Three Reasons Why SXSW is All About Social Good

Blair and Nora at SXSWBy: Blair Glencorse, Executive Director, and Nora Rahimian, Arts for Change Strategist at Accountability Lab. This blog post was originally published by Social Good Summit Austin.

From events on storytelling to fashion blogging, SXSW has certainly come a long way since its humble beginnings as a local music festival in 1987. At the first SXSW there were just a few bands playing in a downtown parking lot to a group of Austin music lovers; this year the festival included the likes of Mary J. Blige, Snoop Dogg, and Ryan Gosling, with thousands of attendees from all over the world. The mix is so eclectic that after several days, listening to a micro-biologist discuss social media trends with a skateboarding champion or the sight of people in giant squirrel costumes reading novels on a park bench seem almost mundane.

Despite criticism that the festival is outgrowing itself or becoming too corporate, a recent SXSW trend is how attendees and the festival can support positive change around the world. This year more than ever before, governments, NGOs, citizen groups, artivists and aid agencies were represented in Austin- speaking about ideas, sharing lessons and building networks. Austin +Social Good kicked off three days of SXGood programming with a series of panels focusing on building ecosystems for impact within communities. Their incredible evening session included everything from spoken word poetry with Yashi Brown and Brooke Axtell to story-telling through film with SJ.

The UN Foundation also partnered with +Social Good among other organizations to host a  two day program with sessions on everything from women’s rights to impact investing to urban renewal.

The Accountability Lab brought people together through a workshop on arts for social change; and we think the idea of tapping into the arts- and the festivals that celebrate them- to build support around important causes is a great one.

Why? First, because music has always been a space for truth and a way to expand social and political understandings. It a medium through which authentic, trusted voices can be heard on the issues that matter, and around which support can be built for change. Notable this year at SXSW was Tef Poe, the Ferguson-based hip hop artist turned activist who used his platform to bring attention to the on-going state of police violence in the United States.

Second, the arts enable a strength-based approach to social change. For too long, supporting good causes has been seen as charity, which has only bred a reliance that has deepened the problems our largesse hopes to solve. The arts allow a focus not on perceived weaknesses, like poverty, but on the incredible cultural strengths that bring people together and build collective understanding. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the discourse around Africa, where mainstream media still tends to push a narrative that revolves around crisis, violence and the need for aid. The Sounds from Africa panel at SXSW for example- featuring Ghanaian and Nigerian superstars Samini, Ice Prince, Sarkodie, and R2Bees- suggested a very different Africa where power dynamics are reversed. In talking about building their industry; selling out stadiums in the Africa that American artists are unable to fill; and the role of collaboration in moving African entertainment forward, these artists are creating a new narrative based on agency, not dependency.

Finally, the arts allow for positive culture shifts. Combining film and music with workshops on world-changing ideas consolidates the important relationship between the two. An intelligent focus at festivals on issues of social good mainstreams these ideas into popular culture and provides the platform for larger shifts in thinking and behaviors. SXSW has taken note- and has now used its brand to build a broader base of support for critical issues like education (SXSWEdu) and climate change (SXSWEco). There are plenty of other arts spin-off sub-festivals that could deal with important global issues- from healthcare to women’s rights to corruption.0

Music and film are in and of themselves essential to our sense of collective understanding. SXSW has to make sure it maintains authenticity as a venue where artists can express themselves and connect through their work with each other and their audiences. But if it can be done well, these festivals can be used to build support for positive social change too.

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