SxSW 2023: A Place for Narrative to Thrive
Two weeks ago, I descended into Austin, Texas for week two of the SxSW conference and festival. It’s a real-life gathering of folks who embody the saying “Revenge of the Nerds.” Politicians and thought leaders, activists and entrepreneurs, tech heads and gamers, cinephiles, bibliophiles and music aficionados; all who arrived were welcome.
With my interactive press pass draping from the orange lanyard around my neck, I was set loose on the Texas capital to see and do all that my heart desired. That was both the opportunity and the problem. There was so much to do, so many panels to attend, so many documentaries to see, so many artists to hear, even if I had cloned myself the two of us would not have been able to see and do it all. For example, there were two panels on Black maternal health. The panel, “Maternal Health Matters: Pregnancy, Birth, & Beyond” took place the afternoon I arrived. The other, “Weathering the Storm of Black Maternal Mortality” convened Monday morning at 10 a.m. the same time as “Voting is a Civil Rights Issue,” both of which I missed because I attended a separate panel on abolition.
The panels I did make it to were focused on democracy and abolition, two issue areas central to our work at Narrative Initiative and among the Changemaker organizations I support as Co-Editor of the Word Force program.
The Atlantic held a series of panels on democracy and elections. “The Future of Global Democracy” featured former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while “The Future of Elections” featured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger (R) and Nevada Secretary of State Francisco Aguilar (D). While both men decried the creep of election skepticism and election denialism among the voting populace, neither offered more than their party line platitudes when discussing the security and sanctity of American elections. Raffensberger argued in favor of more voter ID laws, when such laws have been documented by the ACLU, The Brennan Center for Justice and others as a barrier to the ballot. Numerically speaking, “strict photo ID laws reduce turnout by 2-3 percentage points, which can translate into tens of thousands of votes lost in a single state.” Meanwhile Aguilar advocated for “access to the ballot box for every eligible voter.”
The conversation focused on the legality of voting while sidestepping the fact that laws can complicate or inhibit access to the ballot box for communities of color and people living with disabilities. Pre-1965 “issues” regarding access to the ballot were referred to as “politically delicate.” While the panel allowed political opponents to come together and find common ground regarding rejection of election deniers, reimagining the American electoral system beyond the two-party binary was notably absent.
The panel, “Why is America Afraid of Its Black History?” featured clips from the documentary How to Rig An Election, which premiered at the festival. The film recounts the story of the 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes, which led to the Hayes Bargain otherwise known as The Compromise of 1877 and the end of Reconstruction. Federal troops were removed from the South and Jim Crow laws were passed to erode the gains made by the formerly enslaved. While the panel focused on the importance of Black history, it also elucidated the links between the suppression of Black history and the suppression of the vote. As attorney and racial justice activist Jeffrey Robinson from the Who We Are Project noted, “Not teaching history allows folks to erase the past and pretend it didn’t happen.” In reality, none of this is new.
Terrell Blount, the Executive Director of Word Force Changemaker organization of the Formerly Incarcerated College Grad Network (FICGN), spoke during both weeks of the SxSW conference. During the panel “You’re Hired: The Impact of College in Prison,” he advocated for the need of incarcerated people to access education. He said, “There is no reason for someone in prison to come out the same way they went in.” Add to that the fact that by 2027, 70% of jobs will require a college degree, this area of abolition work in the criminal legal space is heavily underresourced, but necessary.
Abolition work gets a bad rap because those who equate safety with policy have warped and co-opted narratives supporting community care, protection, and restorative justice. But even those working inside the system can agree that it is broken. During the panel “Getting Loud: Music’s Impact on Criminal Justice” former public defender-turned-musician (singer/songwriter), Danielle Ponder, noted how she used to represent Black youth for drug charges and then perform at festivals where white youth were all on drugs. The abolition panels with formerly incarcerated people-turned-activists like Blount and Alice Marie Johnson were where imagination reigned, where reforms, such as banning the box, ending qualified immunity for police and absolute immunity for prosecutors were discussed with an eye towards community impact.
Everything and the Kitchen Sink
Overall, SxSW is a conference and festival where a game plan is required. How else can you go to all the panels, shows, and screenings, and still have enough time to stroll the creative industries expo that featured everything and everyone from the CIA to a seminar on plant music? It is a space for the cool, the creatively inclined, and the self-proclaimed nerd. Those concerned with justice and those envisioning a future as technologically advanced as The Jetsons and as welcoming as Wakanda. It’s a place where the status quo is meant to be obliterated and the kind of narrative strategizing that leads to lasting change can burgeon and flourish.