austin,” Dickinson says. In the past, finishing a major project in Austin might have necessitated a move to L.A. or the Bay Area, but the growing video game development ecosystem in Austin allows the city to preserve its talent.
He sees the city as a tremendous place for business to expand and says Crystal Dynamics’ new studio broadens the company’s footprint and allows them to offer opportunities to a wider swath of developers. Akin to assembling a team of Avengers, Dickinson and Crystal Dynamics are focused on building a cooperative team with elite talent. He says, “It’s all about Crystal creating more spaces for people to join us.”
The president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University has made significant strides, and she’s just getting started
By Sam Lauron
Photos by Brittany Dawn Short
Photo shoot at Huston-Tillotson University
As she reflects on her past six years at the helm of Austin’s oldest higher education institution, she points to a portrait hanging in her office. The woman in the portrait is Mary Elizabeth Branch, the first female president of Tillotson College (which later merged with Samuel Huston College to become Huston-Tillotson University) and the first female to lead an accredited college in Texas.
Branch held this position back in the 1930s and 40s, and, though it took some time for another female to step into this leadership role, Burnette is proud to follow in Branch’s footsteps.
“I often say that it took the university 70 years to get it right again, to hire another woman,” she says.
Burnette’s career didn’t begin in education. The Ohio native went to school for engineering and spent the first 20 years of her career working as a computer engineer for companies like Procter & Gamble and the Washington Post. At one point, she even pursued entrepreneurship and ran her own computer consultancy firm called CompuMent. Looking back, Burnette is grateful that her career and personal life — her husband is a retired Lieutenant Colonel, and their family spent a lot of time traveling for the military — took her to many places outside of the familiar place she calls home.
“All the magic happens outside of our comfort zones,” she says. “And I’ve lived a life outside of mine.”
Burnette made the shift toward higher education when she took a faculty position at a community college teaching computer science. As a first-generation college student herself, Burnette firmly believes that “education is the great equalizer” and is passionate about serving the traditionally marginalized through greater education opportunities.
“Oftentimes, we mistakenly equate poverty with how smart you are, but really what’s missing is the lack of opportunity or exposure to opportunity,” she says. “It has been a passion of mine to bring those opportunities to young people of color, such as myself, because my opportunity came when people really cared about me.”
The second half of her career has been spent committed to this mission, and in 2015, Burnette began her current role as president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University. As she hadn’t even visited Austin prior to interviewing for the position, she needed time to get familiar with her new city. But once here, it didn’t take her long to come to the disappointing realization that not everyone was aware of the university’s deeply rooted history, let alone its presence in Austin.
She recalls taking rideshares to work during her first couple of weeks here.
“Out of my first 10 rides, the Uber [drivers] did not know that there was even a university here. It made me sad that the city of Austin did not recognize the beauty of having a historically Black college in the center of the city.”
But Burnette didn’t let this discourage her. Instead, she used it as fuel for everything she does on both an institutional and personal level. As a co-chair of Mayor Adler’s Task Force on Institutional Racism and Systemic Inequities, as well as a member of numerous boards around the city, Burnette uses her voice to advocate not only for the university but for people of color.
“There’s a purpose for me being at this university at this point in history here in Austin,” she says. “And I own that fully.”
Another testament to the lasting impact Burnette seeks to make not only at the school, but in the education system entirely, she created the African-American Male Teacher Initiative at Huston-Tillotson, a program that encourages male students to pursue a career in education in an effort to increase the number of Black male teachers in the country. The program provides scholarships to the students, which are funded by the program’s partner, Apple Inc.
Burnette admits that leading an HBCU and strengthening its brand within the city — not to mention, during a global pandemic — doesn’t always come with consistent “wins.” But when things get tough, she reflects on the portrait of Mary Branch that hangs in her office to remind herself of her power to make change in this place in time.
“If [Mary] could do it in the ’40s, I can do it in 2021.”
Suerte is thrilling diners on Austin’s East Side
By Amanda Eyre Ward
Photos by Brittany Dawn Short
Photo shoot at Suerte
When Chef Fermín Núñez was 28 years old, he decided to gamble on himself. A native of Torreon, Mexico, Núñez had lived in Austin since 2009, working at local hotspot La Condesa.
“I climbed my way through the ranks, from cook to management,” he says. He went on to create magic at Launderette and Uchiko. But Núñez was considering a move to New York City, ready for something new, when restaurateur Samuel Hellman-Mass proposed they open a restaurant on Austin’s East Side that would celebrate masa, the maize dough that comes from ground corn.
“Well, if I fail, I can still make it to New York by the time I turn thirty,” Fermin thought.
Long story short: he did not fail. Masa at Suerte is made inhouse daily from Texas-grown heirloom corn. And once you’ve tried a tortilla at Suerte, I can attest, it’s very hard to go home and eat tortillas from the grocery store. And the masa made at Suerte is also used for tamales, tostadas, tlayudas, tlacoyos, tacos … the list goes on. Each item is beautifully prepared and presented. Standouts on my recent visit included “Suadero Tacos” with confit brisket and “black magic oil” and “Tamal En Mole Blanco” made with pine nut-almond tamal, goat queso fresco, pineapple gremolata and the decadent mole blanco.
“I’m inspired by Mexican cooking techniques rather than a certain dish or flavors. Mexican cooking, to me, is more about the techniques that are used to create those layers of flavors and dishes that we all love,” Núñez explains.
“With traditional mole,” he says, “you take all these different chilies, a recipe that has sometimes between twenty to thirty ingredients. And it takes, you know, three days of making it. And then, on the third day, you add chocolate. Because if you were to add it at the beginning, the chocolate would sink to the bottom and the sugar would burn, and you’d have a bitter taste. Instead, it’s delicious and complex, with acidity from tomatoes and a little bit of sweetness from chocolate.”
My mouth is watering as I type. And I haven’t even mentioned the desserts, like the “Chocotaco,” with a chocolate-masa shell, peanut caramel and cinnamon semifreddo.
“I have so many local favorite restaurants,” Núñez says. “Birdy’s, they’re doing amazing stuff. Nixta Taqueria, Discada taco truck … hopefully they’re going to reopen soon so I can get my taco cravings filled!” Núñez also mentions Canje, helmed by Guyanese chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph, who is exploring techniques from Guyana to Jamaica to Puerto Rico.
What’s is Núñez’s favorite thing on the Suerte menu? The chef has a hard time deciding.
“Well,” he says, “we’ve perfected our way of cooking barbacoa, so that’s been really exciting … and the butternut squash, oak-grilled with a pumpkin mole.”
Núñez was named among Food & Wine’s Best Chefs of 2021, and when he recently went to New York, it was for a weekend visit, he laughs, not to pursue a life. “This is a dream come true,” he says.
The Guaranteed to Wrinkle founder wants to make wellness and community engagement an ongoing dialogue
By Laurel Miller
Photos by Brittany Dawn Short
Photo shoot at Comedor
Culturally, we don’t embrace wrinkles. In our clothing or on our faces, creasing and crinkling are viewed as signs of age and neglect. When events coordinator Lindsey Sokol and C3 talent buyer Margaret Galton named their membership-based women’s organization, however, “Guaranteed to Wrinkle” was the only moniker they considered.
“The name came from a New York Times article that discussed the counterintuitive value of wrinkled clothing,” says Sokol. “Since the 1970s, the labels of linen suits designed by Ralph Lauren included the phrase, implying that the more creased, the more classy. We’re all guaranteed to wrinkle, just like those suits. As women, our wrinkles tell stories.”
Sokol, who is originally from Plano, has made a name for herself in the entertainment industry. As the former festival director for C3 Presents, she’s produced ACL, Lollapalooza and the 57th Presidential Inauguration; as founder and current CEO of Blue Norther Live, she’s the force behind Austin’s New Year and events like Beto for America and the 59th Presidential Inauguration.
When Sokol and Galton conceived GTW in 2018, their goal was to create an organization that “aligns passion for wellness and community involvement with connecting like-minded female leaders.” Today, GTW has 120 members in Austin, who unite for events including panels on health and wellness and community volunteerism to salon dinners focused on education. Previous topics have included mushrooms, women in the arts and sourcing food locally.
“The culture of GTW is built around the members, board and team,” says Sokol. “I want to empower everyone to be able to take a step forward to shape it into what they see is needed for the community.” The concept was born over coffee, and scribbled on a napkin. “It was about creating an authentic connection with other women and focusing on causes that we cared about so that the conversations and membership would be rooted in purpose.”
Over the past year, mental health and wellness have been one of the main focuses for GTW. Members have participated in panels on women’s relationship with stress and talks on clean beauty to expert-led meditations and a monthly Walk Club.
“We’ve made a conscious effort to encourage our members to take care of themselves and help them understand that self-care is more than a luxury. It’s a necessity,” says Sokol.
Blue Norther Live also jumped into the health arena, running a mass vaccine drive-through at Circuit of the Americas and Travis County EXPO Center. Sokol also used 2021 to focus on a new passion put into sharp focus because of the pandemic: local food security. Her Field Guide Festival debuted in late October; it was a two-day event that included farm tours, chef dinners, tastings and symposiums.
“My partner in Field Guide, Trisha Bates, is such an inspiration in our local food community,” she says. “Her company, Urban American Farmer, has been engaging both growers and chefs to come together to build connection in the food community. With the festival, people can enjoy and appreciate our foodshed, not only through meals and tastings, but through conversations with chefs and farmers on where and who their food comes from.”
Despite her hectic schedule, Sokol practices what she preaches. While it can be overwhelming to try and tackle the other challenges we currently face as a society, Sokol advises starting small.
“Pay attention to the issues and concerns of your community, and go from there,” she says. Taking time to decompress is also important. To unwind, Sokol walks away from the computer and phone for an hour each afternoon, often taking a Pilates class at her friend Brooke Bowerstock’s studio, ALIGN. Sokol also enjoys cooking for her family and friends and spends time with her dog, Winston.
“I’ve spent the last 14-plus years traveling event-to-event, and I loved it, but recently I’ve found a new love for Austin,” she says. “There’s joy in slowing down.”