All Day, Barack Obama, D.C., SXSL Fesitval, Washington, White House -

President Obama’s South by South Lawn gives us a glimpse into what his post-White House goals will entail

All Day, Barack Obama, D.C., SXSL Fesitval, Washington, White House -

President Obama’s South by South Lawn gives us a glimpse into what his post-White House goals will entail

By the time President Barack Obama hit the stage at the first annual South by South Lawn (SXSL) Festival, the bulk of its mission had been accomplished. Yes, there was still the conversation set to take place with the president, atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe and Leo DiCaprio, star of Before The Flood, a documentary that explores the effects of climate change. But at that point, the crowd was huddled on SXSL-branded giveaway blankets after making friends nearly all day.

This was not a celebrity pass-thru event, like the reception the week before for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. There were no too-cool-for-school types milling around unwilling to engage with people they didn’t know. There was palpable blackness, but this wasn’t just an excuse to have black folks running around on the back lawn of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. The fellowship felt real, intelligent and productive. A spectacle, it was not.

Don’t get it twisted, though. We were outchea. Lauryn Hill’s Lost Ones was blasting through the speakers when I walked in and the last song I can recall before The Lumineers took the stage was Nappy Roots’ Good Day. All sorts of tracks like D’Angelo’s Lady and John Legend’s Green Light were played, courtesy DJ Beverly Bond. There was a swag surf. Rap squats in front of the SXSL sign were a must. Common recording an NPR Tiny Desk Concert while he was there.

In the innovations portion, the installations were very popular. The Justice for Us exhibit used interactive slides to highlight the discrepancies in sentencing for drug offenses in the United States. Down the way, Black Girls Code had set up shop.

People lined up for a virtual reality experience that recreated what life is like inside of a solitary confinement cell. Titled “6×9,” it was the most attended of the day. A collaborative effort between The Guardian and The Mill, a VFX and digital design firm, it was one of the handful of installations that featured virtual reality headsets. For many, it was an intense experience to have such a direct interaction with social justice programming, right there on the White House lawn.

“Most of us have seen the news and we’ve heard the stories about solitary confinement, but none of us can say that we’ve had that experience. So, that’s what really drew me, was, we have an idea of how awful it is, but to be there and feel like you are present in that space, nothing compares to that,” said Traci Slater-Rigaud, who works on the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. “It’s amazing technology, of course. You’re there. Aesthetically is so well done and the stories that are piped in as you are looking at this room, it makes it very real.”

The panels were well-attended and insightful. When the food trucks re-upped in the afternoon, that’s when the most honest exchanges came. Individuals were forced to sit with people they didn’t know to break bread, which ultimately led to the question of, “What are you doing here?” With innovators, tastemakers and creators from all over the country, it led to some fascinating discussions.

As an aside, it was also a tremendous look at what can really be done with the White House grounds when you choose to activate it as an outdoor space. And as strange, yet comforting, as it felt to spend a day talking tech, art, innovation and social justice at the president’s house, you couldn’t help but feel like this was the future of Obama’s legacy. His ability to gather smart minds is no small accomplishment when you look at the prospects who may be inhabiting the place next year.

“SXSL was a big win for everyone involved,” said Hugh Forrest, director of the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. “The White House embraced the spirit of SXSW by bringing together innovators across disciplines in order to brainstorm new ideas and make new connections.”

It could have been gimmicky. It could have been overly wonky. It also could have just been a party. It was none of those and SXSL was ultimately inspiring in result. Sure, Obama will build a library somewhere. And of course, he’ll be on speaking circuits for the rest of his life, making plenty money. But Monday proved that how he chooses to spend his time and resources once he leaves office will be more than just the standard fare. You got the sense that many of the people around you might be the ones he spends it with, too.


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