Forty-eight hours (give or take) have passed since the first annual Festival of Ideas occurred in downtown Dallas, and the distance has given me some perspective.
For a while, it looked like the icy weather was going to force the event to be cancelled altogether, but luckily, the Festival’s organizers instead mashed the two-day event into one day of chaotic, intelligent fun. It also became a free event, which hopefully meant some folks who could not afford the event’s original $90 ticket price were able to attend.
I had assumed that with the rain and low temperature, I wouldn’t need to show up too early to get a good seat at the signature keynote event, “The Future Starts Here.” I was wrong. Dallas City Performance Hall was packed. Some nice guys in the eighth row greeted me like an old friend when I asked to sit with them, and we hit it off, chatting about social media, our shared interests in current events and the organization of the event.
The opening remarks posed major questions, like what exactly is the role of a city, and how can we make ours live up to high standards of education, politics, innovation, culture and engineer a physical space that enables those standards.
The opening remarks were followed by the keynote speakers, who represented the various tracks festival-goers could choose to follow in detail. Each of these speakers brought their own suggestions on how to solve the problems facing our city in the realm of the Cultural City, The Political City, The Innovative City, The Educated City and the Physical City.
Author Luis Alberto Urrea proposed a large-scale book festival to bring together the community.
Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke on the importance of better integrating our neighborhoods.
Digital anthropologist Rahaf Harfoush recommended empowering citizens to use technology to organize at the grassroots level.
Journalist and author Elizabeth Green preached that we must internalize that teaching requires specialized skills and provide teachers with better support and resources.
Real estate professor Vishaan Chakrabarti concentrated on the city’s need to move from the spoke-and-wheel model of city planning to a more integrated core.
These tracks were also represented by the various local artists and performers, both between the keynote speeches and on the IDEAS Stage in the Winspear Opera House, which functioned as Festival Headquarters.
As I was leaving the keynote, I overhead a woman say, “I definitely don’t want to go to that politics panel. Dallas doesn’t even have a ‘race problem.’” I’ve heard this attitude expressed frequently and never know how to combat it, so I was most interested in the Political City panel with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates left to catch a flight before I could hear him speak but luckily the remaining panelists were well-spoken and interesting.
The opinion that racism is nonexistent is the one we all must first combat, according to the panel, which was made of Florencia Velasco Fortner, Lee Cullum and Michael Sorrell and moderated by Dallas Morning News editor James Ragland. Declaring something racist isn’t the end of a conversation; rather, we must acknowledge racism as an active, present force in our lives.
As a young, white, middle-class person, I wanted to know how people like me can actively advocate for communities of color—like those in South Dallas—without speaking for them. The panel’s answer was surprisingly simple: stop assuming I know the situation before I get there, and listen to the community members.
It might sound cheesy, but I think that’s where the real value of this event lies: not in the high-powered speakers, but in the lulls when there wasn’t much to do between events except talk to each other.
I spent some time at Festival Headquarters watching some performers and talking with a few community members. Roger Phillips was a volunteer who works for Bank of America, a sponsor of the event. “The weather was crummy, and I thought a lot of people would cancel, so here I am,” he said. He wasn’t very busy: his job was to stand near a table of flyers and pamphlets, but still, he was happy to help and tell me about his favorite movie, Despicable Me, whose bright yellow Minions covered his jacket. He wanted to cheer people up with the characters’ smiling faces.
Local businesswoman Ann Ranson had a table at the event where she was giving out little cups of tea. While I sipped her signature, called Communi(ty), we had a casual conversation about her work as a legacy coach and why people feel the need to create lasting legacies.
While some of the festival focused on big ideas, like solving racism and fixing our educational system, my favorite parts were those that concentrated on small, simple solutions and minutiae. Big ideas are exciting but little ones get things done. The festival’s true value lies in its ability to get people out of their homes and talking to one another, forging connections and knowing our neighbors.