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The Daily Texan

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October 4, 2022

People of UT: Paxton Smith

Editor’s note: This podcast was originally uploaded to Spotify on June 12, 2024.

Joseph Sweeney: Welcome to People of UT, the show that introduces you to members of the UT community that have made a positive impact, big or small, on other community members. I’m your host for this episode, Joseph Sweeney. 

For most, your high school graduation already marks a big change in both your professional and personal life. For some, it means moving away from your parents for the first time. For others, it means delving into a profession you’ll spend the following decades immersing yourself in. Regardless of the path you take after high school, one thing is certain: graduation marks an end to childhood, the beginning of adulthood, the beginning of the rest of your life, and with it, the beginning of you taking on new kinds of adult responsibilities. And if you were to ask her, Paxton Smith would probably agree with that sentiment. 

Paxton Smith (Video Archive): Under light of recent events, it feels wrong to talk about anything but what is currently affecting me and millions of other women in this state. Recently, the Heartbeat Bill was passed in Texas. Starting in September, there will be a ban on abortions after 6 weeks of pregnancy, regardless of whether the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. 6 weeks. That’s all women get. And so before they realize, most of them don’t realize that they’re pregnant by 6 weeks.

Sweeney: While you may not know her name, it’s likely you’ve heard her voice. In 2021, Paxton Smith gained national attention upon her graduation from Lake Highlands High School in Dallas, Texas. As valedictorian, Paxton was initially approved by her school administrators to give a speech about the television and media landscape. 

Paxton Smith (Interview): I wrapped it up with like the most cheesiest ending of all time. And at that point I already knew I wasn’t going to be giving that speech. 

Sweeney: But when the state legislature and Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the six-week abortion ban in May 2021, just over a week before Paxton’s graduation, she knew she had to take on a new level of responsibility. 

Paxton: How could somebody else tell me if I am having children or not and what I think about my life and what I want for my life has zero impact on that decision? So I was really upset and I wanted to do something about it and I wanted to do something about it in a way where people who disagreed with me or frankly people who were impartial about the issue would have to listen to somebody’s story about it. And so I decided graduation would be like the best place to do that because there would be thousands of people there. And they wouldn’t be able to turn me off, and they wouldn’t be able to scroll past me.

Sweeney: Paxton, now a junior majoring in advertising, continues taking on the duty of fighting for women’s reproductive rights, having made appearances on national news outlets like CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post and The New York Times. 

Paxton: I found myself with this huge platform where I could speak out about this issue and people would listen, which is crazy … I’ve traveled the world speaking out about abortion care on panels and whatnot and, you know, going to protests.

Sweeney: Paxton currently sits on the board of directors for the national non-profit organization, the Women’s Reproductive Rights Assistance Project, where she has helped raise over $7 million for women’s emergency contraception and abortion services. 

Paxton: They actually reached out to me after my speech … and they asked me if I wanted to be on the board of directors. I went through the interview process and I got my recommendations and they let me on and really the board of directors. They just make financial decisions to help guide the organization and keep it afloat. And then I’m on the events and fundraisers committee. And then every year I raise for the organization on my own. 

Sweeney: Paxton says she has only garnered more support since her initial speech in 2021; although she was apprehensive about making such a public stand for her and other’s reproductive rights, she also felt the move to be an absolute necessity. 

Paxton: I anticipated getting a lot of backlash for the speech and I anticipated like a couple of my relationships with people kind of petering out or just ending because of the speech. I thought maybe I might lose a scholarship or something or I might lose future employment opportunities because of the speech. So I wasn’t really excited to make the speech at all, but I felt like I had to. 

Sweeney: Outside of her activism, one of Paxton’s biggest passions is the fine arts. During her time at UT, she’s been involved in a number of music-related student organizations, including Longhorn Singers, a longstanding campus show-choir, and UTalent records, a student-run record label, with whom she released her first two singles. 

Paxton: The activism was something that I did more out of obligation, because, you know, I didn’t particularly want to, but the situation kind of calls for you having to go out and advocate for yourself … but the music is always what I’ve wanted to do with my entire life. And it feels so incredibly fulfilling, personally, to be finally doing all of these things that I’ve dreamed about, even if they are on quite a small scale.

Sweeney: Paxton’s music falls into a genre she describes as dark alternative pop, a mix between Bad Guy-era Billie Eillish and Charlie XCX; she performs at venues around the UT Campus and greater Austin area, including the Hole in the Wall and Cactus Cafe. 

Moving forward, Paxton says she wants to find a balance between her budding music career by releasing more singles and hosting more live shows, while also continuing her work advocating for reproductive rights. 

Paxton: I decided that I wanted to pursue that career in music when I turned 18 and then of course the speech happened and I had to derail a little bit to really do my activism at the level that I wanted to do it and then when I decided to take a break, I decided I wanted to focus more on this passion of mine and what brings me joy, which was music.

Sweeney: People of UT is a production of the Daily Texan audio department. If you liked this episode, make sure you subscribe to The Daily Texan Podcasts on your streaming platform of choice and follow us on Twitter @texanaudio. This episode was reported and edited by me, Joseph Sweeney. Thank you for listening.

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