Aaron Brown and Lenny Barszap raised millions for the unhoused community in a movement they've named "Trojan-horse social impact."
There is often a distinct line between social impact—that is, something meant to provoke thought, connect us to our humanity, inspire positive change, etc.—and entertainment, which provides us a fun escape.
But sometimes that line can become blurred in innovative ways, allowing entertainment itself to be the change agent.
This is the concept behind creative partners Aaron Brown (Onion Creek Productions) and Lenny Barszap (Entertaining Entertainment)’s Been There music festivals, which are specifically intended to be social movements in disguise.
But first, let’s go back to 1997 when Brown and Barszap were in college. They met an unhoused former professor living in the park at the end of their block - a chance encounter that would change their lives forever.
Not wanting the man to suffer Texas’ infamous storms, Brown and Barszap offered the man a chance to crash on their porch—and later their couch as boundaries began to soften—which began a nearly yearlong chapter of bonding with him and others from his community.
Their relationship, along with the antics that ensued, would later become the basis for “Home Free,” a coming-of-age college comedy that Barszap calls “‘Dazed & Confused’ meets ‘Superbad,’” which premiered at Hollywood's iconic Chinese Theatre in July 2023 and earned rave reviews, including one from Kevin Smith saying it is “the most important comedy you’ll see this year.”
And while “Home Free” succeeds in providing laugh out loud moments, Brown and Barszap hoped it could be the first of many “Trojan horse-style social impact films,” using humor as the spoonful of sugar to raise awareness on the serious issue of homelessness.
That’s why the duo partnered with The Other Ones Foundation (TOOF), an organization that offers people in Austin, TX facing homelessness shelter, opportunities and support. Through this partnership, six percent of all donations raised for Brown and Barszap’s film went directly to the foundation. In addition, 10% of the film's profits were earmarked for TOOF and other nonprofits fighting to end homelessness.
Which brings us back to Been There, which got its title as a way of suggesting “we can get beyond homelessness and someday look back from a new perspective with empathy.”
Here’s how it started: In 2021, TOOF had recently begun supporting a tent encampment of around 200 people experiencing homelessness in East Austin, later renamed The Esperanza Community. Brown and Barszap began making relationships with Esperanza’s residents during production of “Home Free” (especially when filming was slowed to a halt during COVID).
Before/After images of The Esperanza Community
That year, Austin had been hit by some severe ice storms, causing power outages and devastating the tent community. And while replenishing supplies would have been enough to help the neighborhood recover, Barszap and Brown thought “why not go beyond necessities and replenish people’s spirits as well?”
And so, the pair called upon their musician friends, who just so happened to be Grammy award-winning heavy hitters in the industry, to put on a kickass private music festival.
The Esperanza community got to enjoy the talents of Adrian Quesada, best known for his work with The Black Pumas, as well as local legends like the latin funk orchestra Grupo Fantasma and indie darlings Wild Child, just to name a few. And even better, though no one intended to make the event a fundraiser, a couple of inspired attendees donated a collective $600,000 to TOOF on the spot.
Because their first event was such a success, another Been There festival was held in 2023, this time intended as a fundraiser, composed of musical heroes from the 90s and local Austin heavyweights. Headlining the act was legendary hip hop group The Pharcyde, who also contributed two new songs to the original soundtrack for “Home Free,” produced by Adrian Quesada. The Pharcyde were accompanied for the first time ever by a live band, Austin’s Latin-funk heroes Brownout who have backed the likes of Prince, GZA and many more.
Barszap told Upworthy the second festival was an even bigger hit. Not just because of the money it raised, but because it brought people together who might normally be separated by social barriers. And it all took place in Esperanza, which has now become a flourishing transitional tiny home community.
“It was incredible…so many showed up to the event and were surprised they were having an amazing night with people who were transitioning out of homelessness and getting back on their feet. Everyone was so moved that we raised over $1million that day, enough to build over 100 new tiny homes for The Esperanza Community,” he said.
(The Pharcyde, Brownout, Adrian Quesada, Lenny Barszap, Chris Rogers (muralist), Chris Baker (TOOF), Aaron Brown) - photo credit IIsmael Quintanilla III
The first two Been There music Fests were hosted at The Esperanza Community in Austin but Barszap and Brown envision a series of Been There's in cities across the country. "When you see the power of artists coming together to help our neighbors and spotlight the organizations doing the most innovative work, it's undeniable. We've seen first-hand how music and art can change lives," says Brown.As more non-profit music festivals similar to Been There continue popping up across the country, both to reinvigorate those who are disenchanted with how capitalism has affected the industry, it’s becoming clear that this is more than a novel concept—it’s a style of entertainment that people actually want to participate in.
As for what the future holds: today, Been There is more than a music festival. It has transformed into a non-profit in its own right, bringing even more “Trojan horse-style social impact entertainment that kick-starts a movement” including festivals, films, art, music and proving that making a difference doesn’t have to be a chore or byproduct of guilt.
Lenny Barszap (Left) Aaron Brown (right)
Maybe it’s not so impossible to, as Barszap puts it, “have fun doing good.”If you’d like to support more of Been There’s impactful entertainment, donate here.
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