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Why the White House’s South by South Lawn was so inspiring (and what it was missing)

DC Tech Meetup organizer Jessica Bell was one of the tech folks that took to the White House Monday for a Southwest-inspired event. Here's what she took away from the experience.

Some of the crew at the White House's South by South Lawn. (Photo by Jessica Bell)
This is a guest post by DC Tech Meetup organizer Jessica Bell.
The White House’s first South by South Lawn started off with a long line of interesting people.
I was with a group of amazing women from both coasts, including West Coast folks like Leanne Pittsford, the creator of Lesbians Who Tech; Ruthie Bendor, a developer from San Francisco and Kristen Werner from Facebook, plus Angélique Roché and Teresa Younger from the New York-based Ms. Foundation for Women and Moira Hardeck, Chief Executive Officer at Chicago-based Galvanize Labs. Waiting to go through security, we chatted about the state of women in tech, our careers and how diverse and creative the other attendees in the line looked!
After three security checks, we made it to the East Wing entrance and made our way through the halls of the White House, greeted by music performances, members of the White House Staff, art exhibits and the ever-present beauty of the house itself. Exiting onto the South Lawn, the festival was spread before us, including artistic installations, two main stages, a giant video projection screen and an alleyway of booths. Milling about the lawn were inspirational icons including US Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith and NASA astronaut Anne McClain.

The crowd in general was young, diverse, inspired and passionate. Conversations revolved around technological innovation in the government, the way that so many issues intersect with each other, a frustration on the lack of moment from the political machine and the excitement for technology in the hands of those working towards social justice and how it could create community driven solutions.
One glaring lack? Developers! Black Girls Code had a booth showcasing their work on getting young Black girls into coding and programming, and of the people I talked to all day, they seems to be some of the only programmers represented. If our future is going to be technical, and programmers are needed to build the solutions of the future, tech workers should be represented more equitably.

I did run into Shannon Turner, the founder of Hear Me Code, and developers from US Digital Service so I am glad there were some local #DCTech powerhouses in attendance but would have liked to have seen developers at the booths talking about the technical preparation of some of these exhibits and represented on panels.
In the virtual reality department, there was a booth where attendees could experience President Obama’s trip to Yosemite.

Main themes through the afternoon revolved around prison and criminal justice reform, climate change and environmental preservation, and food technology. Artist Common spoke on the harm our Black and brown communities are facing in regards to the school to prison pipeline and police brutality they face. “Feeding the Future” panelists spoke on the lack of real healthy sustainable food futures and how food scarcity disproportionally affects low-income populations, as well as the need to preserve our natural environment to sustain the food needs of our ever growing population.
To cap off the evening, Leonardo DiCaprio spoke with President Obama and Katharine Hayhoe on climate change, political inaction and struggle and creating a narrative people can relate to on personal terms to effect action to preserve our natural environment.
Each panel, art performance and digital installation seemed to support each other, helping attendees to connect the dots as to why racism, food security, poverty and climate change are all interconnected and woven into our current society.
(Editor’s note: We’d be remiss not to mention how a crew lead by Brooklyn founder Jason Mowatt ran a swag surf during SXSL and the whole thing went viral. Plus, a pack of Baltimore makers built the SXSL sign.)
There was also a big board where people could post things that we still have left to do on these issues.

The night ended with a screening of Before the Flood, a documentary on climate change that was both a terrifying picture of political corruption and apathy, but also a desperate call to action. I left the evening feeling a mixture of anger, fear, drive and passion — ready to use my technical skills to effect change on a hyper local scale and hoping that others will do the same.


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