South By South Lawn attendees moseyed under the shadow of the White House to catch musical performances from the Dap-Kings (sans Sharon Jones) and the Lumineers. Exhibitors showcased virtual-reality experiences and modern-art installations. There was a screening of short films produced by students. Panelists discussed the trials and triumphs of social activism and ways to improve diversity in the tech industry. At the end of the day, President Obama and actor Leonardo DiCaprio talked climate change.
If the day sounds a bit scattershot, that’s because it was. That’s kind of the point.
The first-of-its-kind event was patterned after South By Southwest, the annual technology and entertainment festival in Austin. “South By,” as the initiated call it, has blossomed into a can’t-miss engagement for innovators from around the globe. And Monday’s White House event sought to replicate its deconstructed atmosphere where fun and business intermingle.
“South by South Lawn will challenge young leaders to build on our progress toward an America that is more tolerant, fair, and full of opportunities,” the White House said in September when the event was announced.
The themes of fairness and opportunity featured prominently at the festival. During a discussion on “fixing real problems” using technology, a panel of entrepreneurs bemoaned the lack of diversity in terms of race, gender and education at tech companies. If the only tech firms that get founded and funded are run by white men from top colleges, then those companies will never solve problems faced by large swaths of the population who don’t fit that description, panelists said.
“That is why I think it’s important we have entrepreneurs from different backgrounds. . . .” said Jukay Hsu, the founder of Coalition for Queens, a nonprofit that promotes tech education and careers. “Their perspective and what they want to create and the issues they’re trying to tackle will be very different.”
Just outside the panel, an interactive exhibit called “#FacesofFounders” was collecting head shots from attendees who had created their own business or nonprofit ventures. It was also designed to combat the narrative that good ideas come only from people with certain backgrounds. And indeed, the line to take photos included a number of women and people of color.
On the same stage less than an hour later, activists from organizations that promote worker’s rights, same-sex marriage and racial equality shared tips on how to take small steps and celebrate progress without compromising long-term goals. Evan Wolfson, the founder of Freedom to Marry, said his organization “did take half steps” toward marriage equality, such as civil unions, but “just didn’t settle for those.” Freedom to Marry closed after the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.
“No one goal, however big it is, is going to be everything,” Wolfson said. “If your only goal is everything, you’re going to get nothing done.”
As the sun set over the White House, attendees gathered to hear from its chief occupant. Obama joined Academy Award-winner DiCaprio and climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe on stage to discuss the threat of climate change and cue up DiCaprio’s new documentary, “Before the Flood.”
As my colleague Juliet Eilperin writes, Obama told the crowd “we’re really in a race against time” to tackle the harmful effects of climate change. But, like the panelists before him, Obama emphasized the need for incremental steps, such as a carbon tax and infrastructure investments, that slowly move the country toward environmental sustainability.
Eilperin writes: “Noting that most Americans rely on their cars to commute to work and to travel across the country, the president said, ‘We can’t overnight start having everyone start taking high-speed trains, because we don’t have any high-speed trains to take.’ ”
Read more from The Washington Post’s Innovations section.