I Found Social Change, Action, and Ideas at the White House

On Monday I spent about eight hours on the White House lawn with two thousand others who are active engagers in the United States and maybe even the world. I’m sure the opportunity to trot the President’s backyard was enough to draw a crowd. However, I’d like to think that those of us who attended SXSL (South By South Lawn), the White House’s first ever Festival of Ideas, Art, and Action, went for more than just the novelty. We walked away having experienced intimate moments with a diverse group of people who are engaged in society.

When I saw the post on the White House Twitter page, I wasn’t quite sure what President Obama, Jason Goldman, and the team who put the event together wanted it to be. However, three words drew my attention: social change, action, and ideas. 

One of my favorite James Baldwin quotes reads, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Although my memory sometimes impedes me from remembering the above quote verbatim, its essence always remains. When you love something you have got to embrace the necessity to make it better. I don’t want to Make American Great Again. I love this country that took my family in on political asylum enough to recognize what is already great about it, but strive to make it better day by day.

In the age of Black Lives Matter, police brutality, Black Twitter, technology, political apathy, anger, misunderstanding, and the ever-changing news cycle throwing shit all out of whack, I could not wait to hear from people who I feel are smarter than me talk about social change, action, and ideas.

Fixing Real Problems 

Jenna Wortham, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, moderated this panel.

It featured: Chris Redlitz, managing partner of Transmedia Capital and co-founder of The Last Mile; Nina Tandon, co-founder and CEO of EpiBone; Stewart Butterfield, co-founder and CEO of Slack; and Jukay Hsu, founder of Coalition for Queens (C4Q).

Fixing Real Problems was impactful in that it highlighted that not everyone needs to be a martyr with the world glued to whip marks on their back. Stewart Butterfield, the creator of Slack, a tool my MoveOn team loves, started off his introduction saying “I can’t take credit for the good work people who use our tool do.”

Unlike his colleagues on the panel who have organizations with missions to better their community through direct engagement, Stewart is a businessman concerned with wealth. He could hide under a cloak of privilege all his life and be fine. However, he has made the decision to be the kind of wealthy person who reaches back.

Y’all this white man talked about systemic racism in Silicon Valley. Furthermore, he addressed that tech companies could be doing a better job bringing women and people of color into their companies. I didn’t fall out of my chair or cheer, because I hold the belief that that’s what people of privilege should do, but many don’t. He went on to say, if there isn’t diversity in a particular position, create a space for that within your company.

I want to stress, especially for my readers who don’t have an interest in making a living doing good. You don’t need to be a martyr to fix real problems. Provide support, create a tool, volunteer an hour or two a week, and be the voice of reason in your office when diversity becomes merely a buzzword for good PR. You do not have to be an expert do-gooder to be invested in America’s greatness.

See the full panel discussion here: https://youtu.be/aR71RlLcXJA

How We Create Change 

“It’s time for you as young leaders to get in trouble, good trouble!”

If y’all know a little something about John Lewis, it’s that he’s been getting in good trouble since the 1960’s. He was actually arrested 40 times back then and five times since having been a congressman—talk about free my homie.

Seeing him in person was moving. His voice still mighty, and so full of history, bloodshed, and struggle. In Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, he has a conversation with TuPac (by the way, TuPac played at the White House, y’all… yup… Mama we done made it, now we just gotta dismantle systemic racism and white supremacy) who in a somber tone tells Kendrick that the Black man loses his fight after his twenties. Not Senator John Lewis. He has not forgotten his moral obligation to remind apathetic folks the importance of voting. As he stressed, voting is the “most powerful non-violent tool.” In case y’all forgot, people were literally dying, hanging from trees, not too long ago for fighting for this duty.

I hope the cadence in my voice carries John Lewis’ message as I struggle to move voters to the polls in Florida, the biggest, baddest battleground state. Although I am working to get a president elected, I want to be make it explicitly clear that participation in our democracy is not just about voting in the presidential election. Participate at every single level.

After John Lewis dropped his two minute hype piece, Anil Dash, who moderated, joked about having to follow that, but let me tell you it was only the beginning.

For those who may not know who Anil Dash is, he’s a technology geek, activist, and entrepreneur. Heben and Tracy introduced him to us on Another Round where he talked about being a person of color in this glorious American wonderland where a white man can pitch a movie about bees while folk of color gotta fight for valuable screen time. His sense of humor, love of mangoes, and wokeness drove me to follow him on Twitter— hey, Anil…

Anil gave a warm welcome to the following panelists: Carmen Rojas, CEO of The Workers Lab; Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry; and Brittany Packnett, Vice President of National Community Alliances at Teach For America and co-founder of Campaign Zero.

I make zero dollars from this blog so I feel no need to give folks equal time. This is not to take away from the great work Carmen and Evan do in their respective fights, but y’all, Brittany Packnetttttt!

Ms. Brittany is Campaign Zero’s very own, and this woman has a passion for young people and freedom. So much so that she has a bruised lung from tear gas, because she has used her body as a tool to fight for equality.

“[Michael Brown] had done all of the things we told him to do…[but] his diploma was still not bullet proof.”

Education. Education. Education.

Whenever folks are asked what it takes to slow society’s decline, they answer in their most expert of voices, education. But Brittany made it clear that no amount of education protects a black body from the brutal hands of law enforcement officials who use their badge as a poplar tree to hang the oppressed. Although racist America seeks to destroy black bodies until our limbs are left rotting on black tarred streets, Brittany encourages us to pick ourselves up. She wants us to use our flesh to “cause a shift,” until we get to a place where we are loved for who we are.

She attributes a lot of her work to a concept she and her co-founder Samuel Sinyangwe call Radical Pragmatism. On our mission to achieve justice, Brittany wants us to “[dream] as big as we possibly can irrespective of what the current reality is and [take] deliberate action toward that.”

How We Create Change left me full. The scribbles in my notebook will continue to float like the big screen in front of my eyes when I forget why I chose to become a community organizer. I’ll also refer back to the soundbites all three panelists left us with.

Final words from Carmen 

“Let’s make today and everyday a great day for people who work in this country.”

Final words from Evan 

“If we only stand on what makes us feel good at the moment, that’s not persuasion that’s preaching.”

Final words from Brittany 

“The radical dream is not just to break off the branch of police violence but to uproot the entire tree… and to do the purposeful work with us—to act purposefully to get it done.”

See the full panel discussion here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vDbOuogXjKU&feature=youtu.be

Thank you

I can’t finish this piece without giving credit to everyone who nominated me to attend SXSL. 

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