The air around the White House was charged with positive vibes and warm fuzzies on Monday. On a blue-skied day, 2,000 attendees chosen from a list of 24,000 applicants and nominees (spotted in the crowd: Common chatting with the president’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett) as well as several dozen entrepreneurs, artists, big thinkers and world-changers gathered in President Obama’s backyard for South by South Lawn, a “festival of ideas, art and action.”
Inspired by and in conjunction with the Austin, Texas-based team that puts on South by Southwest (SXSW), where Obama spoke earlier this year in a conversation about civic engagement, SXSL was, “at its heart, a call to action,” according to POTUS. “The folks out on the lawn today are artists, creators, entrepreneurs and innovators who will share how they’ve used their unique skills to engage their communities in making the change they want to see — whether it’s curing cancer, fighting poverty, empowering women, and so much more.”
The event included nearly two dozen interactive exhibits, from a simulation that allowed attendees to experience firsthand the psychological effects of being locked up in solitary confinement, to a up-close look at (and taste of) the whole food cycle with celeb chef Jose Andres, to a virtual reality tour of the First Family’s trip to Yosemite this past Father’s Day. A billboard-sized collaborative “TO DO” list made entirely of sticky notes encouraged attendees to write down the ways they planned to make positive change for themselves and in their communities.
The Dap Kings (minus Sharon Jones, who had a last-minute cancellation due to pneumonia) were the musical centerpiece of the afternoon, delivering the kind of soul-filled funk that makes you want to find a dark room and make out. At dusk, the kids from Stranger Things came out to host a screening of the three winning short films from the White House Student Film Festival. And as thumbnail sliver of moon emerged in the evening sky, the Lumineers took the stage as the event’s musical headliner, performing a seven-song set to a crowd that seemed to already know them by heart.
“When POTUS asks you to come to his house, you say yes,” Lumineers frontman Wesley Schultz told Billboard. “We moved mountains to get here. We feel very honored — this is a bucket-list kind of thing. It’s special to be asked by a president to do anything, but when you admire the president like we do, it’s mind-blowing.”
In their set, Schultz chose to include the song Charlie Boy, which he wrote for his uncle Charles who died a hero in the Vietnam War, about the way in which people can make purposeful choices to act for the betterment of their country. For their finale, the band encouraged the crowd to join them in serenading the First Couple with POTUS’s request, Stubborn Love—Monday was the Obama’s 24th wedding anniversary.
The day culminated with a talk between President Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio and scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe about both the seriousness and immediacy of climate change, which preceded the premier of DiCaprio’s new documentary, Before the Flood, on the big screen on the White House lawn.
DiCaprio spoke about how his film was intended to share his findings “about the effects of climate change on our planet and highlight the message from the scientific community and leaders worldwide on the urgency of the issue,” noting that he felt is was important to release the film before the next presidential election. To a cheering crowd, DiCaprio proclaimed: “We must empower leaders who not only believe in climate change but are willing to do something about it. The scientific consensus is in, and the argument is now over. If you do not believe in climate change, you do not believe in facts or in science…and therefore, in my humble opinion, should not be allowed to hold public office.”
The entire event seemed to be scheduled on a compressed timeline—perhaps in order to be able to showcase the film before voters headed to the polls.
“The biggest challenge in pulling this all together fairly quickly was working with the President’s schedule,” said SXSW Chief Programming Officer Hugh Forrest. The SXSW team worked with the White House on the structure of the event, but the White House “had final say on all of the bands and speakers and did a lot of the heavy lifting,” says Forrest.
“What I’m most impressed with is the collaboration between so many different entities that helped make this happen,” says SXSW co-founder and CEO Roland Swenson. “The ability for disparate entities to come together so quickly and create something positive is a new model for getting things done in the future.”