Amid some turbulent times, South by Southwest kicked off Friday morning in Austin with in-person events and some programing also available online.

It’s dubbed “URL meets IRL” URL stands for uniform resource locator or web addresses and IRL stands for In Real Life.

The blended experience exists, but people are most excited to be back in person in Austin, Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer of SXSW said in opening remarks on Friday. The nine days of programming provide inspiration to so many, he said.

SXSW features more than 160 sessions across 15 tracks of programming from March 11-20 including conference sessions, film screenings, music showcases, professional development opportunities. The speakers include former Congressman and candidate for Texas Governor Beto O’Rourke, Grammy Award-nominated singer and guitarist of Japanese Breakfast, and New York Times bestselling author of Crying in H Mart Michelle Zauner, Lizzo, Beck, Dolly Parton, and many more.

“The need and power and the value of inspiration have never been more pressing,” Forrest said. “The world outside of SXSW has never been more brutal.”

As the first SXSW in-person events kick-off for the first time since 2019, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is on everyone’s minds, Forrest said. In fact, SXSW will sell special merchandise to benefit Ukraine and SXSW has added extra sessions to explore the conflict, he said.

In addition to the invasion of Ukraine, some of the moves by Texas legislators on anti-transgender bills and actions are reprehensible, Forrest said.  In January of 2022, a law that Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed into law went into effect requiring transgender students in K-12 public schools to participate on sports teams that match their assigned sex at birth.

And in February, Governor Abbott sent a letter to the Department of Family and Protective Services asking the department to investigate the parents of children who are given gender-transition procedures.

SXSW opposes these attacks on the transgender community and all forms of discrimination, Forrest said.

SXSW also features a talk by Alexis McGill Johnson, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund President and CEO, as the opening keynote speaker on Friday.

In addition to the anti-transgender bills, Texas legislators have also been focused on restricting the rights of women.

Last September, one of the most restrictive laws on abortion bans took effect in Texas. The law, SB8, bans abortion after approximately six weeks of pregnancy before many people know they’re pregnant. The law also incentivizes individuals to seek monetary penalties by suing anyone who provides abortion care or assists someone in obtaining care in the state.

SXSW also features several sessions about preserving voting rights, Forrest said.

“Do the people at SXSW have the power to change what is happening in Eastern Europe? Do the people in this room have the power to change repulsive legislation we are seeing in Texas and other states?” Forrest asked. “Yes, we do. I think the people in this room can help move the needle forward.”

SXSW shines a bright spotlight on some of the most innovative speakers in a variety of professions, Forrest said.

“We inspire each other with new ideas and new ways of thinking,” he said. “Indeed, we hope that the inspiration you receive from being at SXSW gives you need the energy to approach these difficult problems.”

SXSW is an opportunity to rediscover the power of face-to-face interactions and to brainstorm and ideate on a slightly better world than the world we live in today, Forrest said. He said it may sound “hippy-dippy” or “utopian” but gathering together and coming up with new ideas provides hope for the future and for resolutions to the world’s problems, he said.

Along those lines, Forrest then introduced Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering, as the opening speaker for SXSW 2022.

“What does it mean to gather in March of 2022 when there is this brutal invasion on the other side of the world. How do we resolve that with having fun at SXSW?” Forrest asked her.

“We don’t gather just to escape. We gather to engage. We don’t gather just to celebrate. We gather to mourn, to grieve to make sense of the world,” Parker said. “We gather to make sense of the world’s events.”

SXSW provides an opportunity for people to make sense of what’s happening in their communities, states, and the world and to figure out their role in it. Parker said.

“At moments of crisis is the most important moments to come together,” she said.

After two years of not being together, Parker said she embraces in-person gatherings and opportunities to engage the world and not to escape from it.

“When we finally get back to an in-person event, this invasion happens in Ukraine and it feels like Ground’s Hog Day all over again,” Forrest said.

Engaging means when there are people under threat people need to come together to make sense out of what is happening, Parker said. And it’s not just about Ukraine. Everyone needs to look at their own communities and injustices happening all around and collectively work together to find solutions, she said.

The moment Parker knew how big the COVID-19 Pandemic was going to be was when SXSW got canceled in March of 2020.

The City of Austin canceled SXSW on March 6th a week before Friday the 13th and that was the worst experience in the history of SXSW, Forrest said. It took 11 months of planning to put on the event that never happened.

And two days after its cancellation, SXSW laid off a third of its staff, Forrest said.

SXSW did an online event in 2021 and learned a lot from that, Forrest said.

“But the bread and butter of SXSW since 1987, what is really about is bringing people together face to face,” Forrest said. “Technology is slightly less important than having those interactions in a real-world setting. Sharing new ideas, making new connections. It’s the power of getting together. That is why we are so excited about getting back together.”