Embracing Optimism at SXSL

Embracing Optimism at SXSL

Editor’s note: In early October of 2016, the California Endowment reached out to Redwood Voice in search of a young media reporter to send to the Washington DC to attend South By South Lawn (SXSL), a festival of ideas, art, and action. Redwood Voice selected Tyler Harrison (age 20), to represent Del Norte and Tribal Lands, capture his experience at the festival, and produce a story on what he learned and hopes to bring back to his community. Del Norte’s local newspaper, “The Triplicate,” also released a publication on Tyler’s trip that can be viewed here: http://www.triplicate.com/news/4732922-151/mr-harrison-goes-to-washington?referrer=carousel7 

I’ve always hated deadlines, and that didn’t change when I got a text asking me if I’d like to go on a trip to Washington DC to attend a fancy event called SXSL (South by South Lawn) an hour before the signup deadline. I was shocked. I didn’t know what to think or expect, or what qualified me to go on this trip, but I was intrigued none the less. My friends, family, and girlfriend were all equally happy to hear about this great opportunity I’d been given and strongly encouraged me to go. I, however, was not as excited. I’d been on planes flying across the country before, but never alone, never that far, and this was a trip for only one.

Ultimately, after racking my brain for that short hour, I had to make the decision. This was a great opportunity that I was presented with, and I didn’t want to let it go to waste. I knew that if I let my fears get the better of me, I’d regret it later. I signed the paper and sent in my RSVP. I received my travel details less than 24 hours before my first flight left. So, I began packing my bags and saying my goodbyes as quick as I was able to, hoping to get a good night’s rest before my big day.

Unfortunately, stress is killer and anxiety isn’t kind. That “good night’s rest” I had planned turned out to be about three hours of unrestful sleep. I was a nervous wreck leaving the house and heading to the airport. Thoughts of inadequacy plagued my thoughts during the entire trip to Washington DC. What qualified me to go to this event? Surely, a nobody from a small town in one of the smallest counties in California can’t possibly compare to owners of businesses, inventors, performers, United Nations representatives, and more. I felt as if I was simply going to stand on the sidelines for a majority of the event and head home when everything was said and done.

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What I got, however, was so far from what I expected. After I met up with the two other people that would be accompanying me, a youth journalist named Jessica, and our “tour guide”, Alheli, we quickly got to know each other and enjoyed each other’s company. Even on the taxi ride to our hotel, many jokes were made, and lots of fun was had. I was with pleasant company, and it did a lot to ease my mind.

Because fate is cruel, and jetlag isn’t forgiving, I got about three hours of sleep that night as well, however it was excitement that kept me awake, not anxiety. I thought that at the very least, now I have a couple people I know and enjoy the company of. We got out of bed early, ate breakfast at a small café, and made our way towards the White House.

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The line to get inside of the White House was unbelievably huge. Hundreds of people were lined up tight on one sidewalk, stretching down the block as far as I could see past the crowd. Though I’d gotten past most of my anxiety regarding the event, I still didn’t quite feel a sense of belonging. I asked again, what qualifications did I hold that warranted me going on this trip, as opposed to someone else? I said out loud to Alheli and Jessica, “Man, I don’t feel like I belong here.” They were quick to dismiss this, and through our conversation, a man near us in line turned to me. He was nicely dressed, wearing a fancy name tag sporting some professional title that I’m not fortunate enough to remember, and said to me, “That’s funny, you certainly look like you belong here.” Though it easily could’ve been anyone that he said that to, it was a kind gesture that I appreciated, and it certainly made me feel more at home in the moment. This kind of kindness would go on to set the stage for the rest of the event.

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Everyone at SXSL was more polite than I could’ve expected. While I was getting coffee, sitting and listening to speeches, or standing in line for the exhibits, I was constantly meeting strangers and hearing about their lives, and they seemed equally interested to hear about mine. People seemed to genuinely care about who you were and what brought you to this event. I met with people who owned entire organizations, people who were refugees from war, people who have spoken at United Nations meetings, and much more. They all had this same disposition of being mutually polite and interested. Once I saw that others felt free to open up to me, and I got comfortable opening up to others, all anxiety that remained faded away.

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One of my favorite parts of this venture was exploring the maze of booths and stands that were present at the festival. Each was set up precariously, trying to dodge the sunlight with tents or walls that were conveniently arranged for a cool spot of shade to sit in. The lines to these booths also reflected this, as you would find twenty or more people crammed into small areas trying to keep out of the heat. There were booths from such a great variety of groups who worked on all sorts of different things. There were people advertising their products to make areas more accessible for those with handicaps, such as easy access ramps and elevators. There were those advocating for teaching students to grow plants in schools with computer-aided fertilizing systems. There was a display from a company that makes “build your own” robots that were being used in education to teach robotics and programming. There was a large display put up by the U.S. National Parks Service promoting their “Find Your Park” campaign, complete with a spinning wheel that pointed to every park in the United States.

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There were also several virtual reality displays, including but not limited to a walkthrough of Yellowstone Park, an art display using Google Tiltbrush, and a simulation of solitary confinement, as I’m a huge nerd, this was my first stop. During the “Walk through Yellowstone,” I was taken away by how beautiful the display was, and at one point I found myself reaching out to lean a hand on a wooden post that was present in front of me before I quickly remembered I was wearing a VR headset. I moved on to the virtual reality art display and was taken away by how beautiful it was. The images that surrounded me were encouraging, to say the least, with silhouettes of people holding hands in a circle beneath a giant globe, with the words “You are loved” exploding in a myriad of colored fireworks. There were multiple displays, highlighting social justice, LGBTQ equality, and environmentalism, to match the theme of the event, and though I didn’t get back in line to see any of the other exhibits, I enjoyed watching them through the other volunteers’ eyes on the TV screen. The final virtual reality experience I had that day was both the best and worst: a simulation of solitary confinement. For roughly twenty minutes, you would sit on a stool wearing big, heavy headphones that blocked outside sound and your VR headset, simulating the inside of a prison cell. While it was obvious the whole time that I was inside a simulation, it was claustrophobic, there was loud noise of other “inmates” yelling at guards and making noise. Narrators would occasionally speak about their own experiences in solitary confinement, and the environment of the cell would reflect what they say. In one section, the narrator was mentioning statistics of people who sit through this torture, and at one point, when the narrator mentioned the word “suicide,” the entire cell wall was suddenly covered with what looked like a knife-carved scratching of the word “suicide.” While it always obvious that I was in a simulation, and I could leave at any time I wanted, I decided I’d try to sit through it until it was over, and I found that at the end, I was shaking on my seat, and my heart was beating rapidly. I was glad to be free of the “digital chamber” that I had been locked in for that short time, but I was glad that I had gone through it in the end.

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The highlight of the event was a live conversation between President Obama, Leonardo DiCaprio and environmental scientist Katharine Hayhoe, followed by the worldwide unveiling of Leonardo’s documentary titled “Before the Flood,” a movie focused on highlighting the damning effects of climate change and how our modern lifestyles cause it. These talks and the documentary were not all fire and brimstone, however. Even after hearing all this talk about how ocean levels could rise, species could go extinct and more, there was an unshakable atmosphere of optimism. There was a huge focus on what we as individuals can do, like changing our eating and transportation habits, for example, and I felt encouraged about the future.

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Heading home was bittersweet. I was glad to get back to my friends and family, but I was sad that the event had to end. It was such an incredible experience to be surrounded by such a positive atmosphere of people who not only rejected, but challenged cynicism, who refused to give up hope for positive change, and who were happy to share this hope with whoever they spoke to.

I left SXSL a changed man. It was a huge eye-opener for me, and I think that it’s an experience that I will remember and reminisce about for the rest of my life. Through the fun of learning about new technologies being used in schools and farms, to the harrowing experiences of learning about climate change and social injustice, it was a life-changing event, and I sincerely hope that I’m able to effectively translate the meaningful experience that it was to people in my daily life going forward.

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