A few weeks before Election Day 2016, two intrepid AMPLIFIER contributors endeavored to go where no scruffy digital culture magazine contributor has gone before. Jordan McFadden and Danielle Chiasson share their story of infiltrating the White House (with constant, careful supervision) and covering a one-time-only festival dedicated to using the arts to show guests how good the world can be when we all participate in making it better.
It is damn near impossible to know how to dress for any occasion that involves the White House. This point feels especially true when one is attending a “music festival/seminar” as a journalist, covering some non-specific aspect of the coming event. The event likely does not garner much in the way of interest or value to the more accredited and eager journalists we’re spending the day with. But for us—perhaps the two least likely people to gain special access—the occasion quickly becomes a sort of riveting, awkward, incongruent mess that can only be appreciated by people who aren’t paid to be there.
Segways are not meant to topple and White House events are not intended to feature considerable amounts of improvisation, but here we are. Moments after we arrive at the press entry gate and are instantly denied entrance, a man breaks formation in a stunning and inelegant display from his motorized walking assistant on the road behind us. Things are off to a mixed start.
We are finally allowed into a sort of open-air holding pen along with a child and a guy from Pitchfork. Again, we feel the ongoing uncertainty associated with dress code, as Pitchfork guy dons an unbuttoned plaid shirt and khakis, while the child—who is awaiting some unrelated journalistic activity, having won some school-related journalism competition—is dressed to the nines. Everyone quietly sizes each other up, all awaiting the arrival of an escort onto the White House grounds.
Finally, we are led into the official White House Briefing Room. The room is filled with reporters from practically every major print, television and online outlet. Hell, even a BBC rep is there. Everyone is networking, whether they want to or not, like a natural autonomic response to stimuli.
“You work in Manhattan?”
“You work here in DC?”
“What is the WiFi here?”
“There is none.”
The room isn’t as large as one might think—only a little over 50 seats. Since there are about 70 members of the press in attendance, a lot of people stand along the walls. We are in a sea of MacBooks. There are five visible MacBooks within a few feet of us, and one lonely Acer, which belongs to the sweatiest of us all.
Everything is running a little behind schedule, reporters are anxious and rumors are spreading of free iced coffee in the back offices behind the podium. In an effort to make the most of the day, one of us endeavors to discover the validity of this claim, and takes position in a small line that’s quickly forming. The line leads to a small desk with an overworked-looking secretary, fielding event-related questions to which she didn’t have the answers.
Nothing is as we expected. Every room that’s not clearly intended to look presidential isn’t. Staffers seem to work in offices and makeshift workspaces. Naturally, we bailed on asking a question as stupid as, “Do y’all have free iced coffee?” to a woman who likely wishes every day that someone would just install a damn barrier between the Briefing Room and her desk.
Press Secretary Josh Earnest enters the room and introduces Carmen Rojas, the CEO of Workers Lab, Jukay Hsu from Coalition for Queens and Anil Dash of Makerbase. They each make a statement explaining how their organizations provide opportunities for youth and diverse communities with the help of technology.
As soon as the first person comes to the podium, groups of journalists quietly jostle around, trying to better position themselves near the door at the back of the room for fear of missing anything on the grounds as the start of the festival draws near. As we make small talk, one of the senior cameramen chimes in:
“Good. I was going to say study hard, so you don’t have to do this for a living.”
This sentiment resonates throughout the day as it seems like the people entrusted with being permanent reporter escorts for everything from bathroom trips to drink stations to panel discussions are most likely just normal White House staffers.
The South Lawn has been transformed to make room for a main and separate secondary stage with a large “geometrical drive-in movie style screen” that projects Instagram photos of #SXSL-related selfies. Half of the grounds are more or less the stages, and the other half is filled with plastic tables and chairs meant for guests who have been nominated for admission based on good works in the world or their communities. Reporters walk in a thin, imaginary line between the two, looking for a purpose.
In a surprise turn of events, the first act, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, performs without Sharon Jones. After a few songs, they announce that Ms. Jones could not attend due to poor health.* None of the live events garner much of a captive audience, until much later in the evening, which makes for some clear tension during early discussions and performances.
It seems pretty cut and dry, with no surprises to speak of until out of nowhere Common decides to go rogue and recite a poem he’s written between setup for the next show and the breakdown of the previous one. It’s electrifying. As if Common just slapped the plate of food from everyone’s hands, conversations end abruptly and spectators slowly approach the stage, in awe of how drastically the overall mood has been changed.
“Now whips and chains are subliminal: instead of the n-word, they use the word criminal…
“Prison is a business, America’s the company…”
“No consolation prize, for the dehumanized; for America to rise it’s a matter of black lives.”
The woman doing sign language is in the fight of her life to keep up, and giving it 100 percent.
He speaks briefly thereafter and explains that he just sat down with the President moments before to discuss the things about which he has clearly become impassioned: the BLM movement, the incarceration rates of minorities, for-profit prisons, et. al. People are visibly affected by it, as is he.
“What are you willing to die for?” he says, quoting James Baldwin. “Live for that.”
He exits the stage. Things become a blur for a little while as people try to get their bearings and upload their video footage.
One of the first discussion panels is called “Feeding the Future,” which revolves around a discussion of the intersection between agriculture and tech—how we can compel more than 2 percent of the population, specifically young people, to become farmers. One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion is that of racism as it relates to our food system, (i.e. grocers comparatively do not open stores within “at-risk” communities as often.) Each of the panelists seems to agree that if you want to help within a community, you need to actually ask that community how you can help.
While waiting for the “Fixing Real Problems” discussion at the second stage to begin, Evan Blackstone and Stephanie Ware, VP and CFO of Melodic Caring Project respectively, recognize the press badges and approach to talk about their organization. The Melodic Caring Project live-streams concerts to children and teens who are bedridden in hospitals. They have the artists say the names of the children and personally greet them over the air so they can feel recognized. They have over 186 hospitals nationwide participating in the program and have worked with celebrities like Jason Sudeikis and Paul Rudd to set up special events. These are exactly the sort of people who the White House wanted to be nominated to attend this function. Making life better for sick children is definitely a way to better the world using technology.
The “Fixing Real Problems” discussion focuses on several issues plaguing Americans and a few of the organizations working to fix those problems. Issues tackled are fixing the 60 percent prison recidivism rate with entrepreneurship programs and prison tech incubators, addressing the high rate of bone transplantation by engineering lab-created human bones and creating pathways out of poverty through free training in diverse urban areas.
After the first discussion at each stage, the staffers shepherd the media around the festival grounds, allowing us to explore a little as long as we stay within sight. We meet Kevin Holst, the Director of Development for José Andres’ World Central Kitchen, a non-profit that uses food programs to improve health, create jobs and increase education in struggling communities worldwide. He explains how they use clean cook stoves to reduce deforestation, improve health and direct people away from dirtier power sources like coal in places like Haiti. All nine cook stove models they provide are safer and more cost effective than the alternatives. World Central Kitchen also adds a hot meal every day at the schools in the areas they service, recognizing that this is a draw for children who otherwise may not get a hot meal, and in return helps promote children’s education.
Back at the main stage, the next discussion is entitled “LA, a Case Study in Innovation.” Jonathan Gold, an LA Times food critic, is the mediator. He explains that what people see of Los Angeles isn’t the real LA. “People fly in, stay in a hotel for two days, eat at a place 20 minutes away, and that is their impression,” he says. The talk focuses on how LA, thanks to their industrial and social breakthroughs, has become more like a microcosm of the broader world. Industry leaders from tech to fashion to gaming discuss the ways in which LA is uniquely beneficial to entrepreneurs, and how that becomes beneficial to the poorest and richest communities alike.
Representative John Lewis, civil rights leader and democratic congressman from Georgia, introduces the last talk on the second stage: “How We Make Change.” He begins by expressing the preciousness of our right to vote, insisting that it is the most important non-violent tool we have. He finishes: “You can help remake America. You can help remake the world. […] It doesn’t matter if you’re straight or gay—we all live in the same house. Maybe our foremothers and forefathers all came to this great country in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” And for that statement, he gets a standing ovation.
“How We Make Change” is a discussion from leaders of different protest movements: Carmen Rojas representing immigrants and the DREAMers, Evan Wolfson representing the LGBTQ community and the freedom to marry and Brittany Packett representing Black Lives Matter. The moderator is Anil Dash, who explains that his own grandfather marched with Gandhi in India. The focus is on peaceful protest and effective means of progress. Wolfson jokes that upon the great joy of winning the freedom to marry he “put [him]self out of a job,” expressing that even that wasn’t the end of the line and there is still more to do in the quest for equal rights.
Hackett explains what she calls “radical pragmatism,” which is thinking as large as humanly possible and then taking action to achieve that goal, whether it seems feasible or not. Rojas interjects to say that necessity begets innovation, and adds, “It’s not about whether it’s possible. It’s about saying ‘it’s possible,’ and working toward it.”
Hackett continues: “Having the audacity to hope for something so big is a form of its own resistance. That’s how oppressed people express resistance.”
Wolfson chimes in: “You want to put forward a goal that’s true and that’s needed, and you want to persuade people who don’t have that language or don’t understand or have fear or prejudice standing in their way. It’s not just about what makes you feel good—” A makeshift wall behind them on the outdoor stage falls down, unplanned, and he continues, “—And the walls come tumbling down!”
Back at the main stage, the children from the cast of “Stranger Things” are announcing the nominees for the winner of the White House-sponsored 2016 Student Film Festival, themed “The World I Want to Live In.”
The first film is called, “Lego: Education for Her,” and is narrated by a girl who grew up in Jordan and had the opportunity to go to school because of a USAid school built near her house and the “Let Girls Learn” initiative. The second entry is “The World I Want to Live In Today,” and is narrated by an elderly Japanese man telling his own story about life after Hiroshima, and explains how his experience makes him long for a world without violence. The third and last film is called “The World I Want to Live In” and is filmed like a newscast but all the stories are happy: a debate in which both nominees can’t stop agreeing, air quality at exactly 0 percent pollution, New York City is free of violent crime and there are no gas-operated cars. Also, there’s no achievement gap and all the newscasters are young females.
The Lumineers take the stage late because they just got to hang out with President Obama, so they’re not overly worried about making the audience wait. It’s a captive audience anyway, and there’s a lot to look at, so no one seems very anxious for them to start. They perform a song about singer Wesley Schultz’ uncle dying in Vietnam, presumably to be patriotic, but it seems a little out of place at a festival dedicated to the betterment of the future. They finish out their set by encouraging the crowd to sing along to “Stubborn Love,” President Obama’s request for his and the First Lady’s anniversary, which is the day of the festival. The crowd isn’t really cooperating with singing along, which becomes a humorous battle between the band and the stiff, reasonably tired crowd. After several attempts, we finally sing loud enough for them to give us a break and they thank us and disembark.
The evening closes with a discussion between President Obama, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, and Leonardo DiCaprio on topics related to the film Hayhoe and DiCaprio worked on called “Before the Flood.”
DiCaprio and Hayhoe make good use of their time and opportunity by grilling the President about climate change, the actual possibility of a carbon tax, Standing Rock, corporate greed and more. Obama largely remains on message, at times coming off a little more forthright than one might expect.
“Facts don’t make people care—not enough.” For reasons like that, he also contends that a carbon tax would not be likely, and reminds spectators that “dirty” fuel is cheap—basically saying people should not lose sight of the world as it is, for what we would want it to be. However, he brings it home by suggesting that we “not be dismissive of people’s concerns. You have to connect these issues to what is already in people’s hearts.”
Once the discussion winds down, there is a sudden and clear sense that the press needs to vacate the premises immediately, so our envoy begins making its way towards the White House. In what appears to be the setup for a photo-op, our exit synchronizes with the President’s and both parties meet relatively close in the middle. A woman of unknown origin reaches out and shakes hands with the President.
As we continue our route out of the White House, the woman becomes increasingly more audible, culminating in a dramatic horizontal outburst in the same street as our unsuspecting Segway enthusiast. In a dramatic feat of hyperbole, she swears to never wash her hand again because she “touched the fucking President.”
* This is particularly upsetting in retrospect, as she died a month later due to cancer-related causes.