For the past 3 years, I’ve headed down to Austin, Texas seeking exciting experiences and inspiration at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference and festival. This year was no exception.
So why is it that it’s taken me so long to write about it?
I, like many of you, have spent a lot of time recently feeling hopeless, helpless and frustrated. A byproduct of living in the hyper-connected reality that is planet earth in the 21st century is that news, especially bad news, from anywhere can be seen/heard/read/felt anywhere too. Babies in cages at the U.S. Mexico border, the systematic destruction of women’s rights through abortion bans., the humanitarian crisis in Syria, Yemen, the list goes on, the rise of white nationalism at home and abroad, climate change; the list of local and global crises and tragedies is endless and we’re all inundated with information about them. It’s been hard to focus on the big ideas, the big experiences, and the hope for the future that I want to get out there with this article. It’s hard to stay positive when our realities are so very dark, and seemingly getting darker by the day.
So this morning I put on Knock Down the House and found myself enthralled. As I watched the moment of her congressional seat win in the film, I remembered listening to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speak at SXSW. The hope in that moment, and knowing what’s happened since, and hearing her speak at SXSW and seeing in real life the audience someone like her commands – the hope becomes more tenable. And it’s reminded me that I need to share that experience, and the many others I had in Austin, to feed that hope and help it grow.
So here, in no particular order, are some of the incredibly inspirational humans I encountered at SXSW.
Michael Acton Smith and Matthew McConaughey – Calm and Just Keep Livin Foundation
My SXSW time always starts with picking up my pass at the Austin Convention center, then moseying over to the Fast Company Grill for some networking and delicious free food. This year, my first FCGrill visit yielded a surprising inspirational moment in panelist Matthew McConaughey. He took some time out of The Beach Bums premier promotions schedule to chat mental health and wellness with Fast Company EIC Stephanie Mehta and Michael Acton Smith, Cofounder and co-CEO of Calm, a mindfulness and meditation app.
What I didn’t know was that McConnaughey founded the Just Keep Livin Foundation, an organization that works with schools to help disadvantaged inner-city kids through fitness, health and wellness and community involvement activities. Calm and Just Keep Livin have teamed up with the Calm Schools Initiative, to provide free mindfulness training tools to teachers to help kids deal with the stress and anxiety that just being a kid can bring. The panel shared the many benefits of applying the tenets of mindfulness to an educational environment and arming both teachers and students with the tools they need to improve everyone’s mental and physical well being. Together, Calm and Just Keep Livin are doing their parts to help set these students up for success in school and hopefully in life.
Another SX discovery I made was Arlan Hamilton. Arlan is the co-founder of Backstage Capital, a venture capital fund focused on supporting the most underserved segments of the startup population. People of color, people with different mental and physical abilities, members of the LQBTQ community, and so many others have long been denied access to these life and business changing funding options. Arlan, along with her partner Christie Pitts, saw that as an opportunity, and have now invested over $4 million in 100 companies led by minority founders. I got the chance to see Arlan speak on a panel run by communications mogul Kara Swisher, another hero of mine. Democratic Senator Wendy Davis was also on that panel, and her progressive, open-minded and honest thoughts were a refreshing reminder that not everyone in American politics is pure evil.
I got another chance to hear Arlan speak at her keynote interview with Fast Company Editor KC Ifeanyi. Arlan shared that her first SXSW experience saw her sleeping in her rental car while tirelessly networking to find funding for a then fledgling Backstage Capital fund. That was back in 2014, and now just 5 years later, Arlan was telling her story from a huge stage to a rapt audience, while making startup dreams come true on the daily. Her story is beyond inspirational, and the fact that she’s using her hard work and power to raise others up is even better.
Sophia Bush, Symone Sanders and Ilyse Hogue
One of the most interesting panels I attended was “How Media Fragmentation Fuels Online Toxicity”. The panel was moderated by Media Matters’ President Angelo Caruso, and featured actress and activist Sophia Bush, political communications powerhouse Symone Sanders, and abortion rights activist Ilyse Hogue. It was one of the most thought-provoking talks I was privy to at SXSW, though it was also one of the most underpopulated, audience-wise. But everyone else’s loss was my gain, as the rest of the small crowd and I benefited from the knowledge, passion and power of this incredible group. These individuals face incredible abuse on the daily online, from internet trolls to Trump himself, just for being who they are, speaking their minds and calling out injustice as they see it. Their lived experience shed a powerful and important light on the pitfalls and dangers that come with the convenience and positivity of online access and social media.
With abortion access coming under attack across the southern U.S. and potentially up here in Canada, I’m thankful to have heard Ilyse speak, and to have met her after the panel. Her commentary on these issues is insightful and educational while rousing and passionate enough to garner much-needed support. I gained a new found appreciation for Sophia, who unapologetically stands up for what’s right, whether it’s putting shady politicians on blast on Twitter or losing out on working with brands whose values don’t align with hers, because she refuses to compromise on what matters just for a paycheque. She’s a shining example of what someone in a privileged position can do with that privilege to help those less fortunate. And hearing Symone drop one truth bomb after another with a flick of her beautifully manicured fingers was mind-blowing, and fear-inducing at the same time. The Sr. Advisor to Joe Biden spoke about political communications strategy in the brave new online world, and how much more focused and effective the right, especially the far right, has been and continues to be when it comes to bringing more and more voters to their side. Progressive candidates and causes continue to fall short of their methods and with every election, be it north or south of the border, we’re feeling the effects. All hope is not lost, but things are going to have to change if we’re going to get off the dark path our part of the world seems to be on.
With political drama reaching legendary status south of the border, SXSW was stacked with players on the scene. It’s a great move in making politics more accessible to a younger, more connected demographic by casting the SXSW specter of cool on it, and politicians both newly in office and vying for future spots took their opportunities to up their own cool factors. Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren filled the Moody Theatre with adoring fans and the politically minded. She minced no words about the current occupant of the office, confirming her view that he’s a racist and doing harm to American democracy. But her focus was less on the past and present, and far more on the future, and more importantly what needs to be done to ensure we all have a safer, healthier and happier one. From splitting up goliath level tech companies to improving healthcare access to the importance of education, Warren made it clear that her mission is to raise all Americans up to a level of security and dignity that is currently sorely lacking. Her steadfast, quiet confidence was comforting and encouraging; there’s a reason why the internet now looks to Elizabeth Warren to fix all of its issues. After seeing her speak in person I can not only see why, but I find myself even more disappointed in the lack of faith and support the media and the American people are giving her in her bid for the presidency. Her male counterparts, from Biden to Buttigieg receive far more praise and attention, undermining her incredibly valid position at every turn. So while Elizabeth Warren and her steady and strong words and persona do give me hope for a brighter future, the sad reality that North America may not be ready for female leadership continues to cast a shadow over it all.
Alexandra Tweeten, founder of @byefelipe
Any female who has had the misfortune of dating in the digital age needs to make online friends with Alexandra Tweeten. A feminist with a fierce wit and a heart of gold, Alexandra is the founder of the wildly popular and far too relatable @byefelipe Instagram account, and was at SXSW promoting her book of the same name. If you’re lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the account, it probably means you haven’t had to subject yourself to online or app dating. Bye Felipe was born of a need for women to share their experiences with the toxic and abusive male behavior that has inherently become a part of the digital dating experience. Women submit screenshots of dick pics, insults, threats and eye roll inducing conversations to warn and commiserate with each other, because we’ve ALL been there. Sweet, funny and incredibly endearing in real life, Alexandra read excerpts from the Bye Felipe book, a sort of “how to guide” to modern dating as well as a “we’re all in this together” community bible that millennial women didn’t even know they needed. She further endeared herself to me and every woman in her reading when she patiently sat through a fairly intense mansplaining of the intention of her book by one of 3 men in the room, and responded with grace and humor. The irony of the encounter was only lost on the perpetrator of it, and I shared a laugh with the author and a few other smart gals when I bought the book and asked Alexandra to sign it. Pick up your own copy here and pass it to a girlfriend who needs it when you’re done, and you’ll be supporting a female author and women all around you at the same time.
These days, AOC is a woman who needs no introduction, and the power of her influence physically manifested itself at SXSW. The day Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was scheduled to speak boasted some of the biggest lineups that any of the veteran volunteers I spoke with had ever seen. Only those who had been waiting in line for hours were able to sit in the audience of her talk. She also literally broke SXSW streaming service, the demand to watch her appearance was so high both in person and online. Say what you will about this outspoken and progressive congresswoman but Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s public appeal is undeniable. She has a way of reaching people that no other politician seems to have, or has ever had. She’s relatable and accessible, ad her ability to speak on politics and real issues in a way that is understandable, without an iota of condescension is her biggest asset. Her sense of urgency on climate change is a breath of fresh air (pun intended) when the old white men in power insist on pretending it’s pretend. Her determination to help everyone in her country achieve fair and dignified employment is also refreshing, which is somewhat sad in itself; you would hope this would be common sense.
My most valuable takeaway from AOC’s talk, and there were many, was this; when asked how to have conversations with people who have opposing beliefs, she said “I don’t try to convince them of anything…stop trying to win people over. Stop trying to enter a conversation thinking you’re going to “aha” them into changing their minds. When I enter a conversation with someone, I try to learn more about where they’re coming from.” She went on to remind us to consider our emotions and intentions when entering these conversations, something I admit is a struggle for me. But, said Ocasio-Cortez, we must be respectful and give people space to reach their conclusions and make up their own minds. She also talked about giving people “the golden gate of retreat”; someone’s viewpoint may strongly oppose our own, but we shouldn’t chain them to it, and we won’t change their minds in a single conversation. Instead, we should give them the chance, and the time and distance, to change their minds. And when we do that, we may be surprised at what comes of it.
Watch her talk for yourself right here:
What I love most about SXSW, isn’t the music, the parties, the brand activations; it’s about the people and the experiences that are only found in Austin in March. The common theme between everyone in this piece is that each of these individuals is working hard to make our world a better place. Whether it’s using celebrity and talent to support or shed light on an important cause, or using a lifetime of experience to earn a role that can truly change the course of a country, and then perhaps the world, all of these people are working to make things better for all of us. Being in those spaces with people of that caliber is a reminder that change is happening, that real conversations with those in power, on platforms that move millions, and those powerful progressive messages that so many of us fervently believe in are not only getting through, but are being amplified. No matter how hopeless it gets here in my little Toronto bubble, retweeting angry messages in the wake of yet another abortion ban, I remember these experiences, and these individuals using their power and influence for good, and I regain a semblance of hope again.