Festivals can change the world for the better

Making the Most of the Festival (web image)

For the past five Monday evenings, I’ve been spending some time in the pub: to be precise, the Angel on the Green pub on York’s famous (infamous) Bishy Road – regularly lauded as one of Britain’s best high streets.

Now before you think I’m leading some terribly dissolute life, let me tell you what I’ve been doing there. I’ve been taking a University of York public engagement series called #yorkideas to the pub with, iteratively, seven ‘volunteered’ academic colleagues.

The Angel on the Green is one of a rising number of community owned pubs across York and North Yorkshire. A pub that wants to be so much more for its community than simply a very nice place to go for a drink. Community owned pubs see their role as an anchor, a beacon and sometimes a stimulus for their local communities.

So my academic colleagues have joined forces with the Angel to develop a shared conversation on a wide range of topics that impact on our daily lives.

Talks have covered why York and North Yorkshire has a unique opportunity to apply its world-renowned science to deliver net zero; explored the stark impacts of rising levels of river pollution; looked at the mystery of what rights (if any) we have in an online world controlled by global tech corporations who have access to every part of our digital lives; reimagined financial systems through community wealth building; and explored the hidden joys of the University’s art collection and why art matters.

Still to come are talks on children’s mental health and phobias, and the challenge of policing vulnerable people.

What’s been remarkable, consistent and affirming is that those audiences, many of whom have very little engagement with our University or the campus, rocked up in their droves to engage in conversation and to ask questions.

And the one consistent question they’ve asked is ‘what can I do?’.

This series is anchored to a wider context. For the past 12 years, I’ve had the privilege of directing something called the York Festival of Ideas as part of the University’s commitment to demonstrating that we are not some ivory tower ‘helicoptering’ above the fantastic place we’re located, but rather we are a major contributor to the city and region’s economic, cultural, social ambitions.

We started in 2011, as a pilot with three city partners: the amazing National Centre for Early Music, York Theatre Royal and York Museums Trust, delivering 24 free events to an audience of about 6,000 people.

Fast forward to 2022, and we’re partnering with more than 120 local, regional, national and international programme partners and sponsors to deliver a programme of more than 200 free events with an audience of more than 40,000 from 150 countries – because, oh yes, that covid thing made us global.

We’ve learned again and again over 12 years that a festival celebrating human ingenuity, endurance and sheer bloody-mindedness is a concept that people all over the world can and will engage with – even in the midst of lockdown and global turmoil.

Delivering free events is intrinsic to our ethos – shamelessly borrowed from Lord Reith – to educate, entertain and inspire diverse audiences to immerse themselves in ideas.

We believe passionately that no one should ever be excluded from the intoxicating world of ideas borne out of the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge – surely the core mission of every university. But so often sharing knowledge and ideas is a closed shop and only those with economic power are given the key to enter.

The festival has a particular interest in harnessing the University’s convening power to bring together a very eclectic programme and a very diverse speaker and subject base. We want to demonstrate just how complex the issues facing humanity are – and how many different perspectives and insights are required to address those intractable and systemic challenges.

In a world of social, cultural and economic polarity and division, I would argue that now more than ever, we need festivals like the York Festival of Ideas.

And our latest partner, Big Tent Festival, is another inspiring example: itself founded to address head-on the increasingly fractious, emotive and divisive ways our political system is evolving. Big Tent is attempting to transcend traditional party political divisions and seeks to find areas of common ground in a more inclusive and respectful environment.

But that question of ‘what can I do’ still requires an answer. The wonderful book, Palaces for the People by Eric Klinenberg set out a powerful case for how libraries can be safe places to explore differences across every spectrum of human experience.

I think festivals like York Festival of Ideas and Big Tent Festival also offer an inclusive and empathetic space from which we can explore the new, the unexpected, the mysterious, and oftentimes quite extraordinary achievements of our fellow human beings.

Every year, I become more convinced that honest, open and inclusive communication and engagement is the vital tool that could truly help to ‘rediscover, reimagine, rebuild’ our fractured, beleaguered and weary society – and spoiler alert, that is this year’s Festival of Ideas theme!

So come and join us; explore new subjects, hear inspiring stories and have your voice heard – and yes, do please ask ‘what can I do’?

The Festival of Ideas kicks off on 2 June and will deliver more than 200 free events until 15 June, followed by our partner Big Tent Festival on 16 and 17 June.

Rate this post!

Average rating 5 / 5. Vote count: 3

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

Leave a Reply