Fun Is Not Enough: What We Need At The Next SXSW

By Frederick T. Joseph

I’ve had the pleasure of attending the interactive portion South by South West (SXSW) for the last two years, each time in a different role. First, I attended purely as a marketer, then I attended in both a marketer and speaker role.

This year was most unique, as I continued to occupy the roles from my previous years, but now I also exist as Auburn’s Chief Communications Officer, and because of that I was intent on seeing how the realms of faith and social justice were platformed as well as discussed and supported.

Because SXSW and Austin are often seen as bastions of progressive ideals, I expected to leave Austin sparked by a plethora of innovative ideas, tools, and conversations. By sadly, I left disappointed in that regard.

I expected to leave Austin sparked by a plethora of innovative ideas, tools, and conversations. By sadly, I left disappointed in that regard.

While there were amazing panels and conversations about faith, social justice, and progressive work there was no premium placed on advancing them through innovation, yet SXSW is supposed to be the place for innovation. But, I think this a reflection more so on the state of progressives than that of SXSW itself.

As I mentioned, both the festival and the area are generally very progressive and thus it should pose a great opportunity to get like-minded people together to create agendas, steps, and connections to help combat the issues plaguing our society. But instead, people were focused on lining up for movie premieres, receiving free brand gifts, and partying. At one point I visited an outdoor convening of the “Texas Democrats” and the focus was on “letting our hair down, and having beers together”.

As fun as relaxing sounds, this isn’t a time to relax. It’s a time for action, and there wasn’t much of that happening at SXSW. Not to say this doesn’t exist on the conservative end, but I feel there is often more intent and time spent on how to move their collective agenda forward.

This SXSW boasted the likes of people and companies such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Black Girls Code, Jordan Peele, ACLU, Ilhan Omar, and more. But somehow there still seemed to be a lack of empowerment and convening groups that could deeply help one another and all want similar change in the world.

Somehow there still seemed to be a lack of empowerment and convening groups that could deeply help one another and all want similar change in the world.

There is obviously a void that needs to be filled. It’s never been more important that we fully leverage opportunities to provide convening space and thoughtful next steps, we need to put the leaders and change makers from our communities attending events such as SXSW in positions to partner, learn, and innovate.

There are a few ways I believe the various progressive stakeholders can make sure there are actionable steps taking place during and after SXSW. For instance, more focus on how activists and progressive religious activists and leaders can maximize technology, digital platforms, and content for messaging and support. Another idea is more intent around cultural, queer, LGBTQ+, sexual, and innovative racial justice and coalition building.

Another idea is more intent around cultural, queer, LGBTQ+, sexual, and innovative racial justice and coalition building.

I believe Auburn Seminary is primed to help bridge this divide and thoughtfully be one of the entities that takes the lead in making sure that SXSW is not only a place for progressives to be, but rather to help change the world. See you at SXSW 2020!

Frederick T. Joseph is Chief Communications Officer for Auburn and has his own consulting firm We Have Stories.

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