Hugh Forrest has seen almost everything at South by Southwest. Literally.
He was the festival’s first employee.
“I think they hired me because I was the only one with a computer,” laughs Forrest, who today serves as South by Southwest’s (SXSW) Chief Programming Officer.
In 1989, Forrest was working for an Austin, Texas, monthly cultural newspaper when he made the move to SXSW. What originated as a small group’s idea to introduce the world to Austin’s music scene has since grown into one of the largest music, film and technology conferences in the world.
Events are incredibly important. They give people energy, inspiration, motivation and passion.
Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer, South by Southwest
And it’s far more than that. Just ask Forrest.
“What’s truly been one of the hallmarks of South by Southwest is our Community Service Awards program,” he said. “It was a powerful vision when it began in 2000; it’s still a powerful vision today.”
The inspiration came from the late Dewey Winburne, a teacher and innovator focused on finding ways to use technology to help reduce the digital divide and lift people in the community.
“This is about honoring Dewey’s memory, preserving his memory,” said Forrest. “He always believed that technology was a tool for leveling the playing field between ‘the haves and the have-nots.’”
Each year, a handful of individuals and organizations are recognized for their work in fulfilling Winburne’s vision.
“The Community Service Awards really reflect an entrepreneurial spirit and a grassroots approach,” said Forrest. “It’s really heartwarming how much our nominees pour themselves into their communities.”
Like Robi Damelin, who serves as a spokesperson and leads international relations for The Parents Circle – Families Forum, a 2016 award winner. The forum fosters partnerships between 600 Israeli and Palestinian families who have lost relatives during the region’s ongoing conflict. Damelin’s own family has been impacted.
“Robi and all members of The Parents Circle experienced an unimaginable loss and then somehow found a way to overcome their grief and anger to come together,” said Forrest. “Her work offers such a great example of how our grantees are putting their passion to good use in creating more progress.”
Philanthropic initiatives like The Parents Circle inspired Allan Rayson, Austin Market Executive for Regions Bank, to reaffirm the bank’s support for South by Southwest after the coronavirus led to the cancellation of the 2020 event.
The bank has transitioned its $15,000 sponsorship to instead support grantee funds presented to 2020 Community Service Award recipients.
“South by Southwest is a very important part of Austin’s community and culture,” said Rayson. “With crowds not able to celebrate together in person this year, we were committed to finding an innovative way we could advance the spirit of creativity and discovery that defines South by Southwest. Regions is pleased to elevate the work and achievements of the selfless people and nonprofits who are lifting their neighborhoods by supporting the Community Service Awards.”
Each award recipient receives a $5,000 grant and promotions to shed more light on their projects.
“We want to empower our grantees to make new connections and take their work to the next level,” added Forrest.
One of those 2020 SXSW Community Service Award grantees is multimedia storyteller Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone, who launched Diversity Awareness and Wellness in Action (DAWA) in 2019. DAWA, meaning medicine in Swahili, is dedicated to providing funds for people of color experiencing mental health crises.
Specifically, Mahone focuses on supporting artists, musicians, social workers, educators and public servants.
“Jonathan has invested an incredible amount of energy into speaking with and engaging groups,” said Forrest. “His work is very inspiring, and his message involves a focus on empowering the next generation of creators.”
As for the creative aspects of South by Southwest, Forrest is already exploring what future editions of SXSW may resemble.
“We immediately began thinking about how we’ll do this in 2021,” said Forrest. “One of the questions we’re asking is, ‘How do we move forward? How do you go into the unknown future?’”
People who’d bought passes for this year’s festival will be allowed to use them in 2021, 2022 or 2023. They, too, are looking forward to the days when large crowds can safely gather again.
“Events are incredibly important,” said Forrest. “They give people energy, inspiration, motivation and passion.”
Which is what Forrest, himself, receives from the community organizations supported by South by Southwest.
“We’ve all been impacted in one degree or another by COVID-19,” said Forrest. “For our team, the pandemic, of course, represents a significant downstream impact financially. That’s why it means so much to receive this funding support. It is such an honor to connect with Regions so we may support our grantees and share how important the Community Service Awards are in the overall picture of what South by Southwest is.”
Thoughtful observations from someone who’s seen all things South by Southwest from day one – and who’s sure to never forget how 2020 looked so very different.